Anthony Howard: 1934-2010

Former <em>New Statesman</em> editor dies at the age of 76.

We learned with immense sadness this evening of the death of the former editor of the New Statesman Anthony Howard.

Tony, who died today after a short illness, edited the NS between 1972 and 1978, one of the most fertile periods in the magazine's history, during which he helped to launch the careers of several of this country's leading writers, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens notable among them. He went on to become deputy editor of the Observer and was also a regular contributor to the BBC's Newsnight and Panorama programmes.

Tony continued to work as a freelance commentator and book reviewer, not least for the NS, almost until the end of his life. I had the privilege of working with him after joining the NS as culture editor in 2009. His book reviews – mostly of political memoirs and biographies, often heavy with anecdote and frequently enlivened, though never compromised, by personal acquaintance with either the author or the subject – would arrive, always ahead of the deadline and always within the word limit I'd set, not by email nor even by fax, but by letter, a familiarly spidery scrawl on the envelope alerting me to the presence of the precious cargo contained within.

Tony's last contribution to the magazine was not a review, however, but a selection of books of the year, which he dictated to me down the phone. His choices were entirely characteristic – two political biographies and a journalist's memoir:

There were two fine political biographies published this year: Roy Hattersley's David Lloyd George (Little, Brown, £25) and D R Thorpe's Supermac (Chatto & Windus, £25). Equally engaging, if at a slightly more flippant level, is Simon Hoggart's A Long Lunch: My Stories and I'm Sticking to Them (John Murray, £20). Described by its author as "in no way a life of me", it is still the best journalistic memoir since the late Alan Watkins's A Short Walk Down Fleet Street of a decade ago.

In the current issue of the NS, the editor, Jason Cowley, who was unaware of Tony's illness when he was writing, devotes one of the items in his First Thoughts column to this recollection of a communication from his venerable predecessor:

When I became editor of the New Statesman in October 2008, I received a handwritten letter from Anthony Howard, who was editor of this "paper", as he prefers to call it, from 1972 to 1978. Being editor of the NS would be "hard", he said, but I had to stick it out until the centenary in 2013. To me, that seemed a long way off and not something I should think about. But this is my third Christmas double issue as editor. In a few weeks, as we celebrate the arrival of another year, the centenary will not seem that far away at all. Tony: what shall we do?

Tony, of course, would have known exactly what we should do. We shall miss him.

Jason Cowley adds:

I first met Tony Howard when I joined the Times in the mid-1990s – I was a staff writer and he was obituaries editor. But of course I already knew him through his journalism and work for the BBC. Tony was an inspiration: an old-style, scholarly, gentleman journalist, who had a wonderfully encyclopaedic knowledge of British politics. Above all, he was a good and generous man, and was especially supportive of younger journalists. I feel profoundly sad that he will not be here to celebrate the centenary of the New Statesman, which he edited with such distinction from 1972-78. Tony: we'll miss you so much.

UPDATE: Obituaries for Tony Howard continue to appear in all the major news outlets, most of them eulogies for, as Jason puts it, a gentleman-journalist of the old school. Over at Our Kingdom, however, Anthony Barnett strikes a somewhat discordant note.

Ian Hargreaves, New Statesman editor from 1996-1998, writes:

Tony Howard was the ultimate political insider – in Peter Kellner's words, "the people's spy inside the corridors of power". But Tony was always more fascinated with the corridors of politics than the think tanks of policy or the worlds beyond both. His confident eloquence sprang from his learning and love of politicians and of the arts of political rhetoric; his opinions were always crafted to ricochet around a circle of people known to him by name.

As a radio broadcaster, I, like hundreds of others, always knew that I could go to Tony for a well-judged insight or a commonplace, one more adroitly worded than the competition. In my time as successor to him as editor of the New Statesman, he was part of the huddle of opinion which could affect the local weather. He was fond of conspiracy – something which, for Tony, was anything but a spectator sport.

It is right that his finest legacy is the Crossman Diaries. The positioning of Crossman at the then unfulfilled centre of Labour politics and the fact that his diaries were the WikiLeaks of their day speak to Tony's values, to his eye for a drama and to the courage it takes to exploit one. Don't be fooled by your memories of those silken, jowly tones: Tony Howard was a fighter and a mischief-maker – a journalist.

Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman between 1998 and 2005, writes:

When I left the Observer in 1975, aged 30, I heard that the New Statesman was looking for an education correspondent. I rang Tony Howard, whom I had not then met. He came straight to the point. "Are you leaving the Observer or is the Observer leaving you?" he demanded. When I replied that the former was the case, he asked for cuttings. After perusing these and making "inquiries", he expressed the broad opinion that I would be "OK". But, he added, he had seen only rare signs of the flashy, reader-gripping phrase. On this, he insisted, I must up my game.

After this rigorous examination (more rigorous than I experienced for some full-time staff jobs), I expected at least a retainer. But, no, he would pay me £40 for each 1,000-word piece (not a princely sum, even in those days) or £60 for 2,000 words. If nothing was published, I would receive nothing. I could expect to get in "the paper" roughly once every two or three weeks, and he "hoped" I would attend weekly editorial conferences. He recognised that I might need to supplement this uncertain income (about five times over, on my conservative estimate) but, if I wrote regularly about education for national dailies or Sundays, our "arrangement" would be "less attractive" to him. On this unpromising basis, our association began and, despite the lack of any increased payments even in a period of rampant inflation, it continued for two happy years.

Tony regarded writing for the NS as an honour and imposed the most exacting standards. His judgements were speedy and precise and could rarely be altered. He could convey, in just a few words, exactly what he wanted, a talent more rare than it ought to be among editors. Over two years, he spiked, I think, one piece and made me rewrite two others. Otherwise, I apparently met his standards, always receiving a congratulatory phone call or written note. He gave me something priceless, which I had previously lacked: a belief that I could not just hack a career in journalism but could, in time, reach its highest levels.

I left the NS to join the Sunday Times, a newspaper of which he disapproved. But we parted on good terms and my career thereafter was punctuated by occasional messages of encouragement and praise. When I became NS editor in 1998, he said that, after an interval of 20 years and six editors since his own departure, "the apostolic succession" had been restored. By that, he meant (I think) that he could count on me to uphold the values and standards of writing that he established during his own editorship, and which were only erratically continued by his successors. Thereafter, his support, though he sometimes offered private criticism, was warm and consistent, through good times and bad.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder