16 APRIL 1988, Page 21


The press: Paul Johnson surveys the splendours and miseries of Denis Hamilton's career

THE death of Denis Hamilton set me thinking about creativity, and what a cu- rious thing it is. No one looked, sounded or behaved less like a strongly creative person than Hamilton. To begin with, creative people are usually difficult and often dis- agreeable. Hamilton was a great resolver of difficulties, not a fomenter of them, and he delighted in making life pleasant for those around him. Again, he lacked intel- lectual vanity. He let others do the talking, not from Machiavellian reasons (as in Churchill's famous silence with Halifax and Chamberlain in May 1940, or Hugh Cud- lipp's refusal to speak in the great Cecil King showdown) but from genuine modes- ty. In appearance, he was a man who had had a good war, though it is well to remember he came from the Light Infan- try, always a more cerebral breed than the line regiments or the Foot Guards, let alone the cavalry. There was no doubt he had a first-class brain and administrative capacity of a high order. But there was never any sign of the edginess, volatility, swings from elation to despair, brooding and bombast of those who produce and execute important new concepts.

In short he was a deceptive fellow because he was clearly a man of great creative power, the most creative British journalist of the post-war period. The record, the only thing that matters, speaks for itself. Much of the familiar furniture of our present newspaper world was his in- vention, and in its pristine, authentic form, not the present shoddy imitations. He created the grand, serious Sunday, news- paper in Britain. Kemsley's Sunday Times, when he took it over, was by no means contemptible. But it was stuffy, stifling, over-genteel, getting a bit quaint and moth-eaten. Hamilton made it into the best newspaper in the world. He invented what might be called the Staff College Solution for the multi-angle coverage of a major news story. By creating the Insight team and devising its rules of procedure, he pioneered investigative reporting at a time when it was a genuine effort to follow the truth wherever it might lead, rather than (as now) a method of finding or manufacturing evidence to buttress a pre- judged conclusion.

He took the decisive step of splitting the paper in two, thus creating the Review Front and the concept of the Big Read.

Here was an instance of real creativity. Hamilton was aware of the vast potential reader interest in the wartime memoirs of senior commanders, and the existence of the right kind of manuscripts to satisfy it. What he did was to fashion exactly the right kind of journalistic vehicle to bring supply and demand together. He was surprised by the success of the venture and. following the old military adage, rein- forced it. The multi-part newspaper thus came into being here. He took over the American institution of the colour supple- ment and transformed it into a new and noble creature — the Sunday Times Maga- zine in its early years was the best picture- mag in Britain since Picture Post in its prime. He conceived and produced a re- markably news-packed and accurate Busi- ness Supplement, which launched a new kind of financial journalism (also now in decay). He launched such ventures as the Times Higher Educational Supplement, another Hamilton creation which has fallen from its original high standards. In addi- tion to creating and carrying through these huge projects, Hamilton also had the two essential characteristics of a great editor the ability to combine enterprise, judg- ment, honour and responsibility into a consistent view of the world; and the gift for discovering talent. At the last he was outstanding; indeed without it he could not have translated his creative ideas into reality. No editor of the last half-century, not even David Astor or Gordon Newton, was more successful at pushing forward clever young men. In the light of Hamilton's massive achievements, how did he come to sustain such a decisive defeat when Thomson took over the Times, a defeat so serious that at one time it imperilled the survival of his beloved Sunday Times as well? He took on the task of revitalising the old Astor Times with almost lighthearted optimism. He told me at the time that, by applying the ST Business News techniques to the Times coverage of the City, he expected to bring it into profit within a year, perhaps sooner. Instead, the merger, and especially the shifting of Printing House Square to Grays Inn Road, led to a terrifying increase in old Spanish customs, gradually transforming the financial position of the entire com- pany. Hamilton, a decent and reasonable man, believed the print unions could be soft-talked into some kind of rational solution, or, if need be, beaten in a gentlemanly game fought within the old Fleet Street rules. He was proved wrong, and when this became apparent he forgot the military adage this time and reinforced failure. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see the year-long Times Newspap- ers dispute as a classic example of how not to fight the print unions, rather like Haig's battle of Passchendaele. The only positive outcome was that it hastened the day when these two fine newspapers, fell into the hands of Rupert Murdoch, who was thus able to plan and carry through a mighty battle of revenge on the triumphant brothers — Alamein at last. Thus, by a curious irony, Hamilton as it were found himself playing Auchinleck to Murdoch's Montgomery.

The truth of course is that Wapping could not have taken place without far- reaching changes in the law, and indeed great improvements in the police handling of violent industrial disputes. Hamilton's defeat at the hands of the unions took place against the depressing atmosphere of defeatism and appeasement which marked the 1960s and 1970s in Britain. Here was a case of a deeply creative man who might, in the post-Wapping world, have done tremendous things for British newspapers, being humiliated and made impotent by grubby little men who cared nothing for the industry. It was an outstanding exam- ple of the sterilising effect old-style trade unionism had on almost every branch of British industrial life. In this respect, Thatcherism, with all its imperfections, has been a great creative force, unleashing energies hitherto frustrated and allowing imaginative people to put their ideas into practice. I wish that some of our intellec- tuals, instead of sneering at what they see as Mrs Thatcher's lower-middle-class ways, would grasp what she has done for us all in the world of the printed word.

Indeed, the national newspaper scene today is just as Denis Hamilton would have wished it: a vast field of opportunity for new ideas and institutions, with plenty of finance available and no physical obstacles, of the kind once imposed by the print unions, to their realisation. In short, it is once more a splendid industry for a crea- tive person to work in. All we need is another Denis Hamilton — or preferably several.