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Adieu Peter Preston

He would have joined the flock of journalists from all over the world coming this year for the World Congress and General Assembly of the International Press Institute (IPI) taking place in Nigeria for the first time. 

But Peter Preston, who for 20 years edited The Guardian (UK) and played a key role in redesigning and totally repackaging this quality broadsheet, incorporating a special tabloid education section, won’t be here.  He died last week on January 6, aged 79.  He probably would have celebrated his 80th birthday right here in Nigeria.

Brave Peter Preston lived a heroic life in which he did not allow his disability and handicap to defeat him.  His father died of polio and he in turn was afflicted with polio at age 10.   In spite of the polio, he struggled through life to make his mark in journalism to the point where he was listed among the most outstanding British journalists of all times along with the legendary Sir Harold Evans.  Preston is one of the iconic editors featured in the book, 50 WORLD EDITORS—Conversations with Journalism Masters on Trends and Best Practices by Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe.  We met him in one of the IPI World Congresses, in Vienna or so.  And for 90 minutes, he poured his heart out on his journalism odyssey.  Excerpts from the book:

“When I was a small boy, I was very ill, I had paralysis.  And when I began to recover, the only thing I could do was to write.  So I began to write for local newspapers and magazines in my hometown.  When I got to the university, I edited the university newspaper there.  Then I went to work for a newspaper in Liverpool and did everything and then moved to The Guardian.  It was a natural transition, if you see what I mean.  I found what I could do, because it was the only thing I could do.  When I joined The Guardian in 1963, I joined first as a reporter, then was a political correspondent, an education correspondent, a foreign correspondent, a diarist, gossip columnist; I was features editor, then I was night editor—the person who put the paper to bed at night and brought it out.  So I did everything really.

The Guardian was founded in Manchester at a time when the people in Manchester felt that all sides of the story were not being properly given.  It is an independent paper.  It is owned by something called the Scott Trust, which means it has no conventional proprietor.  It is owned by a trust which looks after itself and owns the paper.  We sell about 400,000 copies every day. 

“The most legendary editor of course was C.P. Trust.  He was editor for 58 years.  He had the small advantage that he owned the paper at the time.  He was one of the great figures of British journalism.  He was one of the people who fought for and advocated the right of the Israeli people to form their own country.  The paper used to be called Manchester Guardian and that was in Manchester.  It was a paper with a world reputation but not a paper based in London.  He was, I supposed, the greatest editor or the one that everybody knows.  But my predecessor, Alastair Hetherington, editor for 20 years, was the editor who brought The Guardian to London and made it a full national paper.  And my successor now, Alan Rusbridger, is one of the best regarded editors in Britain.  One of the interesting things about The Guardian is that unlike quite a lot of papers—and this may be just luck—we tend to not change editors very often.  I became editor when I was 36.  In my time, we completely redesigned and reordered the paper.  If you know the paper and look at it today, then it was utterly transformed.  The masthead, the types, the organization, everything about it changed and I am sure it would change again in the future.  But I don’t like newspapers which seem to be stock in the rut.  Your readership changes and a younger readership expect to change and move on.”

Acquiring the Observer

Exactly 20 years as editor, Preston resigned and was moved up as editor-in-chief.  His biggest move was the acquisition of The Observer, a suffering newspaper owned by Tiny Rowland of Lonrho, which Preston believed could be rescued and turned into an asset for The Guardian.  But it didn’t work out that way.  The unwritten law of newspaper marketing didn’t favour two newspapers on the same stable and ownership. 

“We bought it because we believe it’s over 200 years old and it had a fine tradition,” Preston told us.  “But as we all know, putting together two papers which have never been together in the same building and trying to make some economies of scale and trying to persuade the good people to work together, all of these things take time.  What I was doing was a difficult thing, which was trying to bring two papers with different traditions together and make them operate as a whole.  And I think you could say 10 years later, it was a long hard road.”     

Preston loved football a lot.  Most of his analogies were drawn from the field of play.  Piers Morgan had just been fired as we talked and Abramovich was already threatening to chop off Jose Mourinho’s head.  Preston likened journalism to football, saying the job of an editor is as risky as that of a football manager.  He preferred the Arsenal-Arsene Wenger model to the unstable Chelsea model under Abramovich.  “Suddenly chopping and changing all the time as opposed to developing very rarely brings any benefit,” he said.  “And just as with football management in a sense, you can say, look at Chelsea this season.  My assumption is that great football teams only develop over four or five years of settling.  And I think you would look at Arsenal and say that they know each other, they know the style they are playing, they know the manager and they are settled.”

He would have joined the flock of journalists flying down to Nigeria this year but old Peter Preston has sadly flown away, never to come back again.  May his soul rest in peace.   

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