Michael Curtis: former editor of the News Chronicle

When, at the age of 33, Michael Curtis was appointed editor of the News Chronicle he faced an immense challenge, but he came to the task with original and well-developed ideas.

Since leaving university he had been personal assistant to Lord Layton, the chairman of Daily News Ltd, the organisation which controlled the Cadbury family’s newspaper interests.

Despite some leader-writing his experience of journalism was slight.

Consequently, his appointment in 1953 was not universally popular with the News Chronicle staff. The newspaper was facing immense problems, starved of sufficient resources to match its competitors in size and coverage, with a circulation which had fallen by 200,000 in 10 years and increasing competition for advertising from commercial television.

His predecessor warned Curtis at the start that “if the worst came to the worst Mr Cadbury would almost certainly try to dispose of the property to Lord Rothermere, since he had a natural affinity with the moderate Conservative politics of the Daily Mail”.

And that is what happened, seven years later, after Curtis had done his best to avoid it.

Curtis won the respect of his staff, was good at exploiting the talent at his disposal and fought hard to sustain the traditional liberal values of the paper.

He made it a principal critic of Anthony Eden’s disastrous Suez policy.

Sadly, that lost the paper a further 25,000 of its readers in five days! Curtis wanted to take the paper upmarket and even before becoming editor he had proposed that it become a serious, but still popular, tabloid.

Laurence Cadbury was doggedly opposed to that. Twice more during his editorship Curtis produced detailed proposals (and dummy issues) for changes, now retaining broadsheet format. For his third, and final, effort he was backed by the experienced and respected editorial executive Michael Randall, who he had recruited as assistant editor. Their dummy anticipated many of the characteristics of the later Independent. It was not received favourably and Curtis resigned.

He got a second chance to show his prowess as a newspaperman when, in 1959, he became the “executive aid” to the 20-year-old Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of 15 million Shia Muslims.

He was given great freedom of action and generous financial resources. He established the Nation Printers and Publishers organisation in Nairobi, where he spent the next 20 years.

He launched two newspapers, the Daily Nation and the Sunday Nation, and he installed the first web-offset presses outside the US. He continued as a director of Nation Newspapers until 1994.

He also continued as a personal aid to the Aga Khan and as an executive of the Aga Khan Foundation.

Curtis died, aged 84, at his home in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.

Douglas Brown

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