Robin Esser, the Daily Mail’s executive managing editor, marked 50 years in journalism this week and insisted that at 72 he has no plans to retire.
He said: ‘It’s still a very exciting business which is why I do it. The day it becomes unexciting and I cease to enjoy it is the day I retire – and I don’t see any imminent chance of that at the moment.”
He counts among his best stories being the first British journalist to interview the three astronauts involved in the 1969 moon landing, which he bagged as the Express’s New York bureau chief – ‘much to the displeasure of the Mail”.
He broke also broke the story as Sunday Express editor that the student who stood in defiance in front of Chinese tanks during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 had been killed by the authorities.
Broken by a Chinese journalist on the paper’s staff, the story was confirmed a few days later by the CIA.
Esser began his first job in December 1957 as a casual reporter on the Daily Express and Daily Sketch after completing his national service which saw him serve in Suez. He then edited the Express’s Hickey column and gave a first job in journalism to Nigel Dempster.
‘Dempster was a bright young star. We liked to encourage young people at the time to come into the business, and we still do that.
‘It’s very rewarding to see young people making a success of themselves.”
As the Hickey column editor he became used to receiving the occasional call from the Express’s proprietor Lord Beaverbrook.
‘He was a very good proprietor, like Rothermere and Murdoch, and he was very interested in journalism and newspapers. He would ring me up and say, ‘that was a good lead in your column this morning, Mr Esser. I hope it was rightâ€¦ because I’m having lunch with him today’.”
After a spell at the Express’s Manchester office (where he recruited a young Paul Dacre) and then in New York, Esser became consultant editor on the London Evening News before moving back to the Daily Express in 1985 to work with Larry Lamb and the following year achieved his long-standing ambition of editing the Sunday Express.
He was recruited to the Daily Mail in 1991 to oversee the introduction of a Friday arts and entertainment supplement, which is still running.
In his 16 years at Associated Newspapers Esser has seen a marked rise in the Mail’s sales, in tandem with a decline at his old employers, the Express titles. ‘I’m used to being on the winning side,’he says.
‘The real secret to the Mail’s success is that Paul [Dacre] has an uncanny connection with his readers, more so than any editor I’ve worked for, and he’s enthusiastically backed by the management.
‘That’s the combination you need for any newspaper or media business. Look at the examples from the past: Christiansen and Beaverbrook, Larry Lamb and Rupert Murdoch, David English and Vere Rothermere and now Paul and the new Rothermere. When the two gel it works.”
The industry he entered five decades ago was one of hot metal and three-hour waits for proofs to emerge from the typesetters.
Now Esser has a role in coordinating www.dailymail.co.uk, the country’s second most popular newspaper website, according to ABCe.
Esser regrets that electronic newsgathering means reporters spends less time out meeting people than they previously did and admits more time was spent in the pub in the last century than the current one, as part of an ‘exchange of ideas’and camaraderie among Fleet Street reporters.
He joked: ‘I have suggested I might leave my liver to medical science to mark the hard-drinking days.’
But despite that, given the chance again as a young reporter would he do it all again?
‘Without any doubt. I decided I wanted to be a journalist when I was eight. I decided I wanted to edit my mother’s favourite newspaper, the Sunday Express. It took me 40 years, but I did it.”