Tough press boss known for brutality – and effectiveness

Jocelyn Stevens: February 14th, 1932 - October 9th, 2014

Sir Jocelyn Stevens, with his wife, Emma. Photograph: Getty Images

Sir Jocelyn Stevens, with his wife, Emma. Photograph: Getty Images


Sir Jocelyn Stevens, who has died aged 82, was perhaps the last of the old-style Fleet Street bosses, revelling in a reputation for brusqueness and bullying during the chaotic and corrupt final days of boozy incompetence and print union power, before the publishing revolution of the late 1980s set in.

His management style was later employed in cutting a swathe through the Royal College of Art and English Heritage, reducing staffing and duplication of positions to secure the financial security of both institutions.

Stories about his ruthlessness abounded: a fashion writer’s filing cabinet pushed out of a fourth-floor window, a typewriter thrown in fury through a plate-glass partition, a telephone cable snipped through with scissors when an underling was inconveniently speaking on the phone and a secretary sacked over the office address system. “Most of the stories you hear are true. You have to make enemies,” he said.

Private Eye nicknamed him Piranha Teeth because of his grin. It was said that he could be charming, but those subjected to his rages, or whose employment was roughly dispensed with, doubtless did not find him so. “Thought and reflection are not his thing,” said a colleague at the RCA. “He believes you get the best out of people by shouting at them.”

Life of luxury

As a child he was attended by a succession of nannies, a maid, a cook, a priest and a chauffeur to ferry him around, dressed in white satin, in a Rolls-Royce. He went to Eton and then, after national service, to Cambridge University, from which he was expelled after taking time off to go skiing and sending his tutor a postcard saying “Wish you were here”.

He went into the family business, studying at the London College of Printing before working as a journalist on the Hulton magazine Lilliput. Then, having inherited £750,000 from his mother on his 25th birthday, he bought the ailing magazine Queen. He was also an early investor in the pirate station Radio Caroline.

He revived Queen’s fortunes with the help of his friends Mark Boxer, the cartoonist, and Antony Armstrong-Jones, the society photographer who was shortly to marry Princess Margaret, in whose circle Stevens moved as a one-time escort of Queen Elizabeth’s cousin Princess Alexandra.

Biting the carpet

Evening Standard

In 1972 he was made managing director of the Daily Express, then starting its downward circulation spiral, losing readers and going through six editors in a decade. Stevens’s solution was to cut staff – the closure of a printing plant in Glasgow cost nearly 2,000 jobs – and to tighten expenditure.

But after the Express was bought up by the business conglomerate Trafalgar House, he fell out spectacularly with its bullish and somewhat obtuse chairman, Victor Matthews, who sacked him in 1981. He and Matthews had launched the Express’s downmarket sister paper, the Daily Star, but he objected to the group’s attempt to massage profit figures in advance of a prospective sale. He hoped to hive off the Standard and buy it himself, but was unable to afford it.

Stevens’s next career move was a surprise. In 1984, the Thatcher government invited him to become rector of the Royal College of Art, although he had no background in culture. The brief was, as he put it, to put a fox in the chicken coop; soon professors were being sacked wholesale and cartoons of Stevens as Hitler were appearing on noticeboards.

In eight years, the college’s 17 departments were reduced to four, and half the academic staff left – but student applications rose, the budget was balanced and £20 million found for new facilities. “A master’s degree student who can only find a job as a waitress is a failure on our part because we’ve wasted that person’s time and taxpayers’ money,” Stevens declared.

Effective champion

His last project, still to be completed, was the protection and restoration of Stonehenge, particularly shielding it from the neighbouring trunk roads by means of tunnels. He was knighted in 1996.

Stevens is survived by his widow, Emma (née Tennant), and by a son, Charles, and by two daughters, Pandora and Melinda, from an earlier marriage.