Kenneth Harris was one of the key journalistic and organisational
figures in The Observer’s postwar history and played a decisive role in
securing the paper’s independence.
During the 1960s and 1970s, it
became apparent that a stand-alone Sunday newspaper title was no longer
economically viable, especially with the powerful print unions and that
only a commercial owner with pockets deeper than those of the Astor
family, the then owners, could ensure the paper’s future.
seemed inevitable that the paper would be absorbed into another group,
the likeliest future being a merger with The Sunday Times – later to be
owned by Rupert Murdoch. Had this happened, liberal journalism would
have suffered an irretrievable setback.
In 1977, Harris brokered
the deal with the American oil company Atlantic Richfield. It was a
crucial interim settlement before the sale, first to Lonrho in 1981
and, ultimately, in 1993, to the Scott Trust, owner of the Guardian
Without Harris’s energetic efforts, there is little
doubt that the paper would have passed into hands hostile to its
traditions and purpose.
Born in 1919, Harris was an allrounder.
learning his trade at the Sheffield Telegraph, he joined The Observer
and during the 1950s served as Washington correspondent, editor of
Pendennis and industrial editor. In the 1960s, his career took a new
turn as a talented newspaper and television interviewer.
later years, he turned to writing books. His biography of Clement
Attlee, written with the former Prime Minister’s collaboration, remains
an indispensable authority on the 1945-51 Labour government and postwar
Harris was intellectually self-confident.
relied on his powers of recall rather than notes when writing up
interviews (a habit unlikely to be tolerated today by any editor). Nor
did he suffer fools gladly, a trait that may not have endeared him to
everyone. But even his critics recognised his talent, assiduousness and
commitment to liberal journalism, as well as his great and long-term
dedication to public service.