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Obituary: Sir David English

Terence Lancaster
Friday 12 June 1998 00:02 BST

DAVID ENGLISH had a romantic feeling for newspapers amounting to a passion. He loved the old smells of lead and ink, inseparable from the days of hot metal production, and he loved newspaper novels. Indeed, his story reads like a novel itself - from copy boy to editor to multi- millionaire, intimate of prime ministers and interviewer of presidents, lauded by Lord Rothermere, only a trifle hyperbolically, as "the greatest and most creative editor seen in Fleet Street since the time of Northcliffe". But, if there was a touch of Jeffrey Archer about his story, there was a Somerset Maugham twist at the end, for he died within days of what would have been his greatest honour, by becoming a peer under Labour after being knighted under the Conservatives.

English was brilliant and ruthless and charming. His key journalists were the highest paid in the industry. But they were also paid in humiliation and exclusion if they failed to reach his standards. He was, above all, a perfectionist. His excuse for any harshness was simple: "In a competitive world working in a winning environment makes people happy." He made certain there was a winning environment though universal happiness did not always follow.

His great achievement was the success of the Daily Mail. He took a lethargic, declining broadsheet, used to being outclassed by its traditional rival, the Daily Express, which consistently outsold the Mail by 2-1. He changed his newspaper's style, overtook the Daily Express and came within striking distance of overtaking the Daily Mirror. The Mail became his paper with his values, his enthusiasms and his judgements. English was not a revolutionary innovator on the scale of the Bartholomew-Cudlipp partnership on the Mirror or Christiansen-Beaverbrook on the Express. In fact, the Express was probably the greatest influence on his journalism. Today's Mail is a modernised, improved, though still recognisable version of the Express in its golden days. What English did, as the Express floundered, was to identify the Mail's market - always a complicated business in a middle-range paper - and to satisfy it with a certainty and flair scarcely matched except in the high- circulation days of the Sun.

Politically he was closest to Margaret Thatcher. They were made for each other - provincial in origin, determined to succeed in the capital, lower- middle-class and entrepreneurial in doctrine. If English had not been a newspaper man he would have been a successful businessman after her own heart. Alongside his journalism career he was, at various times, editor of a strike-breaking New York newspaper, proprietor of launderettes and founder of a small chain of free newspapers. No wonder Thatcher found so much in common with him. As a successful capitalist, he could well have gone to No 10 receptions instead of entering it first as an interviewer, and then as confidant, of the prime minister. He backed her against Heath for the leadership in 1975 and was her most blatant supporter in each of her general elections.

The other major figure - indeed, the most important figure - in his life, was Lord Rothermere. They met when English was editor of the Daily Sketch and Rothermere was Vere Harmsworth, still to inherit his title. They realised each other's importance almost at first sight. Each needed the other. They were as complementary as two other famous Fleet Street partnerships, King-Cudlipp and Beaverbrook-Christiansen. In all these cases, it was an alliance of men from vastly different backgrounds.

English left Bournemouth School at 16 to join the Christchurch Times and after a brief period with the News at Portsmouth he was in Fleet Street by the time he was 20. Well, not exactly Fleet Street. Geographically he was in the Gray's Inn Road, headquarters of Reynold's News, a left- wing paper run by the Co-Op. While he was there, his name appeared in national newspapers for the first time. It was when he was arrested for stealing a mailbag.

His news editor, an enthusiast in the English mould, told him: "There's no security at King's Cross. Go there and steal a mailbag. They're just lying about - and bring it back to the office. Nobody will stop you." Unfortunately, three railway policemen did. It required considerable explaining before English was released.

He went on to work for the Daily Mirror from 1951 to 1953, though he made little impression there, his talents being used principally to persuade readers to buy a boat called the Mirror Dinghy. But in 1956, he moved to the Daily Sketch, the Mirror's low-circulation rival, and made an immediate impact. The group sent him to New York as American correspondent of the Mail's sister paper, the Sunday Dispatch. He delighted his editor, Herbert Gunn, a yellow journalist at heart though a former editor of the Evening Standard, with a stream of front-page exclusives, though a number of these, when checked, failed to appear in Monday morning's papers.

After the Dispatch folded in 1960, he seriously thought his Fleet Street career was over and contemplated joining an American paper. He was saved by a call from Robert Edwards, editor of the Daily Express. Edwards had been told that English was brilliant but sometimes chanced his arm. Beaverbrook was consulted and advised of this and said: "Hire him." English was appointed Washington Correspondent and later head of the New York Bureau. His "America Column", a daily miscellany of North American life, was the best the paper ever produced, though it was noticed that some of the more bizarre events occurred in places unknown to the gazetteer. Similarly, his account on one anniversary of Kennedy's death, describing how he spent the last day of the President's life with him in Dallas, was a lapse of memory. When Kennedy was shot, English was in Queen's, a suburb of New York, on a routine story. As he was the nearest staff man to Idlewild, he was told to make for the airport and Dallas. His first despatch was actually written in the London office with his by-line and the Editor ordering: "Print it as soon as his aircraft takes off."

