Bill Deedes 1913-2007

It’s the unanimity and, I’d suggest, sincerity that mark the tributes to the grand old man of journalism, Bill Deedes, who has just died at the age of 94, as well as the breadth of sources. Richard Ingrams and, also in the Guardian, Roy Hattersley amongst them. Born in 1913 he joined the Morning Post as a cub reporter at the age of 16 and filed his last column for the Daily Telegraph on 3rd August 2007. In between he had served in the Second World War, earning a Military Cross, was elected Conservative MP for Ashford in 1950 and in 1962 served in Harold MacMillan’s cabinet briefly, edited the Daily Telegraph from 1974-86, was made a life peer in 1986 and in 1999 was knighted for his services to journalism. In 2001 he wrote an article about his then-70 years in journalism. The Telegraph’s former foreign editor, Stephen Robinson, has been writing an authorised biography and adds his thoughts on Bill Deedes here

“The point about Bill Deedes was not that he lived to the splendid age of 94, but that he just kept on and on working, discovering and revealing to the very end. He took with him to Luanda exactly the same enthusiasm and journalistic curiosity which had fired him up 62 years earlier when he arrived in Addis with his vast mass of luggage. His only fear in the last couple of years of his life, as he became immobile and therefore unable to report at first hand, was that he would become an old bore to his readers. His true greatness as a journalist was that he never did.”


  • Suilven

    Not sure the merciless lampooners at Private Eye would agree with the bit about him not becoming an old bore, mind!

  • Pete Baker

    Like Richard Ingrams, Suilven?

    I’m sure, however, the lampooning will not abate.

  • Harry Flashman

    I’m not sure you would describe the lampooning in PE as ‘merciless’, it was more affectionate I thought, as in ‘Dear Bill’ and “shome mishtake shurely [ed]” but then I haven’t read Private Eye since I graduated almost twenty years ago.

  • Rory

    It is best to remember that Ingrams and Wells were minor public school boys whose attempt to compensate for their sense of class imposed inferiority and the tyranny of older boy status from their own school memory found release by the method of lampoon, which was a safe acceptable method of what passed for youth rebellion within their ranks. Rather as young boys who helplessly guffawed at dinner when the bishop let off what he hoped was a silent stinker were sent off with stern admonishment to their rooms for propriety’s sake. But, after, the adults first smiled, then giggled and then, led first by the bishop, laughed themselves silly as they had never done since the innocence of chidhood, all weary, weighty matters of state and danger to profit dispelled.

    Deedes was of course an Etonian and embodied all the charm and easy grace that is such a hallmark of that institution to mask the steely ice cold ruthlessness within.

    To say that is to speak of the nature of Eton and its purpose in steeling the youth of the British ruling class to defend all their class have taken, all that they hold and all that is yet to be taken. It is not to deny Bill Deedes his own natural grace and courage (as evidenced by his award of a Military Cross in WWII).

    He was not a ranting Tory of that brand much advanced during the Thatcher years and served under that modern Tory, Harold MacMillan, the Prime Minister most aware of the absolute necessity within a capitalist society of meeting social needs.

    But yet he remained a Tory and never deviated from his class line.

    If it could be said of me, upon my death, that I neither deviated from my class line, I should be happy to think that that might be so.

    Insofar as he was a class enemy, Bill Deedes was a charming, articulate, witty, forgiving and often lovable enemy. The highest compliment an old red like me can pay him is that precisely because of all his recognisably good human qualities he was slippery and more treacherous than a scorpion and much more dangerous than the fleck mouthed pit bulls of the more extreme right who are after all the mere minions of the Etonian charmers.

    And he will be able to smile down from Tory heaven and read all the postmortem hagiography and say, “See the old charm’s still working”.

    And indeed, Bill, so it is.

  • USA

    Even though I have never heard of Mr Deedes i’m sure he was a great guy and i’m sure the London Times, Telegraph and other British papers will cover his passing.
    But what exactly does this post have to do with “Sluggerotoole – Notes on Northern Ireland politics and culture”?

  • Eddie

    Maybe Bill Deedes’ death has been noted because, despite our image, we do take a wider interest in affairs than people in the USA, where, I am told 90 per cent of the population don’t possess a passport and have never been out of the country.

  • Eddie

    Also because Deedes was a British editor, politican, commentator, connected to the Establishment – in other words one of those people whose views, writings, spheres of influences, contacts etc. could possibly affect the direction of events in Northern Ireland. Does that answer your question, USA?

  • Ahem

    A *fantastic* rant by Rory about Bill’s evil OE qualities, spoiled only by the fact that as Deedes was in fact an old Harrovian, he’d be turning in his grave, were he in it yet, at the thought of being called a Sloughite.

  • joeCanuck

    Haven’t seen him on TV for over 25 years but, even though I was slightly red, I always enjoyed watching and listening to him

  • mick hall


    I agree with every thing you wrote, especially the bit about BD class line etc. I agree with your point about the charm 😉 of these Harrow-Eton types. It is an education in itself to spend time in such company, as if you keep your class antenna working, you come to understand perfectly how this type of person stole India etc.

    Having said this I thought BD was a great columnist, especially in his latter years when he stirred clear of party politics. By anyones standards he had an eventful life.

