Thomson felt "disbelief and amazement" on hearing story
Just a handful of Times executives were in on the Edwina Currie diaries revelation that she had a four-year affair with former Prime Minister John Major in an operation that would have done credit to MI6.
They were brought in strictly on a ‘need to know’ basis and only after signing confidentiality agreements as work progressed over a five-week period.
Not even the newsdesk knew about the story when they left the office on Friday night. They read about it like everyone else as it hit the breakfast tables on Saturday morning.
First editions of the paper carried two pages of advertisements for electrical retailer Currys in one of the most successful spoofs The Times has ever done. Editor Robert Thomson knew that if the "single revelatory fact" got out it would quickly diminish the news value of his scoop.
"It was a lot of hard work by a lot of people," said Thomson. "Hearing it for the first time you do have a sense of disbelief and amazement. Then you start thinking of all the what-might-have-beens – how did the knowledge of it affect Major’s judgement. It was something that must have been in his mind in a way that could have had an influence on his perspective."
By Friday night the group of people working on preparing the story had grown to 15 and Thomson had to decide the timing of the call to Major by political editor Philip Webster, which was done at 7pm.
Major listened carefully, thanked Webster for letting him know and promised to get back to him. There followed a nervous wait for Major’s statement. The fear was that there might be an injunction or that Major would give a statement through the Press Association, spoiling The Times’ exclusive.
Amazingly, the story made it to the breakfast tables as a genuine exclusive. Thomson said he was delighted that Currie and publisher Little, Brown had chosen The Times. "They wanted a newspaper that didn’t have a particular political bias, which The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian do. We didn’t go easy on her. The Ginny Dougary interview answered most of the questions that a discerning reader would ask, everything from motive to money."
Associate editor Brian MacArthur, who handles serialisations, was first approached by Little, Brown – coincidentally Norma Major’s publisher – on 20 August. "When publishers say they want to come and see you in the editor’s office you know it’s something big. Last time it was Mary Bell. It was jaw-dropping. I saw a gleam in Robert’s eyes. It’s a real triumph for him. He had total belief in it and the balls to do it."
For 39 days the core team, which included deputy editor Ben Preston, managing editor George Brock, lawyer Pat Burge and assistant editor Sandra Parsons, sat on the secret, planning the publication of the story to ensure that their rivals had no chance of following up that night. Night editor Chris McKane, who wasn’t on the night desk rota, came in secretly and worked in an upstairs office to prepare pages four and five.
Publication was also designed to give a boost to the newly redesigned T2 section. Said Thomson: "I sat there on Friday night feeling so proud about how much trust there was."
By Philippa Kennedy