Why David Astor was one of the twentieth century’s greatest – and bravest – editors

Jeremy Lewis’s biography reveals the life of the man who made the Observer unique.

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When I joined the Observer as a 23-year-old graduate reporter in 1968, it was seemingly staffed by ageing eccentrics of Dickensian proportions. They included a tantrum-prone political editor who could be heard shouting down the phone at cabinet ministers that everything they were telling her was wrong; a hard-drinking managing editor who often attracted the attentions of the local constabulary by throwing typewriters on to a public highway from a fifth-floor window; a Hungarian who greeted me on Tuesdays with effusive congratulations on “your vunderful story” even if I hadn’t got anything in the previous Sunday’s paper; a letters editor who padded around in carpet slippers and a much-darned cardigan and who reputedly slept in the office on weekday nights; a managing director so anxious about the paper’s finances that he would switch the lights off as reporters struggled to meet deadlines.

And there was David Astor, the editor, whom I did not meet until several weeks ­after I joined the staff and who seemed under the impression that I was a university don. Astor came from a family so fabulously rich that his father received the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan as a wedding present. Astor was both editor and proprietor, groomed by his father for those roles from his twenties. His mother, described by the author of this biography as “small, noisy and overpowering”, was Nancy Astor, who in 1919 became the first woman to sit as an MP. Thanks to her, he would say, he had to visit a psychoanalyst daily on his way to work. He often recommended similar sessions to troubled employees, sometimes offering to pay.

Astor was almost a caricature of the hand-wringing upper-class liberal, agonising over oppressed groups worldwide. On matters closer to home, he seemed far less liberal and often uninterested. He didn’t like trade unions, regarded women’s “libbers” as “misery-makers” and was baffled by youthful protests against the Vietnam War. He had so little understanding of how most Britons lived that he once asked what a mortgage was and, on hearing the details, expressed pained incredulity that most of his staff were in debt – a story I would have thought apocryphal had I not heard a first-hand account just an hour later.

Yet it was hard to dislike Astor: as a ­former Observer deputy editor put it, you couldn’t work for him “without realising that the essential feature of his character was an almost simple goodness”, combined with “intense moral earnestness”. It was also hard, once I learned more about him, not to admire the man. By 1968, he was at the fag end of a glittering career, short of funds and ideas to fight his resurgent rival, the Sunday Times. But he had been one of the century’s greatest and bravest editors, who made the post-1945 Observer into compulsory reading for Britain’s serious-minded middle-class young.

He backed independence for African countries and opposed apartheid long before these became popular causes (Nelson Mandela thanked him “for all your paper has done for our people”), despite the fierce opposition of his mother who, when Astor introduced her to the Observer’s Africa editor, said: “So this is the man you have hired to turn our paper into a coon gazette?” He opposed capital punishment, censorship, and laws prohibiting homosexuality; invented the weekly profile, which became a standard feature of upmarket Sunday papers; published George Orwell, Arthur Koestler and Kenneth Tynan, who, almost alone among theatre critics, recognised the significance of John Osborne and other emerging playwrights of the late 1950s.

In what many thought his finest hour, he opposed Anthony Eden’s 1956 invasion of Egypt in withering terms: “We had not realised that our government was capable of such folly and such crookedness.” Contrary to myth, the paper’s circulation rose. The problem was that it lost older readers for younger readers, who had less money and were therefore less attractive to advertisers, some of whom boycotted what they considered an unpatriotic paper.

A few years later, the Sunday Times had a clear circulation lead, returning decent profits while the Observer was loss-making. Astor wasn’t interested in profits. What mattered, he thought, was influence and moral integrity.

Astor retired in 1975 and, within a few years, the Observer was sold to an American conglomerate before it eventually found what was perhaps its natural home as the Guardian’s stablemate. He devoted the rest of his life – and much of his money – to causes as diverse as organic farming, battered wives, medieval archaeology and Amnesty International.

Written with the co-operation of Astor’s wife and children, this book has some of the weaknesses of an official biography: a certain reticence about its subject’s private life and two rather tedious final chapters about his favourite good causes. But Jeremy Lewis brilliantly analyses the extraordinary family background and Astor’s own personality and manner, “a very English combination of modesty, diffidence and self-deprecation combined with a steely determination”. The book is at its best when it describes the Observer under his leadership, a place where, as one senior editor said, “every decision was discussed, interminably, by everyone”. Astor’s Observer was unique and I was lucky to experience even its dying embers. 

David Astor: a Life in Print by Jeremy Lewis is published by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £25)

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.