Wednesday 22 February 2017

Anthony Howard

Outstanding journalist who blew away the cobwebs, cliches and fawning of political discourse in the 1950s

Published 26/12/2010 | 05:00

Anthony Howard, who died last Sunday aged 76, was one of the outstanding political journalists of the past half-century.

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His work appeared in most national newspapers and in magazines such as the New Statesman and The Listener, both of which he edited with some success.

He appeared regularly on radio and television, where his donnish manner, precise diction, remarkable political recall and somewhat squashed facial features made him a memorable performer.

Many political writers of today probably do not realise the debt they owe to Howard, Henry Fairlie and Bernard Levin, whose pioneering columns in the New Statesman and The Spectator in the late 1950s and early 1960s blew away the cobwebs, cliches and fawning respect which then attached to much political discourse in the press.

Weekly magazines had a more prominent and influential place in journalism than they have today -- so much so that a promising young journalist like Howard readily gave up a two-year attachment to The Manchester Guardian, where he shared an office with Michael Parkinson, in favour of joining the Statesman.

He had appeared in the magazine earlier, during his National Service as a second lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers, when he wrote a series of anonymous columns, heavily critical of the British Army, including an account of his reluctant involvement in the Suez campaign. Their publication caused a minor sensation and almost led to a court martial. A socialist since his school days, he believed that National Service had reinforced Britain's class divisions.

In 1965 he was tempted away to The Sunday Times as its first Whitehall correspondent, in the hope that he could bring the same candour to the reporting of Westminster, but he was quickly defeated by the 'Yes, Minister' culture of secrecy he encountered there.

He became Washington correspondent of The Observer and covered the presidential election of 1968. He had earlier incurred the wrath of the editor, David Astor, when he was found missing from his post without permission -- he was making a television programme in England -- when Lyndon Johnson made the dramatic announcement that he would not be seeking re-election as President.

Howard went back to the New Statesman in 1970 and in 1972 was elected by the staff to succeed Richard Crossman as editor. The magazine, now in decline like all the weeklies, encouraged a generation of young writers that included Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, James Fenton and Francis Wheen.

Among Howard's columnists at the Statesman was Auberon Waugh. In the words of the political journalist Alan Watkins: "He had a high regard for [the editor], not only because Howard ignored threats to cancel subscriptions on Waugh's account but also because he would say things like: 'I think we've heard quite enough about the horrors of the working classes for the time being, Bron. Could you think of some different subject this week?'"

In 1979 Howard moved on to edit The Listener, which was funded by the BBC, remaining in the chair until 1981, a decade before its eventual demise.

Anthony Michell Howard was born on February 12, 1934, the son of Canon Guy Howard and Janet Rymer. In his childhood the family lived in vicarages at Kensington, Epsom and Highgate. He was obsessed by ecclesiastical history, and claimed that his interest in politics was first kindled by the fierce internal Anglican debates around his father's dinner table.

He was educated at Westminster School and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he read jurisprudence and became chairman of the Labour Club and President of the Union. His first job was on the now defunct Sunday paper Reynold's News before moving to The Manchester Guardian. He tried twice at this time, without success, to become a Labour candidate.

Howard developed a parallel career as a broadcaster, introducing The World Tonight and The World This Weekend, and later (1989-92) making frequent appearances on the BBC's Panorama and Newsnight. A self-confessed "news junkie", he would often travel miles while on holiday overseas to pick up a day-old copy of a British newspaper.

In time, however, his orotund style of delivery came to seem a bit old-fashioned, and he was used less as a presenter and more as a commentator, a role in which his amazing memory for the minutiae of postwar politics, especially Labour politics, gave him great authority.

In 1981 he was invited by Donald Trelford to be his deputy at The Observer in place of John Cole, who had moved to the BBC as political editor, and he went on to become obituaries editor at The Times from 1990 to 1999, a job for which his encyclopedic memory and wide range of interests made him eminently suited. He continued the tradition set by John Grigg of pulling no punches against the dear departed. On one occasion he caused controversy by illustrating an obituary of the former Labour minister, Fred Mulley, with a picture of him fast asleep alongside Queen Elizabeth.

Among Howard's publications was The Making of the Prime Minister (with Richard West, 1965), written in the wake of the general election of 1964 which brought Harold Wilson to power.

In retirement Howard wrote three successful biographies: of RA Butler; Richard Crossman; and Cardinal Hume. He also helped his old friend Michael Heseltine with his memoirs.

Anthony Howard, who was appointed CBE in 1997, was a man of great personal kindness. He was also an inveterate gossip who loved nothing better than hearing and talking about the latest moves in politics or journalism.

He married, in 1965, Carol Gaynor, the granddaughter of a Tory MP and a member of the Lloyd banking family. She survives him.

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