In May 1985, following a tip-off from Andrew Knight, then editor of The Economist, a series of events led to an entrapment when the young Canadian financier Conrad Black made an investment of ś10 million for a 14 per cent stake in the Daily Telegraph. Previously, the newspaper had been 96.9 per cent owned by the Daily Telegraph Newspaper Trust, which was set up by the Lords Hartwell and Camrose (the Berry family). Then, when the fortunes of the paper slid and the company badly needed a further injection of capital, Black was able, thanks to an option on any issue of new Telegraph shares or any sale of the Berry family shares, to capture a majority shareholding in the Telegraph, at the cost of a further ś20 million. Knight was made the company's chief executive.
Things weren't looking good for the ailing newspaper. The company reported a loss of ś16.3 million in the six months ending 30 September 1985, and although the daily circulation of the Telegraph was almost 1,250,000, it had lost over 300,000 readers in the previous five years. Only 20 per cent of Telegraph readers were under thirty-five. In fact, the paper had the most elderly newspaper readership profile in Fleet Street and there was a marked dislike among younger readers of its old-fashioned layout and approach.
One of the first key decisions made by Black, which was recommended by Knight, was to appoint the forty-year-old Max Hastings to the editorship of the Daily Telegraph. Hastings, then a columnist for the Evening Standard and a feature writer for the Sunday Times, was an unorthodox choice for the position, despite having made something of a name for himself reporting on the Falklands War. Although it seemed an unlikely marriage, Hastings and Black shared an interest in military history, and over the years Black developed a respect for the 6ft 5 inch bespectacled editor. As Black later admitted, Hastings was 'good at drowning kittens'.
I have heard that, if one opened cupboards at the Daily Telegraph when it was at 135 Fleet Street, old journalists fell out. One of the first duties Hastings had to carry out, he realised in terror, was to eliminate almost half the editorial staff. Nevertheless, he settled down to it, and began at the same time hiring young newspaper designers to give the paper a more modern look. He also introduced the unfamiliar notion of editorial budgets.
One of the earliest casualties of the new editor's attempts to cut dead wood from the editorial staff was Carol Thatcher, the Prime Minister's daughter. It was a brave move on Hastings' part, since he knew his proprietor's devotion to Margaret Thatcher and to the Telegraph's position as flagship of the Conservative Party. But he took the plunge and fired her, provoking the wrath of Mrs. Thatcher, who did not speak to him again as long as she was Prime Minister. Surprisingly, Black supported his editor in this difficult situation.
When Hastings asked Bill Deedes, his predecessor, who had spent fifty-five years in the service of the Telegraph, whether he wanted to continue writing for the paper, he said that he did, and told a colleague later, 'Well, old boy, since presumably I must accept some responsibility for the mess this company has got into, it seems to me that the least I can do is to stick around and try to help us get out of it.' Characteristically, he was the only recruit who insisted on accepting a smaller salary than the one Hastings offered.
This book is unflinchingly honest. The author discusses John Major's insecurity, and how it baffled many people that he would display 'such a weakness for the companionship of Jeffrey Archer, an obvious charlatan'. I was interested to read a recent interview with Hastings in the Telegraph, in which he said:
There was this terrible self-pity. Grown-up people, certainly grown-up politicians, don't moan all the timełor if they do, only to their wives and families. Yet, whenever I was with him, John Major complained relentlessly about how hard it all was and how everybody was so horrible to him and nobody could be trusted. I thought it was frankly pathetic for a man in his position. It was almost as bad as listening to the Prince of Wales. Major would have been a lot happier if he'd stuck to bonking Edwina instead of becoming Prime Minister.
Hastings has made other unflattering comments on the Prince of Wales. In a letter to the BBC refusing to present a series on the Monarchy, he made this observation after the 1994 Dimbleby interview: "I don't think this a desirable emotion for the heir to the throne to evoke. Lying on one's back and kicking one's legs in the air like a naughty spaniel does not, in the long term, contribute much to one's own dignity."
On the other hand, Hastings admits that, like other journalists, he found himself unable to keep his distance from the Princess of Wales, who before the divorce was living alone at Kensington Palace and had become "a masterly media lobbyist...she charmed us brilliantly... She took me aback by asking what I knew about a scheme funded by the Canadian gold tycoon Peter Munk of Barrick Miningłan acquaintance of minełto hire the public relations man David Wynne-Morgan, 'to get rid of me at any price.' I answered truthfully that I had never heard of this one. The Princess of Wales added, 'I'm not bitter. I don't want to "win". But I am absolutely determined to see William succeed the Queen. I just don't think Charles should do it.'"
In Editor, Max Hastings tells us what happened to him, and to a great newspaper, between 1986 and 1995. The Telegraph was almost bankrupt when he arrived on the scene and he helped change the paper into one of the best and most profitable on Fleet Street. His frank and vivid memoir tells us what it is really like to be a national newspaper editor, complete with unreserved accounts of successes, failures and embarrassments. This is a gripping book, by one of the most influential journalists of our time. It is difficult not to agree with the author that the attempt to make the Telegraph a generous and inclusive one-nation Conservative newspaper ended when he ceased to be its editor. ņ