Editor of the Observer in the 1970s and 80s who fought to retain the paper’s integrity and identity
DONALD TRELFORD, who has died from cancer aged 85, edited the Observer, the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper, for 18 years from 1975, while fighting for much of that time to preserve its existence, its editorial integrity and its separate identity under three successive owners in less than two decades.
The Observer, to which he first contributed sports reports as a freelance while still a student – three guineas for 300 words on a rugby match – was the focus of his career for nearly 30 years. Some editors are writers, some technicians, able to design and lay out pages: Trelford was both. He could write with facility and enthusiasm about a range of sports from cricket to snooker, but also tap out editorials and news reports, and each Saturday design the paper’s front page.
At a time when the Observer struggled to compete with the much better resourced and flamboyant Sunday Times and came close to bankruptcy, Trelford managed to keep the show on the road and enhanced its reputation as a writers’ paper, covering the arts distinctively and foreign affairs incisively with a formidable roster of journalists. They included, at various times, Clive James, as the paper’s television critic, the columnists Katharine Whitehorn and Sue Arnold, Geoffrey Lean, the first environment correspondent appointed by a national newspaper, Simon Hoggart and Alan Watkins covering politics, Jonathan Mirsky in China, Julie Flint in Lebanon, and Hugh McIlvanney on sport.
Trelford was born in Coventry, the son of Doris (nee Gilchrist), who had been a cook in domestic service before her marriage to Tom Trelford, originally a delivery driver who later became a sales manager for a wholesale tobacconist. Both grandfathers had been miners in the Durham coalfield and Tom had headed south to avoid the same fate. Trelford’s earliest memory was being carried by his mother to an air-raid shelter on the night of the German blitz on Coventry in November 1940: the family home was near a car factory that was heavily bombed. He was educated at junior schools in the north-east, to where the family was evacuated, and then back in Coventry; at secondary level he won a scholarship to attend the fee-paying Bablake independent day school.
Trelford did his national service in the RAF, becoming a pilot officer, before taking up a scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he studied English and wrote for the university magazine Varsity. Seeing an advertisement in an office window in Coventry for a reporter on the local weekly paper, he took the post during the summer holiday without telling the editor that he was still at university. Within weeks he was made chief reporter.
On graduation, Trelford won a place on the training scheme run by the Thomson chain of regional papers, on the Sheffield Telegraph, where, in 1963, he spotted an internal memo seeking applicants to become editor of the Times of Nyasaland (subsequently Malawi), which the company owned. The story in his memoir, Shouting in the Street, was that he and his colleague, the future comic writer Peter Tinniswood, broke into the editor’s office at the Sheffield Telegraph late one evening in search of alcohol and he happened to see a letter about the job. Appointed in his mid-20s, Trelford spent three years in southern Africa, also freelancing for the Times, the Observer and the BBC, covering the civil wars in the Congo, Nigeria and Rhodesia.
Back in London in 1966, he was made deputy news editor of the Observer, where he would spend the rest of his career. Trelford’s first Saturday at the paper was the day England won the World Cup and he was appalled to discover that there were no plans to cover the sporting triumph on the front page. Querying this, he was told: “If you think it’s that important you’d better write it”, which he did from agency copy, while McIlvanney dictated the match report over the telephone from Wembley.
Within three years Trelford was deputy to the paper’s long-serving editor David Astor, whose family had owned the newspaper before transferring ownership to a trust. When Astor retired in 1975, Trelford, still in his 30s, was the popular choice of the paper’s journalists to become editor, even winning the confidence of its much older and longer-serving writers.
Beset by a financial crisis and printers’ strikes, the Observer had shed a fifth of its staff and the trust’s chair Lord Goodman told Trelford that the paper would not last six months without new ownership, as the trustees could no longer sustain its losses. He had already privately offered it to Rupert Murdoch, who was yet to buy the Times, but the possibility was seen off in the teeth of opposition from the Observer’s journalists. Within months a saviour was found in the unlikely shape of a Texan oil multimillionaire called Robert O Anderson, the boss of Atlantic Richfield. Anderson, who had probably never heard of the Observer before, agreed over the telephone to buy the paper and arrived in London, dressed in cowboy hat and boots. He borrowed the pound note the deal cost him from Trelford himself.
