Terence Lancaster

Old-style Fleet Street political editor and columnist
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The Independent Online

Terence Roger Lancaster, journalist: born Salisbury, Wiltshire 29 November 1920; married 1945 Brenda Abbot (died 1998; two sons), 2000 Margaret Douglas; died London 6 October 2007.

For much of the second half of the 20th century, Fleet Street was dominated by two brilliantly conceived popular newspapers, the broadsheet Daily Express and the tabloid Daily Mirror, each in their time selling more than four million copies a day. Terence Lancaster held influential positions on both titles. For nearly 30 years he was a leading member of the tightly knit freemasonry of senior journalists, little known outside the industry, who determined how the nation's politics and public affairs would be interpreted to the mass readership.

By the 1980s, that world, for better or worse, was disintegrating. The landscape of the British press was about to change radically as newspapers, their circulations declining, would be forced by economic imperatives to abandon their traditional Fleet Street home. Lancaster was one of many old-style journalists who failed to survive the transition, falling victim to one of its begetters, Robert Maxwell.

The son of a printer, Lancaster was born in 1920 in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Leaving school at 17, he worked as a junior reporter on the local paper until at the outbreak of the Second World War he became an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force, assigned to North Africa and Italy. Afterwards he joined the Echo in Southampton before moving to London to work on the Star, the most popular of the capital's three evening newspapers.

A committed socialist all his life, of the Bevanite tendency, he became active in London politics and was the unsuccessful Labour candidate in Finchley in the 1955 general election. At about the same time he caught the eye of Lord Beaverbrook, the proprietor of the Daily Express, who, despite his staunch Conservative opinions, had no misgivings about hiring talented people of opposing views: Tom Driberg and James Cameron were two other examples.

Lancaster occupied senior positions on the Express, including that of New York correspondent. One of his most important assignments was to travel to Moscow in 1957 with his editor, Edward Pickering, to interview the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

A few years later he was made foreign editor, at a time when the paper's corps of overseas correspondents and London-based "firemen" was the envy of the journalistic world, its budget for foreign coverage seemingly unlimited. The job had its perks: one correspondent remembers being asked to bring Lancaster an elephant-hide waistcoat from what was then Rhodesia.

With Beaverbrook's death in 1964 the Express began its long decline, one of the symptoms being frequent changes of editor. When Robert Edwards was dethroned in 1965 he was hired by Hugh Cudlipp to edit The People, one of the Mirror Group's Sunday papers, and invited Lancaster to join him as a political columnist. He seized the opportunity, not only because he was pleased to escape from the fading Express but because it meant he was now able to cover the world of politics, always his passion, for a newspaper whose views were broadly in tune with his own.

Like the man himself, his columns were precise, well-informed and self-effacing. His political allegiance allowed to him to established cordial relations with Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, and the circle of ministers and advisers around him – especially Joe Haines, the former journalist who had become Wilson's press officer.

Soon Cudlipp transferred Lancaster to the Daily Mirror as its political editor and columnist. He was by now also in demand as a political analyst on radio and television. It was at his suggestion that Haines was recruited to the Mirror as a leader writer after Wilson's resignation in 1976.

By now, though, the Mirror was following the Express into the doldrums, losing readers to Rupert Murdoch's racier Sun. In 1984 it was taken over by the ebullient and, even then, highly controversial tycoon Robert Maxwell. Most of the staff, notably Haines, were passionately opposed to the change of ownership: Lancaster was one of the few who initially welcomed his new boss.

The two men had known each other for a long time, since Maxwell's days as a Labour MP in the Sixties. Lancaster enjoyed telling how in 1966 he found himself having to rewrite extensively an article that Maxwell had submitted to The People about the future of the Labour Party. The prodigal MP was so impressed when he read Lancaster's version that he produced his cheque book and asked how much he owed him. "No, Bob," he responded. "We pay you."

On the night Maxwell took over at the Mirror, it fell to Lancaster to pen the rousing mission statement that was to appear under the new proprietor's name on the front page. "I have been in a position to buy the Daily Mirror," he wrote, inter alia. "But what I cannot buy is the loyalty of its readers. That will have to be earned."

The loyalty of the paper's journalists proved harder to buy, principally because Maxwell never honoured his pledge not to interfere editorially. The miners' strike was in full swing when he took over and he asked Lancaster and Geoffrey Goodman, the industrial editor, to write an article attacking Arthur Scargill, the miners' leader, in far more ferocious terms than the paper had deployed hitherto.

The two writers reluctantly agreed, although they insisted that their by-lines should not appear on the article. Before long both had left the paper – although Haines, ironically, stayed on to become a Maxwell confidant and his authorised biographer.

In 1986 Lancaster's newspaper career had a brief resurgence when he became a political columnist on the short-lived Sunday edition of Eddy Shah's Today. In 1992, by then in his seventies, he was asked by Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the House of Commons and an old friend, to act as her press officer and speech writer. He much enjoyed it: the work was not onerous and it allowed him to operate once again in the political circles that were his natural and preferred milieu.

In his later years he wrote obituaries of politicians and journalists for The Independent and The Times. His assessment of Robert Maxwell for this newspaper was surprisingly sympathetic, stressing "his appetite for life . . . his resilience, his bravado, his zest for dealing".

Lancaster was married for 53 years to Brenda Abbot, who died in 1998. They had two sons – Guy, who is a web designer, and John, a solicitor. In 2000 he married Margaret Douglas, the former chief political adviser to the BBC.

Michael Leapman