Shoulder-Shrugging

Julian Critchley

  • Dear Bill: Bill Deedes Reports by W.F. Deedes
    Macmillan, 396 pp, £20.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 333 71386 9

Has anyone ever been unkind in public about Bill Deedes? I rather doubt it. I was in the House of Commons with him from 1959 until 1964, and also had the occasional dealing with him when he presided over Hartwell’s Telegraph. In the House, he struck a newcomer as the ideal backbencher. He was intelligent (for a Tory, that is), enjoyed an excess of charm, and was a moderate in a party that was beginning to lose patience with Harold Macmillan. I thought him the most influential of Tory backbenchers, more so than Major Morrison, the bucolic chairman of the 1922 Committee, or buffoons like Gerald Nabarro.

After the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, when Macmillan was panicked by a typical Rab Butler indiscretion into sacking the dead wood in his Cabinet, Deedes was brought in to oversee the Government’s public relations. Spin-doctors were unheard of at that time, and Deedes’s task was to exploit his Fleet Street contacts to the Government’s advantage. There were, after all, only two other journalists in the Tory Party: Charles Curran, a polemicist who wrote a dull column in the Evening News, and Edwin Leather, who shone on TV. I did not count.

Deedes was not a particularly effective minister. Bail water as he might, Macmillan’s ship slowly foundered on de Gaulle’s veto on our entry into the EEC, and was finally sunk by the doctor who wrongly diagnosed the Prime Minister as having prostate cancer. By that time Macmillan was also the target of the so-called satirists of That Was the Week That Was, a fashionable programme that made a hero out of David Frost. Deedes was at a loss to blunt so vigorous and novel an attack. He was also present at the midnight meeting called to question ‘Jolly Jack’ Profumo about his private life. Profumo lied like a trooper. Martin Redmayne, who was without doubt the worst Chief Whip since the war, failed to see through his mendacity, though his job was to know the strengths and weaknesses of his flock. I am surprised that someone as clever and worldly as Iain Macleod should have believed Profumo, but I doubt that Deedes contributed much more than a good-natured shrug of the shoulders. He would recount the story of the midnight confrontation with Profumo always in a shoulder-shrugging, self-mocking way: ‘My contribution was to type the statement.’

This was in character, for those who knew him better than I at the Telegraph claim that Deedes was inclined to run away from hard decisions of any sort. He seems to have the capacity both to fantasise, and to turn aside from unpleasant truths. He was forever asserting, for example, that when he ceased to be editor he would (a) never write for the paper again, and (b) never be persuaded to go to the Lords – he would spend his declining years growing cabbages in Kent. It was obvious all along that this was fantasy. He is still writing regularly for the paper (and very well) and became a peer in 1986.

Deedes’s political colleagues used to say he was a journalist who had wandered into politics. Those who knew him as an editor thought of him as a politician who had wandered into newspaper management. At the pre-Conrad Black Telegraph, responsibility was divided in three ways: Deedes edited the opinion pages; the appalling Peter Eastwood, the news pages; while Lord Hartwell played the grand old Duke of York. The Deedes/Eastwood duo was essentially a ‘Mr Nice and Mr Nasty’ set-up, and up to a point Deedes was successful in his role. He soothed the bruised egos of journalists treated abominably by Eastwood, and helped to keep the show on the road, so that Telegraph morale didn’t collapse. He also soothed angry readers upset by the excesses of Eastwood’s quest for a ‘good story’. Deedes has been honest enough to admit that today’s Telegraph is a far better paper.

Andreas Whittam Smith, on the other hand, who left the Telegraph to found the Independent, felt so strongly about Deedes’s failure to respond to the Telegraph’s decline that he has never spoken to him again. Whittam Smith regarded Deedes as much more culpable than Lord Hartwell, who, as editor in chief as well as chief executive, carried the can. During his editorship, Deedes was arguably the only man who could have taken Hartwell to one side and told him to face the facts. For years, however, at the traditional 6 p.m. meeting between editor and proprietor up in the fifth-floor room where every important decision about the Telegraph was taken, Deedes acted the court jester, bringing titbits of political gossip to cheer up the boss, whose burdens became increasingly unbearable as the years passed. In the end the paper fell into the hands of Conrad Black, yet another Canadian ‘adventurer’ in the tradition of Max Beaverbrook, a succession which Deedes’s editorship didn’t survive.

