Time to speak for England. Peregrine Worsthorne on why Max Hastings should never have been editor of the high Tory Daily Telegraph and why that paper is now edging towards self-destruction

Editor: an inside story of newspapers

Max Hastings <em>Macmillan, 398pp, £20</em>

ISBN 033390837

Only by first being made aware of just how unsuitable Max Hastings was to occupy the editorial chair of that great high Tory institution, the Daily Telegraph, can we begin to understand the extent of his achievement in remaining in it for a full decade: an achievement the bizarreness of which could be equalled only if the great Dr Leavis had remained successfully in charge of Hello! for ten years. One matter that makes Hastings's survival seem even more amazing (perhaps he will not mind if I reveal it here) is that, believe it or not, he wanted to appoint Robert Fisk, then as now a leading Arab apologist and relentless critic of Israel, to the Daily Telegraph's foreign staff. He could only be dissuaded from doing so by the combined efforts, over breakfast at the Savoy, of Andrew Knight, in those early days the viceroy in London of the Canadian Conrad Black, and the also newly appointed editor of the Sunday Telegraph - who happens to be your reviewer, and who is later compared in this book, a shade ungratefully perhaps, to Genghis Khan.

So how did Hastings, whose ideological naivety rendered him so much more suitable to edit the Independent (where, incidentally, Fisk did indeed end up as Middle East correspondent), manage to survive at the Telegraph so long? This book contains the answer. In one of Black's favourite phrases, Hastings "knew how to drown the kittens", of whom, eventually, I was one. He could inspire fear and respect in that order, and, most crucial of all, knew how to produce a highly professional broadsheet which, to begin with at any rate, made Black - not to mention Andrew Knight, Max Hastings and myself - loads of money. Not that Hastings could ever be quite certain that his commercial value to Black as a competent and energetic professional journalist would always outweigh his political liabilities, and the true fascination of this book lies in its affectionate account of how close-run a thing it often was: never more so than when, shortly after being appointed to the chair, Hastings refused to give his paper's backing to President Reagan's decision to bomb Libya. So far as the Sunday Telegraph was concerned, however, Black's policy of "America, right or wrong", presented no problems, because, as long as the cold war raged, I was quite as much a fellow-traveller of the United States as the proprietor himself.

I should add here that this book holds plenty of interest apart from those bits about Black: particularly those increasingly predictable revelations, included for the purposes of profitable serialisation, in which modern editors unworthily make public their confidential talks with princes and/or princesses, prime ministers and other assorted top people. So we get Hastings's coy accounts of how he flirted with Diana, impatiently listened to the whines and whingeings of Charles and of John Major, and much else besides. Also he has lots of fun and gives the reader lots of fun in his pen portraits of some of his least favourite colleagues. Here he is, for example, on a new recruit to the paper, Simon Heffer:

"I proposed despatching him to Afghanistan for a few weeks with the mujahedin, an assignment I would have sacrificed three fingers for when I was his age. He temporised for a few days, then told me that Afghanistan was not remotely his sort of thing, that Afghan food would have a disastrous effect on his insides . . . I have always felt that Simon's talents would have yielded him greater rewards, had he been willing to test prejudice, an armoury of implacably held opinions, against some contact with the humbler realities of human affairs."

Also not to be missed is his memorably rude and definitive description of that truly tiresome adventuress, Carla Powell, wife of Margaret Thatcher's chief foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell, as a "pantomime dame". I warmed to his contemptuous and well-deserved reference to tabloid journalists. "Red top" and broadsheet reporters no more belong to the same trade, or are pursuing the same objectives, than do abortionists and obstetricians.

Unlike most journalists, Hastings has the endearing habit of recording the disasters quite as prominently as the triumphs. For example, the story of how he mucked up the scoop about the defection of the KGB's Colonel Oleg Gordievsky is given in full. Finally, there is his splendid frankness about money, even drawing our attention to the new penalty that editors must face if they go too far - which he was careful never to do - in defying their proprietors: that of losing valuable share options, which may well be an impecunious journalist's one and only chance in a lifetime, as it was for Max Hastings, of getting out of debt. His style is brisk and brusque throughout, and never fails to refresh.

Nevertheless, at the book's centre is the editor's relationship with his proprietor. On the whole, it is a story that does credit to both, as it does also to Hastings's and my boss before Black came to live in London, Andrew Knight, some of whose advisory and cautionary memos, here quoted at length, are genuine gems of Polonius-like counselling. These can be read in very welcome contrast to Black's rather more menacing rodomontade.

But I fear it is also a story that must raise very serious questions over the continuing propriety of Black's obsessive pro-American partisanship, exercised not only over the two Telegraphs, but also over the Spectator, in the rather changed foreign circumstances of today. For with the cold war over and the new so-called war against terrorism raging, it is by no means so certain that it is anything other than a minor scandal to have these three titles so closely tied to American, and now also to Israeli, coat-tails. Sometimes, when reading yet another Daily Telegraph leader celebrating Bush, or yet another of Lady Black's enragingly narrow-minded and logic-choppingly unpersuasive apologies for Israel (written in the DailyTelegraph under her maiden name, Barbara Amiel), one recalls nostalgically that famous pre-war parliamentary intervention: "Speak for England." In this regard, Max Hastings will, I am sure, have many readers of the Telegraph chuckling in agreement when he writes, mock magisterially: "I am relieved to have relinquished my Telegraph chair before I had to make decisions about the editorial acceptability of publishing Lady Black's formidably fluent and fantastically long articles about Israel, which have become such a feature of the Telegraph in recent times."

In a way, this is where Max and I came in. For it was because no prominent Telegraph insider - certainly not Hastings's predecessor, Dear Bill Deedes - had dared to tell Lord Hartwell, the previous owner, that he had rendered his papers financially insolvent, that Black got his hands on them, and on us, in the first place. And it is now because nobody on the inside seems to be telling Black that his obsessive and out-of-date, pro-American certitudes are rendering the papers' entire political coverage suspect - as if written in another country and in a foreign language - that the titles are once again in danger of self-destruction.

So what are the lessons to be learned? They are twofold: 1) that the present editors should tell Black a few home truths not after their retirement but before, as, from the evidence of this book, Hastings was brave enough to do; and 2) that when defied, Black shows himself to be, as is only right and proper, a paper tiger.

PS: As it happened, the literary editor of the Daily Telegraph invited me to review this book for her. Perhaps she will now be thanking her lucky stars that I was unable to comply!

Peregrine Worsthorne is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 21 October 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?