Failing upwards

<strong>The Remarkable Lives of Bill Deedes</strong>

Stephen Robinson <em>Little, Brown, 480pp, £

As the Queen Mother and Tony Benn have shown, the best way to be revered in Britain and achieve the status of "national treasure" is to become very old. Bill Deedes died last year at 94, still writing a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. Until a few years earlier, he went on frequent foreign assignments, many of them to war zones. He was knighted on top of his life peerage, and sealed his celebrity by being featured on This Is Your Life and Desert Island Discs.

Nobody could have predicted such a golden autumn when he left the Telegraph editorship at 72. As this somewhat sardonic biography shows, Deedes's life until then was one of mediocrity and failure, relieved only by a wartime MC awarded for undeniable courage in running across an exposed bridge to save a young lieutenant. He became a cabinet minister and newspaper editor only because of his reputation as an amiable, malleable sort of chap from the right class background.

As minister of information, he was possibly the worst spin doctor in history, dithering in effectually as Harold Macmillan's government unravelled and doing nothing to head off the damage caused by the Profumo affair, partly because he was apparently the only man in London who hadn't heard rumours about the war minister's extramarital pursuits. He became an editor by behaving, as his colleague the late Frank Johnson said, like "an oleaginous creep". His previous journalistic career had reached the dizzying heights of assistant editor of Peterborough, the Telegraph's notoriously dull diary, and writer of opinion pieces that expressed uninteresting and unoriginal opinions.

While he occupied the editor's chair, the paper declined in esteem, circulation and solvency until it was perilously close to bankruptcy. This wasn't mainly Deedes's fault - he had no role in the Telegraph's financial affairs or even, under the paper's peculiar editorial structure, in its news coverage - but, as he did in government office, he just bumbled along with the tide of events, afraid to confront either bosses or colleagues. Even his gerontocratic eminence owed as much to his semi-fictional role as the recipient of Private Eye's spoof "Dear Bill" letters (supposedly written by Denis Thatcher) as to his own efforts.

Authorised biographies written soon after the subject's death rarely show all the warts, largely because of family sensitivities. Stephen Robinson, a former Telegraph colleague, had no problems on that score, because Deedes's four surviving children believed they and their late mother had been treated abominably.

Fatherhood was perhaps his greatest failure of all. He was rarely at home with his children and he rarely showed any affection or even interest in them, even though he forked out school fees and presumably (since, for example, his son became the Telegraph's chief executive) gave them a leg-up in their careers, though this is one matter on which Robinson is silent. When Deedes became infatuated with Victoria Combe, a young, blonde reporter who accompanied him on overseas stories, his wife of 55 years walked out, though there was no divorce or formal separation and no suggestion of what people used to call impropriety.

In this respect and others, Deedes behaved no worse than many, perhaps most, other members of his trade. One reason why journalists liked him was that, despite being a bit of a snob, he was always one of the boys. He loved boozing and lunching with colleagues and was entirely without side or pomposity. Even when afflicted by a stroke in India and later by a broken femur at home in Kent, he refused a private hospital room. His views were mostly reactionary - he favoured capital and corporal punishment, support for the white regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, and keeping homosexuality illegal - but he was a "one-nation" Tory who had little time for Thatcherism. Being Deedes, however, he might have changed his tune if his proprietor Lord Hartwell, who disliked Margaret Thatcher, had told him to do so.

Robinson's beautifully written biography is especially good at evoking the atmosphere of a lost Fleet Street world where printers stopped papers on a whim and journalists rarely went home sober, if at all. But you will not fully understand its subject unless you grasp that Deedes, typically for a journalist, was an insecure egotist. Egotism led him to continue working to the end, still thrilled by seeing his prose in print. Insecurity made him always afraid of the sack. He was aware that the Barclay brothers, the Telegraph's latest owners, and their henchmen ("a stinking mob", he confided to his diary) wanted him, in his own words, "as a somewhat shabby mascot" to reassure older readers that nothing had really changed as the paper transmogrified into a slightly more genteel version of the Daily Mail. He offered no protest, however, against either the changes to the paper or the sometimes brutal dismissal of long-standing colleagues. It was the last failure of a mostly undistinguished life.

As his fellow MP and fellow lunch enthusiast Ian Gilmour said: "He was just a delightful chap to sit next to, really."

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back