There are two people who changed my life as a journalist. One was Brian MacArthur, who took me on The Times Higher Education Supplement in 1973. The other was Peter Preston who appointed me as a reporter on The Guardian in 1976.
I still remember the first interview with Peter Preston for my job at the Guardian when he out of the blue suddenly asked what my politics were – probably not the politically correct question you might expect in applying for a reporter’s job.
” Disillusioned Labour “, I said.. “Aren’t we all ” came back the riposte.
PP was a man of few words but enormous depth. You could not always fathom what he was thinking but what you did know he was utterly committed to the newspaper, perpetually fascinated by stories and would defend you against the powerful who might seek to censor or even ridicule you.
He was utterly committed to press freedom both at home and abroad and not bothered or even remotely interested about becoming a member of the Establishment.
He also got me out of scrapes – both on a personal and professional level. After I joined the Guardian my wife, Margaret and I bought our first house. I had spotted a small ad for a four bedroom refurbished terraced house in Holloway which even in the late 1970s appeared to be too cheap at around £23,000. She was sceptical whether there was something wrong but it passed a survey and we got a mortgage. She turned out to be right when the joists which held the main staircase started to give way and cracks appeared. I asked for a mortgage to repair it but found the building society would charge extra interest to give me a loan. I mentioned this to Peter Preston and he offered me a £500 loan from the Guardian which I paid back from my salary – just in time to prevent the staircase collapsing.
In another instance rather the worse for wear I foolishly remarked to the Tory housing minister, then John Stanley, that their divisive housing policies could lead to a breakdown in society between rich and poor and end up with people kidnapping prominent people- citing how would Michael Heseltine ( then Environment Secretary) feel if someone kidnapped his daughter.
He interpreted that to mean that I knew someone in the IRA who would, contacted Heseltine, who called in Special Branch. An inspector rang the Guardian for my home telephone number and they refused to give it to him, saying they would contact me. When I got home later ( no mobile phones then) and found the message I rang the inspector and convinced him I was no terrorist. ” I am glad you rang I was just about to send someone around to batter down your door”, he said.
The next day Peter Preston wrote to Heseltine pointing out that there was difference between a Guardian reporter having strong views and being a terrorist and sought an apology for his over reaction. Heseltine declined to apologise saying he had to protect his family.
What neither of them knew is that our baby sitter for the night was a lovely middle aged Irish lady, who had a very strong Sligo accent. If she had answered the phone to special branch, I will leave it to your imagination to think what would have happened next.
PP was a amazing innovator. Others like David McKie, in his Guardian obituary, have much more eloquently explained the huge innovations he introduced to the design and content of the paper during his long editorship.
But on a straightforward reporting level he thought out of the box. In 1986 I was very nearly poached by the Independent, offering me first social services correspondent and then Whitehall editor. He responded with the idea of sending me down to the lobby with a brief that had never been held by anyone – to use Parliament as a base to investigate MPs, lobbyists and Whitehall – and not follow the day to day lobby events.
Never a supporter of the Westminster club, I think he really put me down there as an unguided missile to see what would happen. And when I started to get into trouble he always backed me.
He took on the Privileges Committee when they were considering removing me from Parliament over the leaking of the National Audit Office memo which revealed the ” Rover sweeteners” scandal – the secret bung given to then British Aerospace for buying ailing British Leyland.
He also neatly diverted Neil Hamilton MP – when he wrote to him a year before the ” cash for questions” scandal broke in 1994 – warning him about my activities and saying there was ” nothing worth printing ” about the story. The story which started when Mohammed al Fayed inadvertently revealed to him he had been paying MPs was one of his crowning glories.
He will always be my hero – despite the Sarah Tisdall scandal where he was forced by the courts to give away a then unknown source – because he backed reporting and was interested in news. His reaction to a good story was normally one word ” terrific”. When he said that you knew the story was home and dry.