The paper’s losses continued, however, and within four years Anderson decided to pull out. Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Mail group, had expressed interest but when the oilman rang to sound him out, he was away. Casting around for another who might be interested, Anderson lighted on Roland Rowland, universally known as Tiny because he was so tall, a rapacious corporate businessman and head of the Lonrho corporation. The deal was done in 1981 with a handshake at Claridge’s hotel without Trelford or the paper’s staff knowing that the Observer had been sold, indeed while Anderson was still assuring them it was safe in his hands.
There was considerable fear that Rowland would interfere editorially, in particular over stories about African countries where he had substantial financial interests – Lonrho stood for London-Rhodesia. A challenge was made by Observer journalists to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which was already investigating Rowland’s attempt to buy the House of Fraser department store chain, the owners of Harrods, in a bitter competition with the Fayed brothers. The purchase of the newspaper was allowed to go ahead with the appointment of a board of independent directors, but Rowland was left aggrieved that he had lost the Harrods battle.
The new owner certainly did try to interfere with the paper’s editorial independence, when Trelford went back to his old haunts to interview Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe in 1984 and discovered that thousands of Ndebele people opposed to the government had been killed during an uprising in Matabeleland. He informed Rowland about the story only on the night of publication and the furious owner apologised to Mugabe, threatened to close the paper and promised to sack Trelford. The row only blew over after several weeks when the independent directors ruled in favour of the editor.
Although Rowland’s subsequent threat to sell the paper to Robert Maxwell did not eventuate, the paper was later involved in an even bigger fight. The Harrods takeover was referred to the Department of Trade and Industry, which produced a secret report highly critical of the Fayeds, who Rowland was convinced had lied about their finances and duped the government in taking over the company. In the spring of 1990, he obtained a copy of the report, which Trelford published pre-emptively in the first and only-ever midweek edition of the paper on the morning of the Lonrho annual general meeting, before the government could injunct its publication. The move was highly controversial, not least because it appeared to prove Rowland’s commercial intervention in editorial matters once more, but Trelford argued that the report’s findings were important independently of Lonrho’s interests, and he survived once more.
If the row damaged the Observer’s integrity, the arrest and subsequent execution of the freelance journalist Farzad Bazoft by the Iraqi regime in 1990 while he was in the country working on a story for the paper was the worst single tragedy during the editor’s time in charge and it affected Trelford deeply.
The question of the paper’s ownership arose again within a few years, as Rowland was losing his grip on Lonrho and began casting around for a buyer. The newly established Independent had recently started a Sunday edition and was confident that it could buy the Observer, but the move was opposed by the paper’s staff on the grounds that it would be subsumed and its title lost for ever. In the event, the Guardian bought the paper in 1993 and maintained its independent profile. Trelford stood down after 18 years in charge. The following year he became a professor and head of the department of journalism studies at Sheffield University. He continued as visiting professor from 2000 until 2007.
Trelford and his third wife, Claire, retired to Mallorca. He wrote a number of books on sport, and sports columns for the Daily Telegraph, as well as his memoir Shouting in the Street, published in 2017, and a book of selected journalism, Heroes & Villains, in 2020.
He is survived by Claire (nee Bishop), a television producer, whom he married in 2001, and their son, Ben, and daughter, Poppy; a son, Paul, and daughter, Sally, from his first marriage, to Janice Ingram, which ended in divorce; and a daughter, Laura, from his second marriage, to Kate Mark, which also ended in divorce. Another son, Tim, from his first marriage, predeceased him.
FOR ALMOST two decades, working for three successive owners, Donald Trelford, who has died at the age of 85, edited the Observer under exceptional, trying circumstances. Starved of resources that were available elsewhere in Fleet Street, Trelford was nonetheless able to produce editions of the highest quality and so ensured the survival of the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper.
