Poignantly, a new blockbuster movie celebrating the best of journalism arrives at precisely the time that Peter Preston, who embodied the very best of journalists, leaves us. If there were two things Peter loved, they were movies and papers. I like to think he would have returned to the subject he addressed in his last column for this paper two weeks ago –The Post, the new Steven Spielberg movie with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep telling the story of the Washington Post’s battle to publish the story of the Pentagon papers in 1971. Having seen the film, he might have commented gnomically on the quality of some of the storytelling – for Peter always wanted stories to be told clearly – but he would have loved the film’s message: that journalism is about telling the truth, no matter how hard it is and no matter how great the pressure against you from management, government or the law.
In the last few days there have been countless wonderful tributes to Peter – to his kindness, his inscrutability, his energy, his brilliance and courage as a man and as a journalist.
And then, of course, there was his pipe. He was a quiet man around the Guardian office, no shouting or swearing, but you could tell when he was standing behind you from the pleasant whiff of tobacco fumes. “Hmm, not quite sure about that …” he would say about some headline you might be writing. “What about …?” And come up with a much better one.
And the fact that you never knew when he was going to turn up meant you had to do some of the insanely long hours he worked. He was like a father to me, taught me most of what I have ever known, and gave me, like so many journalists, some of the best years of our lives.
He saved two newspapers, the Guardian and Observer, which isn’t bad. The Guardian was facing terrible trouble – from a brutal price war, attacks from the Times and the Independent, raging newsprint costs, insane and malicious union disputes – but Peter battled through them all. The Independent, when it launched in the late 80s, came after many Guardian journalists, offering to double salaries. That so few of us left was a tribute to the loyalty and love we felt for Peter and his paper. Maybe a bit of fear too: journalists can be awfully cautious at times.
Through a shrewd series of investments and backed by an often brilliant commercial team, Peter started hugely successful supplements on media, education and the public sector, all bringing with them shedloads of classified advertising. Most of it has gone online now, but at the time this was a coup. This was supported by editorial innovation on a phenomenal scale – the women’s page, some brilliant cartoon strips, the G2 tabloid features section, a dazzling redesign that transformed the paper and is still widely imitated 30 years on.
Later he led the way when the Guardian group bought the Observer in 1993, and saved it from effective closure as the Independent wanted to fold it into its own Sunday paper. He was always immensely loyal to the Obs, despite coming under heavy bombardment from some Guardian staffers and one or two on the management side. Peter saw that the paper had great commercial potential. In fact, he was a highly commercially-minded man, unlike some on the Guardian who tended to view business and profit as dirty words.
He wasn’t ideological: he was progressive, outward-looking, fair-minded but I don’t know anyone who knew how he voted. He once interviewed a friend for a senior job at the Guardian. “Is there anything I should know about your politics?” Peter asked. (This was the mid-1980s and the new and short-lived Social Democratic party was more or less run by Guardian staffers.)
“Well, I was a member of the Communist party,” said my friend. “A communist? Oh well that’s OK, I thought you were going to say you were in the SDP. Half the staff seem to be eyeing up safe seats for the next election.” My friend, incidentally, got the job. Peter could always spot talent.
He believed, like all the best editors, that journalists should be outsiders: Peter was unbiddable, preferring a cinema or his beloved Millwall to the bright lights, swanky parties and first nights that too many of his colleagues liked to be seen at. He worked long and attritional hours, though would occasionally join his beloved (and very understanding) wife Jean for the end of a play. She said he had seen more second halves in the theatre than anyone living.
He was shrewd enough to spot the rising importance of green issues, launching Environment Guardian, another ad-yielding section as well as a skilful piece of branding. Quite how green Peter was I have never known: not especially I would guess, though at one time he did have a battered old Renault 4 parked up at the back of our Farringdon Road offices, bearing the legend “Nuclear Power? Nein Danke.” I think one of his daughters might have put it there, though. That was Peter all over: not for him the chauffeur-driven limos that most editors favoured. He would have thought it was a waste of money, for one thing.
He was certainly a frugal man, Peter, and – bless him – he expected most of his staff to be fairly frugal too. Early in my time there, as a subeditor, I found things fairly tight – this was London in the 1970s. I told Peter I was thinking of taking some freelance work in the mornings before coming in. “If you must,” said Peter. “Otherwise you could just find a rich wife.” I thought it was easier to take the freelance work.
Peter had recruited (and kept) an absolutely superb staff. And other papers wanted them. My, how they did. At one point the Sunday Times made an eye-popping offer for the late Frank Keating, the Shakespeare of sports writing. Frank loved the Guardian, which had given him a lavish canvas, and would have probably worked for nothing. It turned out that he almost was: Peter had a quick check on what Frank, who had certainly never complained, was actually being paid. Even Peter blanched a bit, gave Frank a few quid, though nothing like what he had been offered, and he stayed.
Another predator seen off. Frank, like so many of us, loved the paper that Peter made, with all its follies and foibles. Peter’s Guardian was a brilliant newspaper, quirky certainly but full of great reporters, home and overseas: when we did a shared reporting deal with the Washington Post, it turned out that the Guardian had a considerably bigger foreign staff. From its roots as a regional paper, Peter helped to turn the Guardian into one of the most important newspapers in the world. It was also rebellious, feisty and fun, full of different voices. We enjoyed producing it and we hoped people liked reading it.
Peter would not be defeated by anything: he battled polio as a child and defied its crippling effects to become a member of the Magic Circle. One of his early journalistic jobs was, he said, reviewing conjurors for the Magic Circle review. He was fired for being “too critical”. That was very believable. If pressed about his conjuring, he would say that his greatest trick was getting the Guardian out every night.
When I joined the paper in the mid-1970s, Peter was night editor, the last stage in his meteoric rise following some high-calibre writing jobs. He was now the person who gets the paper out: this was a time of vivid news – IRA bombings, political mayhem at home, strikes, upheavals in America, the cold war. Peter would map out his front page; I was one of the spear-carriers doing the rest. As the night unfolded, Peter would be at his typewriter, hammering out headlines and rewritten intros, one hand holding the other wrist steady as he hit the keys one-fingered.
It was always, then and for the next 40 years, an extraordinary performance. For the evening breaks, most of us would go to the pub or the canteen. Peter would stay at his desk, with a small pizza which he would microwave and a little plastic bottle of wine. It was very Peter: restrained, but not too restrained.
He was brave, bold, brilliant and tenacious. He believed that journalism wasn’t just about describing the world. It was also about trying to make it a better place. But now the world is a much poorer place without him. At the end of The Post, while frenzy grips the Washington Post newsroom as the paper is about to defy the government and publish the Pentagon papers, the editor Ben Bradlee, played by Hanks, leans across to his assistant, smiles and says, “Oh, the fun!” Peter Preston would have known what he meant.
Roger Alton held a range of senior positions at the Guardian before becoming editor of the Observer from 1998 to 2007