Obituary: Charles Wintour

Michael Leapman
Friday 05 November 1999 01:02

ALTHOUGH HE never edited a national newspaper, Charles Wintour was one of the most influential British journalists in the second half of the 20th century.

As editor of the London Evening Standard for nearly 20 years he developed a formula for an intelligent and well-written middle-market tabloid that was widely admired and emulated. Then, during the 1980s, as new technology and the weakening of the print unions provided the opportunity for long- awaited change in the industry, he lent his experience and advice to several new launches, among them The Independent.

Born in 1917, the son of a major-general, he decided early that he wanted to be a journalist, and while still at school he had articles accepted by the Radio Times and won a small prize from the Daily Mail. He was educated at Oundle and Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he wrote for Granta and briefly shared the editorship with the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, but he did not let journalism divert him from his studies and in 1939 he graduated with first class honours in English and History. A brief spell in advertising ended when the Second World War began and he was commissioned in the Royal Norfolk Regiment.

His distinguished war record included service with Field Marshal Montgomery in Europe during the run-up to D-Day and its aftermath, when he was mentioned in despatches, appointed military MBE and won the French Croix de Guerre and the US Bronze Star.

A fellow officer, Arthur Granard, had been a columnist on the Sunday Express and after the war introduced Wintour to its proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, who hired him in 1946 as a leader writer on the Evening Standard - then struggling in a field of three London evenings, outperformed by both the Evening News and the Star.

Beaverbrook, a man of decided likes and dislikes, took an immediate shine to Wintour, who quickly began to climb the executive ladder: political editor, assistant editor of the Sunday Express, back to the Standard as deputy editor, then managing editor of the Daily Express. In 1959 he was made editor of the Standard and held down "the best job in Fleet Street", as he called it, until 1976, returning to it from 1978 to 1980.

In circulation terms his tenure was not a glittering success. The paper sold fewer than 600,000 copies when he took over, but was given a fillip by the closure of the Star in 1960 and rose to 770,000 in 1963. But the London evening market was shrinking and by 1976 the figure was down to 415,000. Yet his reputation among fellow professionals was high and in 1967, when the Thomson organisation bought The Times, he was a strong candidate for the editorship, before it eventually went to William Rees- Mogg.

Many staple features of today's mid-market tabloids were developed in Wintour's Standard. The gossip column, Londoner's Diary, though less intrusive than modern versions of the form, was required reading. He recognised the value of columnists expressing strong and diverse opinions: Randolph Churchill and Michael Foot (a former Standard editor) were among his contributors.

He hired the cartoonist Vicky, whose left-wing views were at odds with the paper's broadly Conservative philosophy. And it was Wintour, a dedicated theatre-goer, who persuaded the Beaverbrook management to allow the Standard to sponsor its prestigious annual awards for West End drama.

Among his outstanding qualities as editor were his ability to locate and identify with his target readership - business people taking the commuter trains home to the suburbs - and his knack of spotting talented young journalists. At least six of the people he hired subsequently became national newspaper editors. Among them was Simon Jenkins - later to become editor of The Times - who made his name writing about London and whom Wintour groomed as his successor when he stood down at the end of 1976.

His unusual forbearance with difficult writers stemmed from his appreciation that good writing was an essential ingredient of his paper's success: "Journalism is a creative business," he once said, "and creative writers are often temperamental. But it's important to let them and the staff know that you're on the writers' side, and not let the sub- editors reign supreme."

He was appreciative of those who met his high standards and for this reason inspired loyalty from journalists, though he never exuded great personal warmth. He could seem austere, brusque and distant - an impression strengthened by his exceptional height. The nickname "Chilly Charlie", bestowed on him by colleagues, was often all too apposite. Yet in a more relaxed setting such as the Garrick Club, where he was a long-standing member, he could be a cheerful companion.

As soon as he moved to the Express management in 1976, Wintour was faced with a crisis. Secret talks had been going on for several months between the Beaverbrook empire - floundering 12 years after the death of its founder - and Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail, with a view to merging the Standard with Associated's better-selling but chronically unprofitable Evening News. Wintour was adamant that in any merger the character of the Standard should dominate and that the bulk of the staff - including Jenkins as editor - should come from the Beaverbrook paper.