“He loved nothing more than a cracking good story, his skills as a layout man meant he could always ensure it got a damn good show and he was also a canny political operator,” recalled Robin Lustig, a former Observer home affairs editor. “He was a newspaperman to his fingertips.”
Robert Chesshyre, the newspaper’s former US correspondent, is clear about Trelford’s achievement. “Donald saved the Observer from Murdoch’s clutches, which would have been, in Clive James’s words, ‘like giving your daughter to a gorilla’.’”
The newspaper was instead bought from the Astor family’s trust by the US oil company Atlantic Richfield in 1977 before it was sold on to the multinational group Lonrho, which was run by controversial chief executive Tiny Rowland. The pairing of Trelford with the ever-manipulative Rowland created one of the most explosive partnerships in 20th-century journalism in Britain.
David Leigh, who was chief investigative reporter for the Observer from 1980 to 1989, observed the relationship at close hand – and is largely sympathetic to Trelford. “We came to blows in the end but I can truthfully say that working for him was the best fun I ever had in journalism.
“Every weekend, he belaboured the Thatcher government, running front pages on the unsavoury antics of Mark Thatcher, the spoilt son of an increasingly enraged Tory prime minister, as well as stories about MI5 secretly blacklisting BBC staff; the failed attempt to jail Falklands war official Clive Ponting for leaking [documents about the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano]; and the humiliation of British intelligence and the cabinet secretary over the Spycatcher affair.”
At the same time, Trelford was running a classy stable of some of Britain’s most distinguished feature writers and columnists. These included Neal Ascherson, Robert Harris, Clive James, Katharine Whitehorn and Hugh McIlvanney. He was, for many years, a gifted journalistic ringmaster.
It could not last, however. The Observer rarely made money and Trelford was constantly at the mercy of its owner. “He fended off the worst predations of Tiny Rowland for as long as he could, but eventually it was a losing battle, as we all knew it would be,” said Lustig.
Pressed to pursue stories that supported Rowland’s business causes, Trelford leant on reporters to follow up these tales to keep the newspaper’s owner off his back. Leigh was asked to write stories of alleged corruption by some of Lonrho’s competitors. “Donald began well and bravely … but by the end of the 1980s, he allowed himself to be bullied into printing what Rowland wanted,” said Leigh, who eventually resigned.
Worse, a Department of Trade and Industry report, highly critical of the Fayeds, who had beaten Lonrho to the ownership of Harrods in 1985, was obtained by Rowland in 1990. Trelford published pre-emptively in the first and only-ever midweek edition of the paper. The move marked the beginning of the end of his editorship. Lonrho put the Observer up for sale and it was subsequently bought by the Guardian Media Group in 1993.
Alan Rusbridger, a former Observer writer who later became editor-in-chief of the Guardian, was sympathetic to Trelford’s position at the time. “Donald was not always lucky in the matter of proprietors, but his nimble political skills mostly – if not always – stood him in good stead. Certainly, his Observer was a beacon of enlightened liberal journalism.”
It is a view backed by Lustig. “I doubt that anyone else could have held out longer than Donald did.”
Undoubtedly, those of us who got their first foothold in Fleet Street at the Observer in those days have much to thank Trelford for. For most of his time as editor, he ran an enlightened regime in which young reporters were given freedom to write what they believed in – provided they could provide supporting facts. “It was the antithesis of many other papers, where reporters were expected only to provide facts that fitted with editorial policy,” said Chesshyre.
The slightly chaotic journalism that ensued was best depicted by former columnist Michael Frayn, who based John Dyson – the key character in his classic Fleet Street satire Towards the End of the Morning – on the paper’s real-life leader page editor John Silverlight. Frayn, too, is warm in his appreciation of Trelford. “It was a heroic achievement to follow David Astor into the chair – and to make a success of it.”
