Bill Deedes: He just loved reporting

Jeremy Deedes, son of Bill and former managing director of the Telegraph Group

He had the inquisitiveness which you need to have as a good reporter. One of the byproducts of that inquisitiveness was that he was always much more interested in what was going to happen tomorrow than what happened yesterday, and I think that is part of the secret of his longevity. His sheer inquisitiveness of what was going to happen next was what stopped him turning the face to the wall.

That is why, above all, he wanted to die in harness – he wanted to die as a writing journalist and, happily, that’s how it worked out.

All journalists are salesmen to a certain extent, in that you have to sell yourself in order to get people to talk. As well as being interesting to listen to, he was a good listener and that is important.

Sometimes, the less intrusive you are, the more people talk and the more interesting things they say. Above all else, he was interested in other people – a reporter’s stock in trade is being at ease talking to people. If you can put people at ease they will say much more interesting things.

He was far happier being a reporter than being an editor. It was made even better by the fact he was an editor and he had tasted both sides.

He wrote prolifically more recently in his life. For me, his earlier work was quite stilted. I know fashions change, but he ended up having that simplicity of style which looks terribly easy but is actually quite difficult to copy.

He loved talking to journalists and talking about journalism and newspapers, but he wasn’t a navel-gazer. He wanted to write about ‘events, dear boy, events”.

He was always very nervous about getting lifetime achievement awards, because he thought it would be followed by someone saying: ‘This is the moment, Bill, when you should draw stumps.”

One of the funny things about my father was he always, every day of his working life, operated on the basis that he was about to get the sack. His self-deprecating nature was such that he really did think that every moment of every day someone was going to come along and tell him it was time to hang his boots up – that’s what he dreaded more than anything else.

I think that’s why he never missed a column since 1992 until the week before he died, when he managed to write half of it.

Stephen Robinson, Deedes’ biographer

He wasn’t a particularly good polemical journalist – he was much better at the diary sort of article. He didn’t have particularly strong views on the world.

He had natural talent. He wrote very well, clearly and unshowily. He had enormous natural curiosity, which is essential for a journalist, particularly for a reporter. He also had enormous humility – he wasn’t too grand to chance something which might seem trivial.

When he ceased being an editor, he didn’t want to become some sort of pundit, pontificating about the state of the world – he just wanted to get on a plane and write reports about the world.

Kim Fletcher, former Telegraph Media Group editorial director

The thing you couldn’t help noticing, which really endeared him to journalists, was that, in the end, he just loved reporting. That’s quite unusual now, because so many journalists want to be opinionated columnists and in effect show off – Bill just wanted to go out and talk to people, observe and come back and write about it.

He took his work very seriously but he did not take himself seriously. Again, that’s unusual – we’ve all worked with very pompous journalists, so to work with someone who has that kind of experience and wore that experience very lightly was really extraordinary.

It is unusual for someone to go back [from being Daily Telegraph editor to reporter and columnist] and that’s why he was so popular with reporters, because they sensed there was a real reporter’s spirit there.

He had this ability to fit in anywhere and make people feel at ease. He had a thing that very good reporters have: he could go anywhere and get people to talk. He was Lord Deedes but everyone knew him as Bill and that manner didn’t change – that slightly impish grin and a bit of a theatrical business in the way he talked to people. It was a brilliant reporter’s technique.

Martin Newland, Telegraph editor from 2003-5

It was his civility which struck me, and his kindness. I remember how he used to always address me as ‘editor’rather than Martin, out of respect for the office, and how he used to literally fold his skeletal frame into my armchair at leader conference, usually leaving around three quid worth of change, which had escaped from his voluminous pockets, down among the cushions.

My leader conferences tended at the beginning to polarise between the social conservatives and the liberals and libertarians. He would keep silent, and then chime in with ‘hold on…’ What followed was the middle way, the practical way and the decent way of addressing the issue at hand. It was almost invariably the way I chose.

Arnie Wilson, Financial Times ski writer and friend of Deedes

Bill Deedes was an inspiration to all who knew him, particularly journalists. I knew him as my local MP, travelling companion on many commutes to London, dining companion, and most of all, mentor. As a young reporter on the Kent Messenger in Ashford – Bill’s constituency for very nearly a quarter of a century – I enjoyed a fairly typical journalist-MP relationship with him.

Like my colleagues, I found him approachable, fair, witty, amusing and modest. It was only when I befriended his son Julius – also employed by the Kent Messenger – that I got closer to Bill.

Julius, unfortunately, suffered from a rare medical disorder which meant that he had to have his blood ‘topped up’by regular transfusions at the children’s hospital at Great Ormond Street. He was always very brave about this.

In 1970, Julius died, aged just 23. It was a terrible blow to the Deedes family. When Julius died, I asked if I might write his obituary for both the Kent Messenger and Southern Television, another employer. This is when I first encountered the more intimate warmth of Deedes’ friendship. For the best part of a week, I was invited to share the daily comings and goings in the Deedes household, and was made to feel almost one of the family – an experience I have never forgotten.

Sue Ryan, former managing director, Daily Telegraph

I remember one afternoon in Oxford that said so much about Bill. Some of his papers were to be housed in the Bodleian Library and he wanted to see inside it. Students were going in and out but we, as members of the public, were denied access. I wanted to say: ‘Do you know who this is? He is giving you his papers’but Bill would have been mortified, so we retreated meekly.

It had begun to rain and he wanted to buy an umbrella in Boots – ‘something to remember Oxford by”, he said – and bought a small standard folding brolly. When we got out and he put it up it was full of tiny holes that the rain dropped through. I suggested we took it back. ‘No, I don’t like to make a fuss,’he said, and so we both got wet.

Another time, I went to lunch with him and Denis Thatcher at Simpson’s – it was pure rollicking entertainment, but I saw a different side to Denis. In the taxi to the office, Bill said that he thought that the Private Eye letters were the best thing that happened to Denis. He had strong opinions and influenced Margaret greatly, but because he was portrayed as this harmless old buffer, he avoided being seen as an unelected power.

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