    By the way I thought Ingram like Paul Foot went to Charterhouse, as far as toff’s are concerned is that considered minor, I doubt it? I feel this quote by Mathew Arnold sums up the damage private schools do and he should know.

    “On one side inequality harms by pampering, on the other by depressing.”

  • Rory

    Harrow not Eton then, Ahem.

    My mishtake shurely?

  • The Dubliner

    He may not have helped to dispel the myth that the English have bad teeth, but he was an example of the great post war journalists that England produced. Journalism is a much diminished profession nowadays, being little more than a mundane career option.

  • Rory

    Graet British post war journalists were few and far between, Dubliner and that very short list is unquestionably led by the late James Cameron.

    But not even his greatest friends and supporters would attempt to claim, with any hope of being believed, that Bill Deedes was among them. Such a claim would have embarrased him will alive but as a good, competent journalist of long experience he no doubt would not be surprised at the overblown hagiograpy that inevitably follows in the wake of the death of an old survivor – which is his real claim to fame.

  • Rory

    Apologies for misspellings above. “embarrassed” and “while“(alive) are the appropriate corrections.

    That’s the trouble when editors pop off and leave you to do it all yourself.

  • Dewi

    I think Paul Foot went to a school in Shrewsbury…not that i give a shit !

  • DK

    From BBC: “Young William was educated at Harrow School, but the Wall Street Crash of 1929 wiped out the family fortune and ended any hopes of Deedes entering university.”

    Does this mean that he became a class ally instead of a class enemy? Or is such crass stereotyping purely the reserve of socialist worker types?

  • Ahem

    Bill Deedes *not* a great? Never mind being the *only* man to edit a paer *and* sit in the cabinet, he was the inspiration for William Boot for pity’s sake! None so purblind . . .

  • Harry Flashman

    **Bill Deedes *not* a great? Never mind being the *only* man to edit a paer *and* sit in the cabinet, he was the inspiration for William Boot for pity’s sake! None so purblind . . .**

    I’m with you not only was he inspiration for Waugh’s Boot he was also the inspiration for another semi-fictional satirical character “Dear Bill”. Bill Deedes was a cabinet minister, an author, a newspaper editor, a tireless advocate for charity and friend and confidant of prime ministers, journalists and even a princess, oh and by the way he won a Military Cross for his bravery while fighting the Nazis.

    But “great” heavens no, not like that bloke that ran a disco in Manchester who died a week or so back, according to posters on Slugger that fella was a “genius”!

    Strange times in which we live.

  • Rory

    Having a novel and a column in a satirical journal based upon one’s character is notable and, as I have already recognised, being awarded an M.C. for bravery is commendable; and holding the editorship of a national newspaper for some years shows ability in that arena but none of these attributes makes one a great journalist – a great character, yes, a good soldier, yes and an efficient and competent editor also yes. But none of this at all suggests any journalistic greatness.

    For all his legendary horsemanship we do not suggest that Lester Piggot was a great show jumper.

    No cigar for journalism, I’m afraid, and not even close.

  • Ahem

    Ah well, I see it clearly now that Rory has opined. Just how wrong could all those know-nothings be, at the BBC, and the Times, and the Guardian, and indeed in all those other bits of the universe less well qualified than Rory to pronounce on who was, and who was not a ‘great journalist’? (No Dogs, Irish-related, or seminal fictional archetypes of the C20th need apply here).

  • Rory

    If you are happy to believe that Deedes was a great journalist, Ahem, then I am happy for you. If people enjoy a good Jeffry Archer read then who am I to discourage them? Everyone must be allowed to find their own level of comfort.

  • USA

    I thought this comment from Laura Brown was quite appropriate:

    “the mere act of travelling to another country does not necessarily make one any less ignorant, provincial, etc. While the British do travel abroad quite often, many of them just want to go clubbing, stock up on cheap booze or stay in beach resorts populated entirely by other British tourists. By contrast, an American who has planned for a trip to Spain is probably intending to SEE Spain, not to kill as many brain cells as possible in Ibiza.
    Americans can indeed spend a lifetime travelling around their own huge country — but I think the British could as well, if they wanted to. Britain packs a startling amount of cultural and linguistic diversity into a small space, but it seems that its citizens are not taught to take pride in this or to explore it. (Londoners, in particular, often seem to know nothing about British culture beyond Hertfordshire or Kent.) Therefore, unlike Americans, the British do not quite regard travel within their own country as being “real” travel.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that both cultures are equally ignorant! Seriously, having lived in both countries, I find that the ratio of smart people to stupid people, sophisticated people to unsophisticated people, etc., is pretty much the same. I suspect this would hold true in just about any country. Not very interesting, but there you are.”

  • USA

    Also having “lived in both countries” I agree with Laura. I also dispute your random claim that 90% of Americans do not have a passport.
    FYI, our two neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico have not required Americans to carry passports in the past. Finally, the US is a big country, you can board a plane on the East coast, fly for six hours west and still be in the US ie New York to LA. I have also travelled to the carribean, San Juan etc where again we were not required to have a passport. Same for US Virgin Islands and many other caribbean (sp?) islands – Hawaii (very popular vacation spot for US citizens) Alaska – the list goes on.
    Before the EU Europeans would have had a much greater need for passports than Americans.
    Does all that help broaden YOUR world view Eddie?