English returned to London in 1964 to become Foreign Editor. These were in the last golden days of foreign correspondence and English operated with zest and flair. One of his first actions was to summon all the Express foreign staff men to London for a group photograph, each holding a telephone, with English in the middle. It was printed on page 2 and was a great success with Max Aitken, who had succeeded his father. Luckily there were no big foreign stories that night.

But, with television taking over as the main provider of foreign news, his post diminished in importance. English became restive. He was appointed associate editor, but that was not enough. He approached Max Aitken to become editor but was told there was already an editor in place (though that would be no obstacle at the Express these days).

He rejected an assurance that he was the heir apparent and surveyed Fleet Street. The Daily Sketch, selling well under a million and going down, was an unattractive prospect, but to English it was an editorship. He went there, impressed Vere Harmsworth, and, when it was closed down and merged with the Mail in 1971, he was the obvious candidate to take over one of Fleet Street's historic titles.

He transformed the paper. First, he decided to make into a tabloid, then he introduced his own people and encouraged good writers. He improved the sports coverage and the gossip columns. When Jean Rook, styled the First Lady of Fleet Street, defected to the Express, English was unperturbed. He encouraged Lynda Lee-Potter to take over and the substitution proved seamless. "Femail" was a new approach to women's daily journalism. It realised that the days of fashion and cooking recipes were over and attracted large numbers of new women readers which delighted both the circulation and advertising departments. By the mid-Eighties, the Mail was at last ahead of its rival, surely disturbing the ashes of Lord Beaverbrook in their resting place at Newcastle, New Brunswick, as the Rothermere dynasty finally triumphed.

There were many high points in English's Mail career. In 1981 he fought a successful libel action against the Unification Church, or the Moonies. The paper had called them the church that breaks up marriage and a story was printed as a result of English's deeply held conviction. The lawyers told him that if the Mail lost it would cost pounds 1m. But English's nerve held. Another feat was rescuing the Mail on Sunday after it had had a bad launch. He took personal control, turned its fortunes round and saw it overhaul the Sunday Express. There was also his Daily Mail airlift of some hundred babies and young children from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, though some critics suggested that not all wanted to be rescued.

Inevitably there were some setbacks. In 1977, the paper led with an allegation that British Leyland had paid bribes to win overseas orders and this had been approved by Lord Ryder, chairman of the National Enterprise Board. The letterhead on which the story was based was an obvious forgery, substantial damages were paid and English promptly offered his resignation which Lord Rothermere just as promptly refused. Another trouble concerned payments in connection with the Yorkshire Ripper case. The Press Council said it had been "hampered" in its considerations by "the behaviour of the Daily Mail, which failed to disclose to the council matters which were clearly germane to the inquiry". It also criticised English for his failure to attend an oral hearing.

But there was not much to detract from the overwhelming success of his leadership. He was the outstanding editor of his generation. Some occasionally glittered more brightly but, while others came and went, he sat unchallenged in the editor's chair from 1971 to 1992. He might have been there still if Rupert Murdoch had not tried to poach Paul Dacre to become editor of the Times. English, recognising his natural successor, stepped up to become chairman of Associated Newspapers, the Mail's group.

He certainly did not retire, working for the Press Complaints Commission, the Commonwealth Press Union and the National Council for the training of Journalists. Among his later roles, were his chairmanships of Teletext UK, Channel One TV and ITN.

The first time I saw David English, writes Louis Kirby, was on a Daily Express cinema advertisement: the very picture of a powerful foreign editor, issuing instructions, shouting down the phones "Write it! Write it!"

Two years later, he moved from associate editor of the Express to become editor of the Daily Sketch, and before long made me his deputy. He was a tough taskmaster - he wanted the best, he knew how to get it, and, once his journalists passed the test, he trusted them for ever. In 1971, when we switched overnight to the Daily Mail, David had long since decided to replace virtually all the top executives with his Daily Sketch team. As the Mail's circulation continued to dwindle - and that August the paper went down to 24 pages - it seemed a lost cause. But David never lost his optimism. Nor did he change his unswerving beliefs of his insistence on catering for women readers.

When I became editor of the Evening News, and then the Standard, with his blessing, we continued to meet. We would go the cinema or theatre with a few friends, David happily buying drinks - latterly, he refused alcohol and gave up his habit of smoking one cigarette a day!

David English was a fantastically gifted leader, who could be wickedly impish. Whenever he heard an amusing anecdote about a colleague, or rival, he would wait for an opportunity to rehash it when he could create the most devastating effect. He was, of course, a superb speaker, and a highly amusing luncheon companion. Last Thursday, we were at the Ivy with Commonwealth Press Union friends - David, as President of the CPU, was very much looking forward to the coming conference in Kuala Lumpur - and he was, as usual, brisk, informative, and full of humour.

David English, journalist: born Oxford 26 May 1931; Washington Correspondent, Daily Express 1961-63, Chief American Correspondent 1963-65, Foreign Editor 1965-67, Associate Editor 1967-69; Editor, Daily Sketch 1969-71; Editor, Daily Mail 1971-92; Editor, Mail on Sunday 1982; Editor in Chief, Associated Newspapers 1989-98, joint deputy chairman 1989-92, chairman 1992-98; Kt 1982; chairman, ITN 1997-98; married 1954 Irene Mainwood (one son, two daughters); died London 10 June 1998.

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