Prime Minister leads tributes to Bill Deedes

Prime minister Gordon Brown led the tributes to Telegraph journalist Lord Bill Deedes who died on Friday aged 94 after an incredible 76-year-career in journalism.

Brown said the country owed a “huge debt of gratitude” for the contribution the former war correspondent, Daily Telegraph editor and Cabinet Minister made to public life.

Tory leader David Cameron described him as a “constant source of both wisdom and entertainment”.

And former Premier Baroness Thatcher mourned the peer as a “close friend” for more than half a century, who had carved a “uniquely distinguished career”.

Lord Deedes, who preferred to be known as Bill, worked until just weeks before his death at home in Kent yesterday evening, penning his last column for the Telegraph – in which he compared the horrors of Darfur to Nazi Germany – on August 3. In 2005 he was one of 40 twentieth century journalism greats to be inducted into the Press Gazette national newspapers Hall of Fame.

He achieved fame outside Fleet Street as the model for two fictional characters, most notably one of Evelyn Waugh’s celebrated creations, the bumbling though resourceful William Boot, in his novel Scoop. The two men reputedly met while covering the war in Abyssinia in the 1930s.

Much later, his close friendship with Sir Denis Thatcher, husband of Baroness Thatcher, inspired the long-running Dear Bill letters in the satirical magazine Private Eye.

In 1950 Bill Deedes was elected the Tory MP for Ashford and four years later Winston Churchill gave him his first junior post at the Ministry of Housing.

He was promoted to the Cabinet in 1962 as Minister Without Portfolio in charge of Information Services by the then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, after he had sacked seven ministers in a crisis.

This post propelled Deedes to the centre of the Profumo scandal the next year. When Macmillan resigned he was closely involved in the decision to pick Sir Alec Douglas-Home as the next Prime Minister.

Though the Conservatives lost power in 1964, he remained an MP until 1974 when Daily Telegraph proprietor Lord Hartwell offered him the editorship.

He was replaced by Max Hastings when Conrad Black acquired the paper in 1986, and was made a life peer the same year.

However, rather than slip quietly into a well-deserved retirement, he decided to continue working, and became a friend of Diana, Princess of Wales, supporting her campaign against landmines.

Mr Brown said Lord Deedes had been a shining example of commitment to public service.

“He started writing as a professional journalist more than 76 years ago and few have served journalism and the British people for so long at such a high level of distinction and with such a popular following,” the PM said.

“An MP and also a Cabinet minister, he will be remembered most as an outstanding and long-serving editor of the Daily Telegraph, and then a much read columnist.

“You could agree or disagree with his views, but like so many others I found his writing fair minded, informed, and enlightening.”

Cameron praised him as a one-off: “Bill was quite extraordinary: doing enough in his time to fill at least three lifetimes.

“Listening to him, whether about politics, journalism, or events on the other side of the world, he was always a source of both wisdom and entertainment.

“It’s a cliche to say ‘we will not look upon his like again’, but I suspect with the passing of Bill it is true.”

Baroness Thatcher told the Telegraph: “Bill was a dear friend who will be greatly missed. He had a uniquely distinguished career in politics and journalism.

“He managed to appeal to new generations just as effectively as he did to earlier ones. I am deeply sorry at his passing.”

Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell said: “Bill Deedes was held in great affection by many people who never met him face to face.

“His independence of mind shone through his regular column in the Telegraph.

“He distinguished himself both as a politician and as a journalist.”

Aidan Barclay, chairman of the Telegraph Media Group (TMG), said: “Bill Deedes was a giant among men, a towering figure in journalism, an icon in British politics and a humanitarian to his very core.”

Daily Telegraph editor Will Lewis said it was an “honour and privilege” to have worked with Deedes.

“He was a wonderful inspiration – both as an outstanding journalist and as a human being whose wealth of experience and charity work will be very sadly missed.”

Deedes’ wife Hilary Branfoot, whom he married in 1942, died in 2004.

They had two sons, one of whom died young, and three daughters, Juliet, Jill and Lucy.

The surviving son, Jeremy Deedes, was managing director of the Telegraph Group, and retired before his father

Lord Deedes, journalist, politician and lover of nature, was still reporting, often from uncomfortable and dangerous countries, when he was in his 90s.

