Former Sun news editor Alan Watkins described as 'a legend in the industry' after his death aged 74

Alan Watkins

Former Sun news editor Alan Watkins, whose stories are said to have helped prove the link between mad cow disease and variant CJD in humans, has died aged 74.

Former colleagues described Watkins (pictured) as a “legend in the industry” who produced “countless stories of genuine importance”.

Watkins died peacefully with his family by his side on 31 October following a short illness. He is survived by wife Ruth, daughter Susan and grandson Daniel.

Watkins began his career on the Laindon Recorder, Essex, aged 15 before moving on to the Southend Standard.

While at the Standard he defied his editor, who was away on holiday, by running a story about the arrival of the first supermarket in the county instead of a splash on the local flower show.

According to Susan: “He would have been fired had the paper not have sold out for the first time in its history.”

Watkins later joined Press Association, staying with a family for two weeks to report on the Aberfan mining tragedy.

Said Susan: “The stark sight of tiny coffins laid out on the Welsh hillside was an image that stayed with him throughout his life.

“His work here won him more recognition and it was not long before the nationals came calling.”

Watkins took a reporting job at the Sun where he later became night news editor, staying in the role for some 20 years before moving on to the Today newspaper.
“This he always told me was the best job he had ever had,” said Susan.

“He broke endless stories of national importance, but none mattered more to him than his work on proving the link between mad cow disease and the human variant CJD.

“For months he battled with Department of Health officials, working alongside eminent medical professors and the families of children infected with the deadly disease.

“Many of the children afflicted by the terrifying condition had received growth hormone treatment given by the NHS and he was absolutely determined to prove the link.

“Finally, after much hard work, he was able to publish what he knew. This in turn led to an extremely vitriolic letter from the then Minister for Health arriving on the news desk.

“A missive which he proudly described as ‘one of his greatest achievements’.

“As advice to me he once told me ‘trust me girl, if you get a letter like that you know you are on the right track’. And so it proved.

“Today all blood products must be screened for evidence of CJD before being given to patients.”

Watkins later returned to work for Press Association and The Guardian before turning freelance. He continued working up until shortly before his death.

Among those to have paid tribute to Watkins is James Mellor, of the Sunday Times, who said: “His tenacity and keen eye that led to countless stories of genuine importance being published”.

Dominic Herbert of The Sunday Mirror described Watkins as a “legend in the industry”, adding: “There will be many, like ourselves, saddened by his passing.”

David Wooding of The Sun on Sunday said he recalled “the laughs on the night desk” working with Watkins while Charles Hymas of The Sunday Times said Watkins’ “inimitable good humour and sense of fun that shone through in his emails”.

Added Susan: “Most of all Alan will be remembered as someone who always tried to give more than he would take. A true gentleman who loved the business until his dying day.”

Watkins’ funeral is to be held on 15 December at St. Cuthberts RC at 11am. All donations should go to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society care of funeral directors A.G Smith of Maldon, Essex.


6 thoughts on “Former Sun news editor Alan Watkins described as 'a legend in the industry' after his death aged 74”

  1. So sad to hear about Alan. He was of immense help to the families who lost loved ones to vCJD (Human BSE). Without people like him I feel much would have been swept under the carpet. So thank you Alan.
    Sincere sympathy to the family.
    Frances and Derek Hall (parents of Peter, vCJD victim)

  2. Alan was a wonderful mentor to me. I was ridiculously young and inexperienced when I became a news editor on a national and without asking for a reward Alan would give me hours of his time over the phone, advising me on angles on stories, or how to handle a difficult situation in the newsroom (or avoid a bollocking from an an angry editor!).

    Alan always rewarded me with great stories (I recall several splashes and countless p5 and p7 leads when I was news editor of The Mail on Sunday), as well as laugh-out-loud stories about so-called industry veterans (most of whom he lampooned) and heart-warming tales of train timetables, hedgehogs and jazz records (he loved jazz as well as classical music).

    One fact about Alan that may be overlooked is that he was the first journalist I knew of to recognise the internet (when it was still dial-up) as a source of stories. This was long before Google and yet Alan would trawl discussion boards on AOL and pore over web pages on Netscape to find stories. No one else at that time was looking in these places – and he unearthed many scoops in this way. In fact, I recall vividly that it was Alan who told me there was a new search engine called Google that I should try when researching a story.

    In more recent times, Alan thought I was mad to quit newspapers three years ago (especially when I confided in him – and him alone – how much money the Daily Mail had offered me to stay!), and predicted I’d soon miss the industry. In my last call with him (too long ago) I joked with him that, for once, he was wrong and I was right. His acceptance of this – rare though the moment was – meant so much to me as I always wanted Alan to reassure me that I’d done the right thing.

    My thoughts are with Susan, to whom Alan was utterly devoted. He and I would seldom have a conversation in which he didn’t talk about Susan with such love and enormous pride.

    Susan, if you’re reading this, perhaps you’d send me the annual British Hedgehog Preservation Society Christmas card… otherwise I suspect it will break my heart to not receive one this year from Alan.

    RIP Old Git (as Alan always called himself whenever he rang me with a scoop).

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