Staying ahead of the times

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If newspaper leader writers speak the same way they write, William Rees-Mogg is the perfect example. Perfunctory and to the point. An outrageously well-formed vocabulary. Hideously grammatical.

Now a life peer in his 80s, Lord Rees-Mogg was Editor of The Times when the print unions forced it to close temporarily. He has seen British politics and media at their most turbulent. And, of course, the slippery relations between them.

He recounts all this in his Memoirs, which describe 80 years from Charterhouse to Fleet Street, via Oxford. Nothing abnormal about that route. His entertaining, prose chronicles drinking whisky with a notorious PM (or avoiding drinking it, while the minister got increasingly drunk) and his distaste for the BBC.

Rees-Mogg recalls anecdotes of Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch at Oxford – his contemporaries in the 1940s.  Talk about the power years.  The first time he encountered Murdoch was walking down Turl Street, where the future News Corp boss told him he was considering buying Cherwell. Murdoch invited Rees-Mogg to join him in the bid. He turned it down. Murdoch didn’t buy Cherwell. But Rees-Mogg said it was an offer “he probably should not have turned down”.

He was the archetypal hack – and they haven’t much changed since then. Both OUCA and Union President, he worked his way up the ladder. He speaks fondly of Margaret Thatcher and how he had to turn down her offer of the meetings secretary role when he was sent away to do national service:

“She was the first woman president of OUCA, which was then elected by the executive committee but not by general members.

“She made me meetings secretary, but then I had to go and tell her that as my college wanted me to go down for two years I wouldn’t be able to take the job!”

He didn’t get on at his college, citing political differences. “Balliol was at that time very political…the College had a strong relatively left wing political image. And it was a time of Labour plans…the 1945 general election. I didn’t agree with that. And I found that the Balliol stance was not one that I found attractive at that time.”

It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone who now has a column for the Mail on Sunday rejoicing in even mildly left-wing JCR meetings.

He was the archetypal hack – they haven’t changed much since the 1940s

When he graduated, Rees-Mogg trod the line between politics and journalism, but stuck with writing, and worked his way up to some of the most prized editorships on Fleet Street.

“I’d been the chief leader writer of the FT, I’d started up a daily column for the FT, not very successfully but still I had done it, and I’d been Deputy Editor of The Sunday Times, so with that and other things I had enough to take the editorship of the paper.”

He brought youth to The Times, which “needed to modernise itself,” and introduced personal bylines:  “I thought it would produce better, more interesting stories”.

At the end of the 70s, trade union power took its toll, and The Times was forced to close for a year. How on earth do you edit a paper, which, er, doesn’t actually go to print?

“It was impossible to conduct a successful newspaper under those circumstances, editorially or commercially….All my energies producing a good newspaper were being redirected to the unions.”

Ousting the print unions is the reason Rees-Mogg cites for why the British press didn’t collapse in on itself there and then.

“The creation of new newspapers – The Independent, the Independent on Sunday – was only made possible because the union power had been broken and from then on although the commercial circumstances are difficult, it is not nearly as difficult as they were in the 1970s.”

He is vocal in his criticism of the BBC, where he was vice-chairman of the board of governors until 1986. It’s obvious he found the job tiresome.

“The BBC now is a sort of dinosaur of the age when public ownership seemed to be a reasonable way of broadcasting.

“The BBC has a very strong idea [one of those long pauses]…of what the BBC ought to think and that idea is similar to political correctness and I think it is difficult to change a culture particularly when it has been consistent.”

Turning down Maggie Thatcher’s OUCA offer doesn’t seem to have hurt him too much.

Memoirs by Lord Rees-Mogg is published by HarperCollins

PHOTO/Times Newspapers Ltd