His energy, enthusiasm and support, often for unpopular causes, was remarkable, especially in a man his age. His writing was invariably kindly, always revealing and never contained a whiff of malice about it.

Deedes’ war record, political achievements and journalistic triumphs – crowded into a long and eventful life – would be difficult to match anywhere. And throughout it all, there was never a trace of cynicism or “blase-ness” about anything he did.

But he also achieved fame outside Fleet Street as the model for two fictional characters: Boot of the Beast, war correspondent hero of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and “Dear Bill”, addressee of the “Denis Thatcher” fortnightly letter in Private Eye.

Both had foundations in truth. Bill Deedes, like Boot, was a young war correspondent in Abyssinia in the 1930s and was later, like “Bill”, Denis Thatcher’s golfing partner.

Sir Denis Thatcher, as he was later to become, became a close friend. Deedes delivered the oration, in a typically affectionate and witty manner, at the memorial service for Sir Denis.

But both the models which were based on Deedes seemed at first unlikely humorous facets of a deeply serious career. Deedes himself worked with distinction in weightier worlds: there was quality Fleet Street journalism, later as editor of the Daily Telegraph, and politics, as a Cabinet minister.

But to those who knew him well, humour was a natural part of his character. He took – and gave – pleasure in the lighter side of life with his own dry wit. And he was, near the end of his full-time career, once called the most popular man in Fleet Street.

Born on June 1 1913, and educated at Harrow, William Francis Deedes joined the national daily newspaper the Morning Post at the age of 18. In 1935, he was sent to Abyssinia to cover the fighting. His adventures as a fledgling war correspondent later inspired Waugh, who was covering the war for the Daily Mail.

Waugh depicted Deedes as the bumbling Boot, complete with cleft sticks for sending messages, in his brilliant satire on Fleet Street. But Deedes was no bumbler. He said, when he saw the LWT TV version of the book, that the only thing familiar to him was some of the luggage. His own weighed in at a quarter of a ton and he had a Chrysler at his disposal.

His war experience helped shape his reputation and his professional abilities as the Falklands did for his successor in the editor’s chair, Max Hastings.

In the Second World War, Major Bill Deedes served in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, winning the Military Cross in northern Europe. He rejoined the Daily Telegraph, which had merged with the Morning Post in 1937, working on the Peterborough diary column, before joining the Lobby and flying with Chamberlain to Munich in 1938.

In 1950, he left full-time journalism to enter politics. He came from a family of long-established landowners in Kent, with roots going back to the 16th century. Three Deedes, all named William, had represented East Kent in the 19th century and the fourth became Conservative MP for Ashford, its new name.

He represented the constituency until 1974. There were junior posts in two ministries before Deedes became minister without portfolio from 1962 to 1964. His task was the media presentation of Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s government policy and official information. Later he became chairman of the select committee on race relations.

In 1974 he returned to a full-time role in Fleet Street at the age of 61 to become editor of the Daily Telegraph. With a total of 48 years on the staff behind him, he left the editor’s chair after the takeover by Conrad Black at the end of 1985 but continued to write a column for the newspaper, winning the title of columnist of the year in 1989.

He was made a life peer in 1986.

Way into his 80s Deedes was undertaking foreign assignments, including dangerous ones like Kosovo, for the Daily Telegraph.

He was a great supporter of Diana, Princess of Wales and in particular her campaign to outlaw landmines worldwide.

And he also took a strong line on the modern tendency of the media to pry into the private lives of celebrities and politicians.

Deedes was still an active journalist in his 90s, making visits to places like Ethiopia and Sudan to report graphically on the hunger crises in the war-torn countries.

In the summer of 2004, Deedes broke a hip bone and spent a month in hospital. Throughout this confinement, he continued his weekly columns in The Daily Telegraph, barely referring to his own plight. After he was discharged from hospital – where he had been, by his own choice, an NHS patient – he wrote a glowing article about the dedicated staff, once more playing down his own discomfort.

One of his two sons, Jeremy, became executive editor of Telegraph newspapers, but actually retired before his father.

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