Peter Birkett - Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sunday Express newsman, and former editor of the Peterborough column

Peter
Birkett, who has died aged 60, was an energetic news-driven journalist
whose career with The Daily Telegraph included reporting at home and
abroad, running the news operation and serving as editor of the paper’s
popular Peterborough column.

Bounding in equal measures with
enthusiasm for work, lunch, wine and cigarettes, Birkett combined
shrewd judgment with a vigorous prose style.

Once persuaded that
a story was worth doing, he would go to any length on the road to file
ahead of rivals. He was also a member of that rarer species, the
first-rate reporter who retains his enthusiasm after being promoted to
a desk job.

As news editor, he had an instinct for stories that
would develop into major talking points, and rarely left anybody in
doubt about his views. When a reporter sent a message saying that he
could not cover the Moss Side riots because he had to stay home with
his dog, Birkett wired back: “Why you dog-sitting while Manchester
burns?”

Brash talent, combined with raucous laughter, did not
always make Birkett easy company for senior executives; and after a few
years, the paper’s powerful managing editor Peter Eastwood had him
transferred to the diary. Birkett had to be persuaded that it was a
great honour to be appointed the sixth journalist to hold the title of
Peterborough since the column began in 1929, but he quickly set about
proving that he could produce better stories than the news pages.

The
team of young reporters gathered around him, which included two of his
successors, Quentin Letts and Robert Hardman, discovered that working
with Birkett could be taxing, though never boring.

They learned
that they worked for a diary, not a gossip column; that the word
“eschew” was banned; and that if they referred to an “eatery”, they
would be bombarded with bits of paper.

Lapses of memory by the
column’s secretary, Maureen O’Leary, would be greeted by his anguished
cry “Jeeezus, Reen”. When she once failed to deliver a message, he was
so exasperated that he gave her a formal warning – which she had to
type out and send to herself.

Nevertheless Birkett made little effort to disguise his errors, his areas of ignorance or his fear of being sacked.

The
last burst of energy on Birkett’s column before lunch was devoted to
choosing the tailpiece joke, sent in by readers. The whole department
was involved in devising the headline, since Birkett had found that
this could seem much funnier after a decent repast than when it
appeared in the paper next morning.

Peter Philip Birkett, the son
of an architect, was born on 19 August 1944 and went to Dauntsey’s
School before starting with a news agency in Maidstone, Kent, and then
working for the Daily Sketch.

In 1971 he joined The Sunday Telegraph, where he proved his ability to handle any story.

Birkett
first reported power cuts and the defection of the ballerina Natalia
Makarova, then was sent to Jordan, where he filed a vivid description
of children building street barriers in Amman, and reported the
hijacking of three planes at Dawson’s Field.

When he fell ill, he refused to stop working until his colleagues put him on a plane for hospital.

Birkett
was also closely involved in reporting the worsening violence in
Northern Ireland, on one occasion demonstrating the ease with which
arms could be smuggled into the province by bringing in a papier maché
AK-47 assault rifle by boat from the mainland, then, for good measure,
taking it over the border and bringing it back again.

In the
mid-1970s he joined the Daily Mail, and was about to go to New York
when his sports car was involved in a collision, which left his first
wife permanently injured. Deciding that he did not want to spend long
periods away from home, Birkett returned to the Telegraph to become
third man on the newsdesk; he soon moved up to news editor.

When
he left the paper again in the late l980s, to become foreign editor of
the Mail, Birkett’s Peterborough boys claimed to be so concerned about
his uncertain grasp of geography that they bought him a globe. He
quickly threw himself into directing that paper’s coverage of the fall
of Soviet communism, the break-up of Yugoslavia and other major
conflicts.

Occasionally his extravagance in pursuit of a story
exasperated even the Mail’s accountants, such as when he hired a Lear
jet to pick up a reporter from a New York golf course and fly him to
Texas to cover the Waco siege.

The Mail job ended with the
appointment of a new editor, who decided that Birkett’s ebullience was
not essential for his operation. Birkett returned to freelance
reporting in Kent, where he seemed to build up a profitable monopoly of
cross-channel stories, then was surprised to be appointed features
editor of the Sunday Express for 18 months. After another change of
editor, he again returned to freelancing, then discovered that he had
cancer. Battling on with characteristic determination, he decided to
abandon news for less taxing features work; he had just filed his
“Betting on Letting” column to The Daily Telegraph’s property section
when he died on 2 July.

Peter Birkett is survived by his wife
Chris Dunn, who was a Mail reporter covering the Balcombe Street siege
when they met, and their two daughters.

This obituary originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph

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