Jack Warden: Admired political journalist whose enviable contacts led to memorable scoops for the Daily Express

Politicians knew that Warden would not betray them to their colleagues

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No Lobby journalist at Westminster, in my time as an MP, had a greater range of reliable sources and fruitful contacts than Jack Warden. This was because politicians knew that Warden would not betray them to their colleagues.

On one occasion, in 1984, I asked him what he would do, were he in my position. I was facing fierce pressure from Chief Detective Superintendent Cole of the West Mercia Police to reveal my source of information concerning the Security Service's involvement in the case of Hilda Murrell – the 70-year-old rose-grower from Shrewsbury, who had been found murdered in extraordinary circumstances. Warden replied in his gentle way: "I would rather go to prison than reveal a source to whom I had pledged anonymity." He meant it.

Yet Warden was not averse to taking the opportunity of sowing the seeds of an important story. When I said to him (he would stand in the Lobby at the entry to the Chamber, in wait for talkative MPs and Ministers) that I found it inconceivable that the political editor of the Press Association, Chris Moncrieff, would have put out a story about a selectively leaked law officer's letter without being 100 per cent sure of his source, Warden, twinkle-eyed, grunted as he was often wont to do. When I added that someone was out to scupper someone else, Warden, out of the side of his mouth, muttered: "Colette Bowe".

Had it been hardly anyone else other than Warden, I would not have dared name Colette Bowe (Dame Colette Bowe, chairperson of the Banking Standards Board as she now is) in a packed House of Commons. I knew that Bowe was the spokesperson for the Department of Trade and Industry, and that the purpose was likely to be to dish Michael Heseltine and the Ministry of Defence, on the issue of Westland versus US helicopters. A train of events was set in motion, culminating in Mrs Thatcher's famous statement: "I may not be Prime Minister at six o'clock tonight".

Many years later, gossiping over old times at his retirement house in Dunblane, Warden chuckled: "By mentioning Colette Bowe to you, I calculated a possible scoop – as I anticipated that you would do exactly as you did."

The last thing Warden intended was to bring down Thatcher: he admired her greatly, and the admiration was reciprocal: Warden was one of two journalists invited to accompany her on her visit to the Falklands. He had even closer relations with Willie Whitelaw, who gave him the scoop of an intruder, Michael Fagan, finding his way into the Queen's bedroom at Buckingham Palace.

Both on the Express and as political editor of the Glasgow Herald, Warden had a cascade of scoops on Scottish politics. And he was the first to break the news of Princess Margaret's impending divorce from Lord Snowdon.

There was but one spectacular black mark against him, which rankled well into retirement. The Daily Express, then in its heyday as a great newspaper, splashed a story on its banner-headlined front page, under Warden's byline: "Charles to marry Marie Astrid – official." Pandemonium! The trouble was that the Luxembourg Princess was a devout Roman Catholic – and it was taken for granted at that time that marriage to a Roman Catholic would have presented gargantuan problems for a future head of the Church of England. Warden’s standing took a knock. But he took it on the chin, and evinced no self-pity, at the time. In retirement, he told me that he still believed the story to have been fleetingly true, although he conceded that his pro-European source might have had an axe to grind. What ignited the wrath of the palace was the use of the word “Official”. Ruefully, Warden recollected that it had been inserted by a sub-editor, and was none of his doing.

One of Warden's strengths was that he was a Westminster owl. He was wont to stay until the rising of the House, which was often after midnight. As he said: "You lot are at your most unguarded and garrulous late at night, which was therefore a fertile time for a political editor to garner stories." As Peter Hitchens put it: "Jack demonstrated to me that there is no substitute for hard graft, the careful reading of Government documents, the long slow cultivation of contacts, and the very late nights that were the foundation of good political reporting in those now distant times."

John – we all called him Jack – was born one of the four children of Walter Warden, an engineer's pattern maker, and his wife, Jessie, a district nurse. He was educated at Victoria Drive School, Glasgow, before war-time evacuation took him to Carluke in Lanarkshire, and the home of Mr Walker, the local Minister, who had a great interest in newspapers and printing. He left school at 15, and went off to study shorthand at Skerry's College, Glasgow.

After working as a copy-taker and local reporter with the Ayrshire Post, he moved to Edinburgh, and the editorial bureau of The Scotsman. There he met and married Harriet Mitchell, the secretary of the editor, James Murray Watson. Poached by the Glasgow Herald, he was spotted by the editor, Sir William Robieson. Ward had his career advanced by Robieson's successor, Alastair Burnet, who took Warden with him to the Express.

Trevor Kavanagh, political editor of the Sun – and, like Warden, a one-time Chairman of the Lobby – encapsulated Warden with his funeral comment: "Jack taught me some of the skills and ruses he deployed with immense courtesy to lure our Ministerial guests into divulging more than they intended."

Tam Dalyell

John (Jack) Hopkins Warden, journalist: born Glasgow 25 May 1928; married first 1952 Harriet Mitchell (died 1997, one son, one daughter); second 2004 Marion Barnes (died 2015); died Edinburgh 23 July 2015.

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