I was uniquely well-placed – sometimes you are just in the right place at the right time. I had worked at the BBC, where Grade was director general; I was making a documentary at the time for ITV, where he was going. So that’s not bad for starters.
At the crossroads in his career, I knew his existing employer and his future employer. If you’ve been around for a long, long time as I have, you tend to get to know a lot of people. And as long as you haven’t betrayed their confidences over the years, which I think I haven’t, once in a while they are prepared to do you a favour. Clearly somebody told me something that they shouldn’t have known.
I don’t think anybody at the time realised how big a story it was going to be – but I knew it would be a big story. The media love writing about the media – but when the story involved the media at both ends, it was just too delicious. If the head of ICI moved to a British manufacturing company you would have to get to page 28 before anyone mentioned it. But because it was Michael Grade, who is a great personality with a big company, it just had all the magic ingredients.
The news editor came over and said: ‘Jeff, this is a really great story. But it just seems a bit improbable.’I could see what he was saying: ‘Are you right, Jeff?’He wanted to believe me.
We all had those moments. I never had even one per cent doubt that Michael was in negotiations but there was always this worry right up to the last minute that he wouldn’t go.
If we then wrote that, we would be back-tracking and saying we were wrong but for the right reasons, and you don’t want that. I wanted to be absolutely sure that he’d signed up. We planned the story not knowing that Michael had signed, because to the best of my knowledge he hadn’t.
Myself and [Telegraph editor] Will Lewis knew about it three or four days before and we both decided we didn’t want to break the story ‘Grade thinking about it”, because that’s not half as good. You really want ‘Grade dunnit”.
So we decided to hang on right until the end so I could say, ‘I know he’s signed”, and I was able to say that. I was mightily relieved when the BBC confirmed it.
It was a great story for this paper, because it came at a time when we were trying to explain our multimedia strategy to the world and they didn’t really want to listen. We broke it on a multimedia basis and it really gave us a lift.
Interview by Patrick Smith