As an editor Deedes resorted to the classic politician’s ploy of being all things to all men. A member of his staff would emerge happy and cheerful from the editor’s room under the impression that he had been at least half-promised promotion. To celebrate he would go out to a pub, only to run into a colleague to whom the same job had been half-promised. A contributor would submit an article that was invariably received with enthusiasm, but invariably followed by an instruction to Features to ‘lose it’. What Deedes did not lack was physical courage – he won a ‘good’ Military Cross in the war, as distinct from the sort that is issued with the rations (he fought in the defence of Calais in 1940). But he was at heart neither an editor nor even a politician but an old-fashioned reporter.

Deedes was born in Kent and enjoyed an idyllic boyhood, much influenced by an extraordinary uncle, Sir Wyndham Deedes, a sort of Lawrence of Arabia character, who threw up a proconsular career in the Middle East to establish a mission in the East End of London. Deedes spent some time there during the school holidays from Harrow. For a time his family owned Saltwood Castle, now the lair of Alan Clark and terrible with banners, but the pile proved to be ruinously expensive and the family moved from castle to country house.

The Wall Street crash of 1929 obliged the young Deedes to quit Harrow and its unattractive headmaster Cyril Norwood. Deedes tells how Norwood, who had a slight Cockney accent, once complained to the assembled school: ‘This has been the worst term I have ever known. I have had today to dismiss six boys. They were found behind the tombstones with women of the serving class.’ Deedes’s own premature departure was long believed by many to have been caused by our hero falling under a cloud, a belief that he was in no hurry to dispel. At the age of 17, Bill joined the Morning Post (thanks to Uncle Wyndham), a reactionary, even Blimpish paper, later to be absorbed by the Telegraph.

It was as a reporter on the old Morning Post that the young Deedes made his name. He volunteered to spend the night alone in the Chamber of Horrors for £5. He appears in Scoop, thinly camouflaged as William Boot, who is sent to Ethiopia by Lord Copper, to cover the Italian invasion. In Waugh’s novel, Boot is confused with another man of the same name. Deedes always said that this was not the reason he was picked to go to Ethiopia – it was simply that because he was young and unmarried the Morning Post didn’t have to pay much for his life insurance.

He was, at heart, a countryman. While at the Telegraph he would start the morning by playing a few strokes of golf, drive to Ashford station and arrive in Fleet Street by 11. (He would leave the office at 10.30 in the evening, take the bus to Charing Cross and the last train to Kent.) He was good at golf, indeed, he might have turned professional as a young man. His other bucolic pastime was cutting down trees in the manner of Gladstone. He would woo old ladies and, in return for cutting down their trees with a chain-saw, keep himself stocked with logs. His wife – who was only seen once at the Telegraph – was fond of sheep. They had two sons and three daughters; one son, Jeremy, is the managing director of the Telegraph.

Deedes has been an ideal ‘camera’, an observer, if not participant, at a many great events. Yet his charming account of a long life spent in public is essentially a shallow one. Bill is an entertainer and not given to introspection, and although the book is full of anecdote, we learn little of the man behind the pen. As a gentleman of the old school, he still values his privacy, which in an age of universal press vulgarity seems refreshingly unusual. His foot has never been in anyone’s front door. Technically, he writes cleanly and well, although his column occasionally suffers from a touch of the Oliver Pritchetts – that is, an addiction to whimsy which can be tiresome. But he has a light touch, and is invariably amusing.

In their ‘Dear Bill’ letters in Private Eye, John Wells and Richard Ingrams cast Deedes as the foil to Denis Thatcher. He was Ernie Wise to Thatcher’s Eric Morecambe. But the role of straight man came naturally to him. Dear Bill (the book, that is) should make a merry Christmas for thousands of its readers.