Associated Newspapers resisted that demand and insisted that Louis Kirby, editor of the Evening News, should be editor following the link-up. Wintour showed his steel by launching an astonishing attack on Associated's chairman Vere Harmsworth, later Lord Rothermere. In a searing public speech at a critical point of the negotiations, delivered incongruously at the annual lunch of the Automobile Association, he asked rhetorically:

Why is Mr Vere Harmsworth chairman of Associated Newspapers? Why is he in a position to squander millions of his shareholders' money in an effort to force the Evening Standard out of business? . . . May I suggest that the only reason why Mr Vere Harmsworth is chairman of Associated Newspapers is that he is the son of the second Lord Rothermere? And the second Lord Rothermere had the job because he was the son of the first Lord Rothermere. And the first Lord Rothermere had the job because he was the brother of a real newspaper genius, Lord Northcliffe. . . Mr Harmsworth is in a position to endanger the jobs of 1,700 people in Fleet Street purely through an accident of birth.

Wintour's implacable opposition to the deal led to its being called off. Instead, the entire Express Group was sold to Trafalgar House and came under the control of Victor Matthews, a self-made builder with whom Wintour got on surprisingly well, despite their contrasting backgrounds. In 1978 Simon Jenkins quit and Matthews persuaded Wintour to take on a second stint as the Standard's editor. He left in 1980 when a merger between the two evening papers was finally agreed - ironically, with Louis Kirby as editor - but he remained on the Express board as a valued adviser to Matthews until 1982.

From 1979 to 1981 Wintour was a member of the Press Council, forerunner to the Press Complaints Commission. In 1972 he had written a book, Pressures on the Press, foreshadowing many of the difficulties that were to beset the industry in the next two decades, notably the entrenched position of the print unions and growing worries over intrusion into privacy.

In 1940, between Cambridge and the Army, he had married Eleanor Baker, and he was gratified that two of their four children became prominent journalists - Anna is editor of Vogue in New York and Patrick writes about politics - although he claims that he never actively encouraged them. In 1979 he divorced Eleanor and married Audrey Slaughter, a magazine editor. Together they launched the Sunday Express Magazine in 1981 and he helped his wife set up a company to start a new magazine, Working Woman, in 1984.

The following year he became editor of the journalists' trade paper UK Press Gazette. It was a job of low status compared with his former positions but he tackled it with the enthusiasm that he gave to everything he did. His tenure coincided with some of the most momentous events in recent newspaper history and he soon became actively involved in the flurry of new launches of the late Eighties.

Eddy Shah, owner of a newspaper group in Warrington, sought his advice before appointing the first editor of his national tabloid Today; the founders of The Independent consulted him on staffing (Audrey Slaughter worked briefly for the paper in its early months); and Robert Maxwell drew heavily on his experience before the 1987 launch of the London Daily News, the ill-fated rival to the Evening Standard.

Of the three, only The Independent survives, and the failure of the two tabloids has to be attributed in part to Wintour's rose-tinted view of their target audience. In recommending Brian MacArthur to edit Today and Magnus Linklater for the News, he appeared to be seeking editors in his own image - serious, even scholarly men who did not, in the event, possess that blend of populism and ruthlessness nowadays needed for tabloid success, even in the middle market.

Although nobody understood better the changes in production methods, proprietorship and industrial relations that had made possible this short- lived flowering of new launches - changes that he documented perceptively in his 1989 book The Rise and Fall of Fleet Street - Wintour was less in tune with the cultural shift of his last two decades that produced a tabloid press far coarser, less serious and less inhibited than he felt comfortable with.

Michael Leapman

Charles Vere Wintour, journalist: born 18 May 1917; MBE 1945, CBE 1978; Assistant Editor, Sunday Express 1952-54; Deputy Editor, Evening Standard 1954-57, Editor 1959-76, 1978-80, chairman 1968-80, managing director 1978-79; Managing Editor, Daily Express 1957-59, managing director 1977- 78; Editor, Sunday Express Magazine 1981-82; Editor, UK Press Gazette 1985-86; Ombudsman, Sunday Times 1990-95; married 1940 Eleanor Baker (died 1996; two sons, two daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1979), 1979 Audrey Slaughter (nee Smith); died Tisbury, Wiltshire 4 November 1999.

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