A response from Adam Raphael to comments in Robin’s article
Like everyone, I was sad to hear of Donald’s death. Yes, he made mistakes but who wouldn’t over a 17 year period at the helm of the Observer during one of the most difficult periods in its history. I think he deserved a more generous obituary in his old paper. In particular, I was angered by this paragraph which is a damaging and inaccurate smear of a distinguished editor:
‘Pressed to pursue stories that supported Rowland’s business causes, Trelford leant on reporters to follow up these tales to keep the newspaper’s owner off his back. Leigh was asked to write stories of alleged corruption by some of Lonrho’s competitors. ‘Donald began well and bravely …but by the end of the 1980s, he allowed himself to be bullied into printing what Rowland wanted’ said Leigh who eventually resigned.’
I have written a letter in response to this self-serving nonsense which I trust the Observer will publish next Sunday. Please see attached. If you can’t read the attachment, let me know and I will send you the letter in another form.
THE JOURNALIST, author and academic, who edited the Observer for 18 years between 1975 and 1993, died after a long illness on Friday in Mallorca, where he had lived for the past decade, said his wife, Claire.
During his tenure as editor, the newspaper won many press awards including newspaper of the year, and he was commended as international editor of the year in 1984. He was the author of several books and helped the Russian chess great and anti-Putin political activist Garry Kasparov write his autobiography.
“He was a man who loved his sport, his family, and loved being in Mallorca where he had lived for the past decade,” said his wife, Claire. “He lived life to the full. He was a great storyteller and raconteur. I think all his friends know most of his stories. Friends of all ages wanted to be with him so he could share his life stories. And they in the end were the ones who pushed him to write his memoirs.”
Of his career in journalism, she added: “He was tenacious. He didn’t come up the conventional way. Although he had been to Cambridge and it was unusual, he was a working-class lad from Coventry. He had done national service in the RAF and I think that opened up his eyes.
“But he was able to speak to anybody. He was as much a friend of the guy working in the lift as he was [to those] from journalism.”
Paul Webster, the editor of the Observer, said: “Donald Trelford was a newspaperman to his roots. An inspiring editor, a first-rate writer, a creative design expert, a brave and resourceful reporter and an adroit political operator, he navigated the Observer through the stormy waters created through its ownership by Tiny Rowland’s Lonrho company.
“Donald ensured that it remained a bastion of liberal journalism throughout his years in charge. He will be remembered by his staff and the paper’s readers for the energy, daring and fun that he brought to the Observer, and for being a first-class journalist.”
TODAY’S PRINT newspapers still, in one sense, wrap tomorrow’s cod and french fries. But there is a different way of remembering them. One of the things that prompted Donald Trelford, editor of this paper from 1975 to 1993, to write Shouting in the Street, his collation of reminiscences (Biteback, £25), was simply that. He had two very young children who, as he turned 80, would never really understand the life he had lived – unless he told them.
What will Ben and Poppy make of it all once they are fully grown? Perhaps that the great journalists who fill the book’s pages – David Astor, Michael Davie, Katharine Whitehorn, Anthony Sampson and many others – were more than names on a dusty page. Perhaps that there always was and always will be ambition and double-dealing in any human activity, including newsrooms: see Trelford’s feline dispatch of a conniving deputy, Anthony Howard.
But they will surely be struck most of all by their dad’s gallant efforts to sustain the Observer as, through his years in charge, he fought for its survival in a world of ever-changing ownerships. They won’t know Tiny Rowland from Lonrho, Sir Edward du Cann or Robert O Anderson of Atlantic Richfield: but they will know that editing so well for so long was victory snatched from the ever-snapping jaws of defeat.
They may also learn something profound about the business of journalism. Newspapers, first very rough drafts of history, may disappear with the fish and chips. But newspapers are living organisms, the constructs of time, vision and history that give them an existence. They live, too. They are stages where the curtain rises fresh each morning.
Trelford – often lonely, perpetually embattled – helped save the paper he loved. He sensed an instinctive duty to a historic friend and public companion. Will Ben and Poppy find that in the Facebooks and Googles of their lives when they’re grown up?
Donald Gilchrist Trelford, journalist and editor, born 9 November 1937; died 27 January 2023