Guardian editor was an innovative liberal with a popular touch

Peter Preston obituary: Born May 23rd, 1938 – Died January 6th, 2018

 Peter Preston: his  management style  often  left underlings  wondering what precisely he had meant.   Photograph: PA Wire

Peter Preston: his management style often left underlings wondering what precisely he had meant. Photograph: PA Wire

 

Peter Preston, who has died aged 79, was an outstanding editor of the Guardian newspaper. He was at the helm for 20 years, from 1975 to 1995, during which time he was also variously, and simultaneously, chairman of the Guardian board, as well as the board of its parent company, then known as the Guardian Media Group (GMG).

The group had interests in television, radio, local newspapers and – the great cash cow – Auto Trader, a magazine stuffed with classified advertising for cars. It was a revenue spinner that kept the Guardian afloat as the fortunes of the group’s other giver, the Manchester Evening News, waned.

He was a member of the Scott Trust, the newspaper’s proprietor, and for a time at the back end of his management career was also editor-in-chief of both the Guardian and the Observer.

After retiring as editor, he became a columnist for both the Guardian and Observer, and filed his final commentary for the Sunday newspaper for publication on New Year’s Eve.

Preston could infuriate those who worked with him, but few if any did not respect him, and many developed an affection for him that bordered on love.

He was renowned for his Delphic comments and a management style that often left underlings flummoxed (a word he would have liked) and wondering what precisely he had meant. Those expert at reading Preston believed he took a certain enjoyment from leaving others pondering his intentions.

Management style

It was a management style that occasionally relied on the philosophy that problems had a tendency to go away if simply left alone. When it came to issues between colleagues, however, this somewhat detached approach could lead to matters deteriorating further.

Preston was born in Barrow upon Soar in 1938, and grew up in Leicestershire in the English midlands. He was aged 10 when tragedy struck the family: his father John was killed by polio and Peter simultaneously contracted the crippling disease and almost died.

Though he survived, and would hate to see it written, the damage inflicted on him had a defining impact on his life. His arms were never fully functioning but, more significantly and positively, Preston developed a ferocious determination that he would not, in truth, be defined by what polio had done to him. He would not let it make him in any meaningful way less able. Thus was born a great capacity to strive and to overcome.

Despite losing two years of secondary schooling, he made it to Oxford (St John’s College), where he became editor of Cherwell, the student newspaper, and, on graduation, became a trainee on the Liverpool Post.

In 1963, he joined the Guardian the year before it moved to London. In the 12 years before becoming editor, he earned the respect and admiration of colleagues as an innovator with a popular touch.

He succeeded the slightly clubbable, even donnish, Alastair Hetherington ahead of John Cole, the Guardian’s Northern Ireland-born deputy editor (and later BBC political editor) who was the choice of management. But Preston was the choice of his colleagues, and became the first editor of a UK national newspaper to be appointed, in effect, through election by his fellow journalists.

Preston immediately set about broadening the paper’s appeal by designing out visual stuffiness and including subjects hitherto eschewed. He introduced a lightness of touch where appropriate; the Guardian’s BP1 story, the bottom of the front page “funny”, was born.

Preston was not unserious, however – quite the opposite – but he was endlessly fascinated by people and by life’s twists and turns. He consumed politics voraciously, and devoured political gossip in particular.

Redesigns

He was an innovator. He built sectoral appeal by introducing Guardian Society, Guardian Education, Guardian Media and Guardian Europe. He invented G2, the Guardian’s daily second supplement, and, in 1988 oversaw one of the most radical redesigns of a national newspaper in an effort to staunch the haemorrhage of reading to the newly founded Independent. It worked, but it was up to his successor, Alan Rusbridger, to battle the new world of online and free access to information.

While Preston could engage with anyone, not just intellectuals, he was often ill-at-ease in social situations, and liked to be accompanied by a more conversationally extrovert colleague or by his wife Jean.

He shared with her a long and happy marriage, peppered with holidays in France (often interrupted or under threat of cancellation by events at work). Together he and Jean had twin daughters, Alex and Kate, two sons, Ben and Rupert, three granddaughters and five grandsons.

Preston’s political philosophy was that of an English liberal – inclusive, tolerant and outward looking (Brexit dismayed him greatly). He loathed the aggressive, judgmentalism of England’s right-wing press, chief among them the Daily Mail.

His bravery as an editor (he fought politicians and the courts, not always happily, as in the Sara Tisdall case) extended beyond overcoming his own personal challenges. At a time when debate on gay rights in the UK was more about beating back governmental and legislative intolerance, he wrote of his gay daughter: “We don’t have to say she’s equal. She IS equal.”