From one Statesman to another: Peter Wilby on John Freeman

Former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby reviews a new biography of John Freeman.

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A Very Private Celebrity: the Nine Lives of John Freeman
Hugh Purcell
Robson Press, 368pp, £25

John Freeman – an imposing, erect man, six feet two inches tall and “dishy”, according to one female journalist – was a Labour minister who could have become prime ­minister, a New Statesman editor who could have become editor of the Times, a TV interviewer who could have become as famous and as rich as David Frost. He was many other things: an advertising copywriter, a major during the Second World War, a British ambassador to Washington, a television mogul and a university professor. He did not fail in any of those roles; the Daily Telegraph described him as “one of those rare men of parts who seem to be able to do anything better than anybody else”.

For his army service, though he claimed to have had “a completely undistinguished war”, he won an MBE and the Croix de guerre. In his BBC Face to Face interviews in the late 1950s, where his subjects included Carl Jung (the only TV interview Jung ever gave), Bertrand Russell, Martin Luther King, Evelyn Waugh and John Osborne, he laid one of the foundation stones of modern TV. As chairman and managing director of London Weekend Television for 13 years from 1971, he turned a struggling company into one of the stars of British broadcasting and even kept Rupert Murdoch, a shareholder and director, in his place.

Freeman’s habit was to close the door on each chapter in his life – including marriages, of which he had four, and love affairs, which involved Edna O’Brien, Barbara Castle and Billie Holliday, among others – and refuse even to discuss, still less regret, the past. He followed this practice to the end. After leaving his last job at 75, he retired to suburban London with his fourth wife, posing as “an ordinary bloke” who played bowls and shopped at Sainsbury’s. At 97, he moved into an ex-servicemen’s care home, telling visitors that he wished people would forget he was still alive. He died in December 2014, two months short of his 100th birthday. He left no papers, no diaries and no memoirs.

Hugh Purcell, without any co-operation from the subject, has tried to make sense of this extraordinary life – or, rather, “nine lives”. The result is an absorbing, beautifully written biography. At the end of it, Freeman remains, to use the word most commonly applied to him, an enigma. Purcell confesses that “just when you think you understand the man . . . you discover a contradiction”. He quotes one colleague describing Freeman as “glacial and emotionally absent”. He quotes others who recall warmth, humour, friendship and personal kindness. Almost everyone whom Purcell consulted agrees that Freeman was without personal ambition, yet he apparently schemed to ­secure the editorship of the NS. He was, by all accounts, a good husband and father, yet he left two wives abruptly, describing one of them as “a joke”.

He started as a principled leftist who resigned with Aneurin Bevan from the Labour government in 1951 over the National Health Service being cut to increase spending on rearmament for the Korean war. As Labour moved to the right under the influence of Hugh Gaitskell and his supporters, he insisted that it was “a party held together by a belief in socialist economics and socialist ethics” and wrote that “I would rather lose an election than betray the hopes of Labour supporters”, views that would put him slightly to the left of Jeremy Corbyn in this year’s leadership contest. Yet he became firm friends with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in late-1960s Washington, he was an uncompromising opponent of trade unions at LWT in the 1970s, and in the 1980s he so enjoyed the libertarian climate of California, where he was a professor, that he nearly became an American citizen.

Almost everyone who knew Freeman was baffled by the way in which, as a former colleague put it, he put up the shutters on his personal life and thoughts like a shopkeeper during riots. His oddly secretive behaviour began early in life when, after being head of house at Westminster public school, he took away the ledger that was normally left for the successor and refused to return it for five years. He told friends he had wasted his time at Oxford on drink and girls, never mentioning that he edited Cherwell. Some thought he was a Soviet spy or a British double agent. However, though many 1950s journalists received payments from the security services, there is hardly any evidence that Freeman was one of them. Purcell suggests that “a loveless and lonely childhood” – his father, a successful barrister, discouraged closeness – made him into a social psychopath. But this is not terribly convincing either.

Perhaps Freeman was simply an extreme example of the reticence that was normal in England among his generation and class. He had little ego and little interest in becoming rich. His main aim was, like an army staff officer, to do a decent job, whether he was running a military brigade, a government department, a small weekly magazine, an embassy or a TV company. He did not invent or pursue grandiose schemes and he never bothered about his historical legacy. He owned and loved cats but didn’t write about them. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, such behaviour seems perverse. But Freeman was born in 1915, when the Victorian era was scarcely over.

As L P Hartley observed, the past is a foreign country: they did things differently there – and Freeman carried on doing things differently into the 21st century. 

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 appears in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war