Journalist of unbending standards
Saturday 06 October 2007
Wyngate Edwin Harness, journalist: born Boston, Lincolnshire 1 February 1960; staff journalist, Lincolnshire Standard 1978-81; staff journalist, Brighton Argus 1981-86; Layout Sub-Editor, The Independent 1986-91, Deputy Chief Sub-Editor 1991-96, Chief Sub-Editor 1996-99, Assistant Editor 1999-2007; married 1998 Sue Royal (one son, one daughter); died Hove, East Sussex 3 October 2007.
Wyn Harness was a pivotal figure in the history of The Independent. He was one of the founding journalists at the paper when it was launched in 1986. And for more than 20 years, he played a vital part in setting high standards for news coverage at the title; standards which saw The Independent established as a newspaper of record by 1989; standards which he helped perpetuate through changes of editor, ownership and format.
During those years, Harness took on gradually increasing levels of responsibility, always in areas closely related to the daily choice and presentation of the news. He rose from being a layout sub-editor, working with the Home News Desk, to Chief Sub-Editor and then to Assistant Editor, one of the senior executives who took it in turns to edit the newspaper on Sundays.
In those years, he had a growing influence on the face of the newspaper; what it contained, and how that content was presented. And a firm control on the bon ton which has been a special characteristic of the paper for the past 21 years.
When Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds launched The Independent, one of their founding principles was to run a distinct news agenda that was free from party political bias; standing outside the lobby briefing system; free from the influence of over-mighty press barons who controlled rival papers; and which rose above the pervading obsession with coverage of the doings of the lesser satellites of the royal family.
Wyn Harness was one of the close-knit team who first put these principles into practice. The establishing character of The Independent's news pages was that they were well-planned (the first edition seemed startlingly modern to the waiting world), making strong use of photojournalism; driven by the specialist knowledge of the contributing journalists (rather than the day's run of press releases); and ultimately unpredictable in content.
Working with the founding news editor, Jonathan Fenby, and the editor, Harness and his colleagues had the task of pulling together a formula that would see the paper match the sales of The Times within three years of its launch.
The Independent has had six editors since Whittam Smith stepped down in 1994, and has evolved in content and in style of presentation, become a dual-format newspaper, and then the first quality compact newspaper in Britain. And throughout all those years, through times of price wars and change of ownership, to the recent years of stability and growth, Wyn Harness, with his unbending standards, his sense of symmetry and good form, was an anchor for the paper.
A typical day for Harness would see him in the morning news conference, where all present were expected to have a feel for the general news agenda, and where the special agenda of The Independent would be agreed. Over the next nine hours or so, it was Harness's role, and special skill, to act as a crux for that day's news pages, working with the editor, executive editor, picture editor and the news editors. And to do so while keeping the variables of edition size (the number of pages available to news) and advertising content in sync with the news lists; at all times to act as a touchstone for his colleagues in a constantly fluctuating environment. And to end up with a newspaper worth selling the next day.
Wyn Harness was born at home in Boston, Lincolnshire in 1960, the youngest of four children of Ray and Freda Harness. He attended Boston Grammar School, from where he went straight to the Lincolnshire Standard in 1978. In 1981 he joined the Brighton Argus, where he was marked out as a rising star. He was always a lover of motorbikes. He had an easy charm about him, his mother recalls, and persuaded her to get him a Douglas motorbike for his 16th birthday. He was a first-rate footballer as a youth, and played in midfield for Lincolnshire County under-18s. He was a committed Liverpool fan.
When he left the Brighton Argus in 1986 his job was taken by Sue Royal. Five years later Wyn and Sue became a couple, and they were married in 1998. Harness commuted each day to The Independent from his happy family life in Hove and his afternoon conversations with his son and daughter gave him an excellent sense of proportion amid the pressing clamour of world events.
Despite the vagaries of the rail service on the Brighton line, he was a constant presence. Less than a year ago he had to give up work after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. The staff at the Martlets hospice who cared for him at the end were deeply impressed by the large number of friends who gathered round him. He inspired the same loyalty in his friends as he did in his colleagues.
At the time of highest stress – the events of 11 September 2001 and of 7 July 2005 – Wyn Harness was at his calmest and most competent. With his liquid but purposeful gait, he moved quickly about the newsroom without ever seeming to hurry. In an industry much given to histrionics and excesses of testosterone, he maintained a soft voice and calm demeanour. He spoke in a half-confidential whisper, broken by an easy, amused laugh, occasionally raising and darkening the tone in his voice to be heard by colleagues two desks away. He sat with an upright posture and level gaze, with an Olympian, aristocratic air of detachment. The son and brother of Lincolnshire farmers, he liked good architecture and good landscape – his favourite reading was Country Life – and to eat and drink well.
When he edited the newspaper on a Sunday, he was a model of clarity: decisive in establishing priorities for the newspaper. And he edited in great detail, forever aware of the face that the newspaper would present to the world. If, at some unexpected time of day, Wyn Harness picked up his notebook and headed for the editor's office, accompanied by the executive editor and the news editors, the watching newsroom knew a big story was breaking; that new plans were afoot. And as he made his meditative way to the coat rack at the end of a long day, those same colleagues could read the signal that another paper was complete, and that the next day The Independent would be The Independent.
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