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Bill Deedes: An Axegrinder tribute

Journalism icon, yes. Fashion icon?

Less so As the tributes to Bill Deedes, one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century, continue to pour in, everyone has their favourite memories of Dear Bill, as Private Eye fondly referred to him.

He was one of life's gentlemen in the true sense of the word, and those who had the privilege to work close with him would often remark how he managed to restore their faith in human nature.

Axegrinder has been going down memory lane too. I remember more than 20 years ago when I spent a week with Bill in New York. I can't recall the precise nature of his visit, but we spent some time together up and down the corridors of power at the United Nations.

His one mission outside work, on that trip, he informed me quietly, was to visit Brooks Brothers. We sped off to the ultimate preppy clothing store near Grand Central station, where Bill filled his suitcase with plain-coloured – either blue or yellow – button-down shirts that cost about $25 in those days.

He told me he would take off the cellophane wrappers in his hotel room so that, when he landed back at Heathrow, he wouldn't have to pay duty on his new purchases and would pretend they were freshly ironed shirts.

Colleagues who worked closely with Bill at the Telegraph always liked his choice of shirts.

Funnily enough, one recently remarked, unlike his son Jeremy, or successors Max Hastings or Charles Moore, Bill never was a fan of those double-cuffed affairs available in Jermyn Street.

He never considered himself to be an icon of fashion.

Page Three stunnas get seal of approval

During Axegrinder's happy time with Bill in New York, he agreed one morning to talk to a bunch of budding young journalists studying at Columbia University's prestigious Journalism School. Axegrinder sat in on the conversation: they had probably never seen an editor with such bright red socks in their lives before.

But for a broadsheet editor, Bill was particularly encouraging to the younger would-be hacks, and even had praise for the red-tops. When a question came up about what he thought of the famous Page Three girls in The Sun, Bill was quick in his reply: "If the readers want cornflakes for breakfast, give it to them."

He then went on to to explain about so-called "marmalade droppers" which, in olden days, were prominent on page 3 of the Telegraph.

Official: Bill Deedes founded the Indy

Two of Bill's grandchildren, Henry Deedes and Sophia Money-Coutts, are now budding young journalists. Sophia used to work for William Cash's magazine group, Spear Media, and is currently writing for the features section of the Evening Standard.

Henry, on the other hand, is a diarist at The Independent, working on the Pandora column.

He too cut his teeth at the Telegraph.

Quite recently, Henry recalled the occasion when he told his grandfather he was off to work at the Indy. Bill, in his unusual self-deprecating manner, quipped: "Of course, you realise that's all down to me."

How so, young Henry wanted to know?

"Well, Stephen Glover and Andreas Whittam-Smith were so fed up with having to suffer under my editorship that they promptly went off to start up The Independent. So, in a way, I was the founding father of The Independent."

Bill's sportsmanship was above par

Bill might have been a giant of our trade, but they do say it is the way a person behaves on the golf course that reveals their true character.

A few years ago, he was in a press team organised by Lord Stevens (then chairman of Express Newspapers) and played a match against the Parliamentary Golf Society at Walton Heath.

It was a grand affair with caddies provided for the players, lunch, fine wine… and all paid for by the Express (those were the days).

Hugh Whittow, now deputy editor of the Express and Chris Stevens, now assistant editor of The Sun, were drawn against Bill and his partner.

It was a wonderful morning full of anecdotes and the rival pairs were all square as we they approached the 18th hole.

Chris Stevens recalls: "On the green, it was down to me to sink a tricky 6ft putt for the half. Bill said: ‘No one worries whether I win at golf or not... but if you two lose, Lord Stevens won't invite you back next year.'

"With that, he picked up my ball and said: "Match halved."

"As my dad would have said: ‘A proper toff.'"

Oh, and one last point…

Not only has the passing of Bill Deedes taken away from the Telegraph office the impish smile, peerless reporting and experience from the front line of wars and Cabinet office, it turns out that the great man has also taken his full stops to the great newsroom in the sky.

A source at the Telegraph reveals that Bill was the only journalist at the paper to get full stops after his initials – a custom long-abandoned at the paper. So while AN Wilson remained dotless, W.F. Deedes was fully punctuated.

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