Obituary: Betty Saunders

Andrew Brown
Tuesday 08 April 1997 23:02 BST

Betty Saunders was an example of just how good a journalist can be. She was neither famous nor flashy; and though she had worked as a crime reporter for the Daily Mirror in the mid-1950s, when the position represented one of the summits of popular journalism, she will mostly be remembered for her work on the Church Times, 20 years later, after her six children had been raised. She brought the same skills to both jobs.

She was quick, fair, fearless, and accurate. In whatever she did, she seemed to bring a little of an older, less predatory world, in which journalists thought less, but better, of themselves. "I had it beaten into me from the age of 16 when I joined my first newspaper that no one wanted to read my opinion," she recently said; and you always knew, when reading one of her stories, that it would contain as little of her opinion as possible - and as much of the opinions she was writing about.

Journalistic writing is formulaic, rather than necessarily cliched: Betty Saunders could show you the difference between these, for what she wrote - at high speed, in legible longhand - always fitted the formula of the paper, yet always managed to exploit the formula to say something fresh and vivid. People trusted her. They would tell her things they did not mean to: she in turn, would print only what was germane to the story, and never betray a confidence.

Despite this, she learnt in a tough school. From the Berkshire Chronicle she went to the Reading Mercury and the Oxford Mail, both for four years, before going to the weekly magazine Reveille for another four years. They sent her round the United States as a travelling correspondent - a considerable achievement for a woman in the early Fifties; and then she moved to the Mirror. There she interviewed Arthur Miller, Albert Pierrepoint (the last British hangman) and Nikita Khruschev. After marrying Basil Saunders, a PR man, she started to have children, and did not stop till she had produced six, of whom the best known is Kate Saunders, the novelist. She kept up a variety of freelance work in this time, and became deeply involved with her local church.

Saunders was not brought up religious, but became over the years a convinced Anglo-Catholic, of the sort whose world was smashed when the General Synod decided to ordain women. A friend met her the morning after that vote: she was hunched round the first Consulate cigarette of the day. What will you do now, he asked. "I shall cling tightly to the vicar's cassock," she replied. She had of course reported the debate with scrupulous penetration and detachment, though she believed in the wrongness of women priests as profoundly as all her colleagues believed the opposite.

Her determination could be frightening. She was first diagnosed with cancer eleven years ago, and those who knew her attribute her survival to a simple refusal to contemplate giving in to the disease. Most of us came to believe that she was too determined ever to die. She did once beg off a diary column for the Church Times, but only because she had broken a leg that day. She covered her last London meeting of the General Synod on crutches, so we knew she was ill, but she was not a woman you asked about her health; nor did she volunteer the reason for her crutches: one leg had been broken in a fall, and the other by cancer. She just worked as usual. Her final piece - an exquisitely frothy confection for the Church Times's 7000th issue - was produced to order ten days before her death.

All this makes her sound forbidding; but what I most remember is her sense of humour, shot through with flashes of inspired mischief. For most of her period at the Church Times, the editor was Bernard Palmer, a grave man who diverted himself in retirement by writing histories of the Victorian church. One afternoon, Betty Saunders, with a couple of colleagues, had taken refuge from a crowd of Scottish football supporters in the upstairs room of the pub across the street. From below came beery whoops, singing and occasional crashes of furniture. "My word, what on earth is that?" asked the press officer for the Church Missionary Society. Without missing a beat, she answered, "Just my editor, making his way back from lunch."

Betty Smith, journalist: born Manchester 7 January 1928; reporter, Church Times 1978-94; married 1957 Basil Saunders (two sons, four daughters); died London 1 April 1997.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in