Editor of the Telegraph and MP under Churchill and Macmillan who was immortalised in Private Eye’s Dear Bill diaries
Bill Deedes rose to the highest ranks of two professions, politics and journalism – in each case in challenging circumstances. He became a Cabinet minister under Harold Macmillan, but not until that once triumphant figure was beset with troubles; and he edited a national newspaper during a crisis period in Fleet Street. He emerged from both experiences with an unblemished reputation for being a nice man. His charm was legendary. He had friends everywhere, from the highest places to the humblest.
Indeed it was probably because he was reluctant to make enemies that he did not rise to the very top in politics, and why during his editorship of The Daily Telegraph, from 1974 to 1986, he never took the bold action that was so obviously needed to bring that paper up to date.
William Francis Deedes came of a family whose origins lay deep in the Kentish countryside, and politics was in the blood. But the choice of journalism as a career was almost accidental. Having spent much of his boyhood in a Kentish castle, admittedly then a crumbling castle – Saltwood – Bill learnt while he was at Harrow that there had been a shock to the family fortunes. He must leave school and earn a living. An uncle, Sir Wyndham Deedes, knew a man at the Morning Post (a long established, very Conservative newspaper, soon to be absorbed by the Telegraph) and the teenage Bill was taken on as a reporter. Sir Wyndham – an individualistic character who had held various proconsular posts in the Middle East and had now retired to do good works among the poor of the East End – took his nephew in as a lodger in Bethnal Green.
The Morning Post had to make do on minimal staff, which meant that a lively young reporter could expect to be given a bit of everything. Before long he was sent in 1935 to cover the war in Abyssinia, among the band of correspondents whose exploits were to be hilariously commemorated by Evelyn Waugh in his early novel Scoop, about a man called Boot who found himself a war correspondent by being mistaken for somebody else. Never one to spoil a good story against himself, Deedes never resented the rumour that he was the original of the bumbling Boot.
In fact, Deedes’s journalistic professionalism was clear from the outset. It never flagged in half a century and more. In his eighties he could still file a quick story from some far-flung spot, in crisp, elegant English. Astonishingly enough, he was Reporter of the Year at the age of 84.
Both journalism and politics were set aside by the war. He served in the Queen’s Westminsters and later as a company commander in their parent regiment, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and won the MC in 1944.
After the war he returned to the Telegraph, but was soon drawn into politics. In preference to Ted Heath, he was adopted as Conservative candidate for Ashford – a constituency much the same as that which had been represented in Parliament by his grandfather and his great-grandfather.
In 1954 he joined Churchill’s postwar government as a junior minister, spending two years at the Home Office, which proved useful to him as a journalist: topics such as immigration, crime and drugs were to feature in his writing. Equally, his journalistic skills were useful to the Conservatives, as when he interviewed Harold Macmillan for the first party political broadcast on television.
But his ministerial ambitions were never strong. He left office in 1957 because he found the financial sacrifice too great and rejoined the back benches, where he was already a respected figure. He was a sparkling speaker, in and out of the House. Meanwhile, he was on the Telegraph staff, mainly on the now-defunct Peterborough column. He had also earned a reputation, in Fleet Street and at Westminster, for having a reliable instinct of what voters expected. Thus it was that, one summer afternoon in 1962, a telephone message arrived as he was working. The Prime Minister (Macmillan) would like to see him. Come by the back door, he was told.
Inside, Macmillan, Deedes recalled, was sucking a pipe and looked weary. “No idea how you are placed,” he said, “but wondering if you can help me.”
The Prime Minister had decided that the time was overdue for reshuffling his pack, but the reshuffle had got out of hand and turned into the “night of the long knives” and he had managed to displease large sections of the Tory party. This was long before vulgar phrases such as “spin-doctoring” had been invented, but what Macmillan wanted from Deedes was that he should join the Cabinet as Minister Without Portfolio to improve government relations with the media.
In retrospect, Macmillan’s image problem was probably beyond help, and there was worse to come that Deedes had to cope with, including the Vassall spy scandal of 1962 and the Profumo affair the following year. He was one of the ministers who confronted Profumo in the middle of the night to insist that he must face the Commons the next day to refute the rumours about himself and Christine Keeler. Deedes was to be accused later of failing to get the truth out of Profumo but, as he claimed, fairly, it was not the job of these ministers to interrogate Profumo. Profumo had made his denial and they were simply helping to draft his statement. The ministers were duly exonerated.
After the Tories lost office in 1964, Deedes spent the next decade as a backbencher-journalist, and it seemed that he might go on to become Westminster’s father figure par excellence. He also had wide interests in Kent, where he was a deputy lieutenant, and any spare time could be spent contentedly and skilfully on the golf course.
However, at the age of 61, he was invited to become Editor of The Daily Telegraph. Under the unique regime developed by an active editor-in-chief, Lord Hartwell, this meant being responsible mainly for the comment, and his influence on the news content was indirect. He presided from the standpoint of a moderate Tory.
If he occasionally felt at odds with the party under Margaret Thatcher it was less over policy than over presentation. His position was complicated, but only slightly, by being a friend of the Thatcher family. Deedes was a golfing companion of Mrs Thatcher’s husband. (This was the factual basis of the delightful fantasy about Denis Thatcher dreamt up by Private Eye in the celebrated “Dear Bill” letters.)
As Editor he was not expected to impose change. Rather his role was to be a calming influence in an often unhappy organisation – and also to keep a rein on some of the paper’s young turks who included over the top Thatcherite ultras. Even given the limitations imposed on his role, there were critics who pointed to how much Deedes could have achieved in editorial improvements if only it had been in his nature to lay down the law. That said, in circulation terms, the paper during his editorship retained its dominant appeal to the middle classes.
By the 1980s the Telegraph faced appalling financial problems plus all the challenges of introducing new technology in an industry that for years had been strangled by the print unions. Hartwell’s strategy was that major editorial changes must await the technology breakthrough and it was for this reason that Deedes was persuaded to stay in the chair long after normal retirement age. In the end the Hartwell strategy failed. The company was sold and Deedes and Hartwell, who had looked forward to an orderly handover to a new generation, found themselves ousted. Deedes, characteristically, was persuaded by the new regime to continue writing for the paper. Some of his most felicitous journalism was produced in his seventies and eighties, much of it based on trips to problem regions of the world sometimes carried out in conjunction with CARE International. The proceeds of his autobiography were donated to Third World charities.
His services were marked with a life peerage in 1986. He was sworn of the Privy Council in 1962 and appointed KBE in 1996. His wife, Hilary Branfort, whom he married in 1942, died in 2004. He is survived by his son, Jeremy, and by three daughters. A second son predeceased him.
Lord Deedes, KBE, MC, Editor of The Daily Telegraph, 1974-86, was born on June 1, 1913. He died on August 17, 2007, aged 94.