John Thompson, who died last week at the age of 93, could have been editor of The Spectator if he had wanted. He was offered the job in 1970 by its then proprietor, Harry Creighton, but with typically good judgment he declined. Creighton, a jovial, rumbustious manufacturer of machine tools, fired two editors, Nigel Lawson and George Gale, before making himself editor in their place. One of his reasons for doing this was almost certainly to save money; for the magazine was in steep decline and its losses were growing. An editor’s salary was a useful saving. So if John Thompson had taken the job, he would doubtless have eventually been fired as well. Nevertheless, many journalists would have jumped at the chance to edit such a famous title, even if it meant working for an overexcited and unpredictable employer. Not John, however, for whom fame, social cachet and the perks that came with an editorship meant nothing at all.
A modest, self-effacing man, he cared deeply about journalism but was far less interested in his own status than in working in a place where journalism was practised to his own fastidious standards. That place turned out to be Lord Hartwell’s Sunday Telegraph, which John first joined as a feature and leader writer. But in 1976, to his own and other people’s surprise, he was made editor for the final ten years of the Hartwell proprietorship. He had previously worked for seven years as The Spectator’s deputy editor, serving under editors who were both later to become Conservative cabinet ministers, Iain Macleod and Nigel Lawson; and he retained for the rest of his life a great affection for and interest in this magazine. I became The Spectator’s editor in succession to Creighton in 1975; and when, nine years later, I was sacked and sitting around, feeling somewhat at a loss, it was John who came to my rescue by offering me a job as features editor on the Sunday Telegraph.
I was at the paper for only a couple of years, but these were dramatic years in which poor management and trade union disruption plunged the Telegraph Group into crisis and finally forced Hartwell to sell up to the Canadian Conrad Black, ending a benign and mostly successful 58-year reign by the Berry family. Yet there could have been no better time in which to appreciate John’s qualities. His calm, his stoicism, his discretion, and his loyalty to his poor beleaguered boss during these turbulent times were evidence of his decency and strength of character. John’s modesty and scholarly demeanour had made him seem an unlikely choice for the job when the editor’s chair became vacant — the flamboyant Peregrine Worsthorne had been the clear favourite — but Hartwell, who was famously shy, must have felt he would be more comfortable with an editor of John’s quiet diligence than with a brilliant controversialist and showman such as Perry.
At the time John was sometimes underrated on account of his quietness and modesty, but today, when journalists are competing with politicians to rank lowest in the nation’s esteem, he seems a paragon of journalistic virtue. He was a man of the utmost integrity and good taste, who despised cheap sensationalism and would no more tap a telephone or bribe a policeman than fly to the moon. But he was anything but dull or prudish, and he was often attracted to journalists of the more flamboyant type, as shown, for example, by his friendship with the late Auberon Waugh. Above all, he believed that journalism was a good and honourable trade if practised well and honourably. Perhaps we should make him our patron saint.
John, who was brought up mainly in Leeds, was one of three sons of a Yorkshire haulage contractor. Despite his erudition and scholarly interests, he didn’t go to university but decided instead at 16 that he wanted to be a journalist; and he got his very first job as assistant to the editor of a tiny weekly magazine called the Leeds Guardian. The editor, a Mr Tull, was ‘a bent, elderly man in a tattered tweed jacket’ who, although ‘an educated man, widely read and cultivated in speech and manner’ and ‘habitually courteous and polite’, had been reduced by some misfortune ‘to the drudgery of producing, doubtless for a pittance, his poor little newspaper’. Part of John’s description of Mr Tull could equally well be applied to himself in later life; and there they were together, Mr Tull ‘plainly near the end of his working life’ and John at the beginning of his, both ‘trying to hold on to the very lowest rung of the same ladder’. Mr Tull, presumably, lost his grip; but John, I am glad to say, was to go nowhere but up.
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