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David Walter: Journalist who also handled media matters for the Liberal Democrats


Wednesday 02 May 2012 20:30 BST

David Walter was a direct descendant of John Walter, founder of The Times, in a family that had produced more than one MP, while his mother was a cousin of Willie Whitelaw. So politics and the media were in his blood and it came as no surprise to his many friends that he spent his life in these fields. But though politicians and political journalists inhabit the same world, they are very different tribes, so it was highly unusual that he was able to operate at the highest level among both.

Walter was born in Newcastle in 1948, his father a district officer in the colonial service, then stationed in Nigeria. The family (David soon had a younger brother, Christopher) moved to Hampshire and he won classical scholarships, first to Charterhouse and then Trinity College, Oxford. At Oxford he was elected President of the Union (he beat both Gyles Brandreth and Edwina Curry, though both subsequently became President) and just missed gaining a First in Greats. He then won a Kennedy Scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied political science.

Returning to the UK in 1971, Walter joined the BBC World Service and quickly established himself as a radio producer of wide and deep knowledge. He was hard-working, energetic and popular with colleagues. A stint at Radio London was followed by a move to Radio Four to cover politics. His television career began as political producer for the late Professor Robert Mackenzie (of the famous swingometer) on the BBC1 programme, Newsnight.

In 1980 he moved to ITN to be in front of camera for the first time as a political correspondent. Under the political editor Julian Haviland, and with colleagues such as David Rose and Glyn Mathias, Walter was in his element, whether at party conferences or accompanying Mrs Thatcher on trips abroad – he went with her to the Falklands at the end of the 1982 war, for example.

On these visits, he remembered in particular the Prime Minister's attention to detail and her desire "to fly the flag". In the Gulf, before one of his interviews with her, they spent time readjusting the china in a glass-fronted cabinet to make sure a set of Royal Crown Derby porcelain was clearly in shot.

In 1986 he moved to Channel Four News, frequently covering European as well as British issues, then two years later returned to the BBC as a newscaster and correspondent. This gave him the opportunity to work again in radio, an early love of his. The Eurofile programme, which he presented for three years, saw him explore all areas of European life, and he presented programmes as diverse as Panorama, phone-ins and Education Matters. Perhaps most enjoyable of all was a stint as Paris correspondent for BBC TV.

A lifelong Liberal, Walter was approached in 1998 to become Director of Communications and then Director of Party Broadcasting for the Liberal Democrats. They were demanding positions, involving managing the press team, dealing with the media, preparing party speakers for interviews and writing speeches for the leaders, Paddy Ashdown and then Charles Kennedy.

Walter had always been interested in standing for parliament, and in May 2005 he contested the Torridge and West Devon seat for the Liberal Democrats. He fought a lively and energetic campaign in a large and mainly rural constituency. But to his disappointment, he lost, reasonably narrowly, to a local Conservative.

It was not in his nature to look back in sorrow or anger, and he created First Take Productions Limited, a PR and media company that taught media skills including crisis- and presentation-training. The list of clients stretched from Abu Dhabi Airports Authority to Yemen television, via a host of organisations in the UK and abroad. At the same time, he continued his journalism with a wide range of newspaper and magazine articles, and at the time of his death he was a popular President of the Media Society. He also wrote four books, among them a history of the Oxford Union and in 2003 The Strange Rebirth of Liberal England.

Walter's eagerness to cram the maximum activity into every day saw him up in the morning by six at the latest, Christmas Day included. He read three newspapers daily and two books a week. And he had a hinterland beyond politics and the media: he appreciated music and had a good singing voice, enjoyed amateur dramatics, and to the end of his life – even in hospital – he wanted to know the latest cricket news. He played squash and was a good tennis player (his uncle had played at Wimbledon). Above all, he was a family man, proud and active in support of the careers of his son and daughter.

Though David Walter never became the MP that he was so well equipped to be, he had a wide-ranging and successful career. His combination of intelligence, energy, willingness to help others, geniality and capacity for friendship gained the respect and affection of all who knew him.

Alastair Lack

David Charles Walter, journalist and author: born Newcastle 1 February 1948; married Pamela (one son, one daughter); died 29 March 2012.

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