An Editor Ahead Of His Time

David Astor was the man who made the Observer the most popular Sunday paper of its time

Books

David Astor: “The editor’s indecision is final” (©Astor Family. Courtesy Vintage Publishing)

In the opening scene of Look Back in Anger, first staged in 1956, Jimmy Porter and his friend Cliff are reading the Sunday newspapers. “There are only two posh papers on a Sunday,” says Jimmy. The audience didn’t need to be told which ones they were: the Sunday Times and the Observer. “I’ve just read three whole columns on the English Novel,” Jimmy goes on. “Half of it’s in French. Do the Sunday papers make you feel ignorant?” It sounded as if Jimmy had been reading the Observer, rather than its great rival.

The Sunday Times has dominated the serious Sunday paper market for so long now that younger readers might be surprised to know that in 1956 the Observer was more popular and certainly more influential. Its foreign news and commentary were unparalleled, its leading articles and arts pages required reading. Indeed, Look Back in Anger’s huge success, after a rocky start, owed a great deal to Kenneth Tynan’s rave review in the Observer, in which in typically melodramatic style he announced he “could not love anybody” who did not like Osborne’s play. Even the paper’s sports pages included some of the leading writers of the era, reporting on Saturday’s football, rugby and cricket matches.

That Observer was the creation of one man: David Astor. His name would probably attract little or no recognition today from anybody under the age of 60. This is inevitable, given the transitory nature of the newspaper business, but a pity nonetheless, as Astor was one of the most interesting and influential editors of the postwar era. Jeremy Lewis’s biography is therefore all the more welcome and is, indeed, a model of its kind, painstakingly researched, accurate in its judgments, and well written, all qualities prized by Astor himself. His insistence on fairness in everything that went into his paper would doubtless be greeted with incredulity by many of today’s Fleet Street editors.

Lewis has written two fine biographies of important British 20th-century cultural figures, the critic and magazine editor Cyril Connolly, and Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, and he sees Astor as making a natural third leg of a trilogy. There was a link: Astor hired his fellow Etonian Connolly to be literary editor of the Observer in his early years on the paper before he became editor in 1948, an amusing episode which encapsulated Astor’s strengths and weaknesses. Always a brilliant talent spotter, he saw that Connolly would shake up the paper’s then dreary middlebrow literary section, which he immediately began to do. But Astor, in his habitually hesitant way, had failed to square the acting editor, Ivor Brown, who had previously been in charge of the pages and reasserted his control over them. Inevitably, the irascible Connolly walked out, going on to become the influential chief literary critic of the Sunday Times. As another Astor discovery (still happily writing for the Observer), Katharine Whitehorn later remarked: “The editor’s indecision is final.”

Astor differed from all other Fleet Street editors by also being the owner of his paper, Britain’s oldest Sunday, bought for £5,000 from Lord Northcliffe in 1911 by his grandfather, William Waldorf Astor, the American hotel and property magnate who settled in Britain in 1890. On his death, control of the paper passed to his son Waldorf, David’s father, who passed his quiet decency and liberal values on to his son. David’s mother was the redoubtable Nancy Astor, the first woman MP, a devout Christian Scientist and hectoring parliamentary campaigner for all manner of liberal causes. David’s love-hate relationship with her was to dominate his life: occasionally suicidal as a young man, often suffering from severe depression, he finally found solace in daily psycho-analysis with Anna Freud before work. Indeed, he became a keen advocate of analysis, urging it on many of his journalists, an eccentric, eclectic and bibulous band, often with good reason.

For all his anxieties and uncertainties, Lewis correctly notes, Astor had a core of steel, as he showed when helping his father topple the long-time editor J.L. Garvin in 1942. However, he did not take up the editorship (and ownership) for another six years, but once he did, he moved decisively to transform the paper. Tours of Germany before the war had convinced him of Hitler’s menace, and his greatest friend, from Oxford, was Adam von Trott, a key figure in the 1944 officers’ plot to assassinate Hitler, who was executed after its failure. The result was a lifelong devotion to the cause of European unity. His own paper was a mini-European Union of its own: he was always more interested in foreign affairs than domestic issues and he recruited a number of distinguished refugees and exiles, such as Sebastian Haffner, Isaac Deutscher, Arthur Koestler and Rix Lowenthal, along with home-grown experts like Edward Crankshaw, who provided unrivalled articles and columns about Cold War trends and the future of the continent.

Others, like Colin Legum, a South African of Lithuanian origin, wrote authoritatively about Astor’s other obsession, Africa (although he did not visit the continent until after his retirement), giving rise to Malcolm Muggeridge’s description of Astor’s Observer as “Central Europeans writing about Central Africans”. Astor, Legum and Anthony Sampson, a hugely influential figure on the paper, were of course strongly anti-apartheid and squarely behind African independence, which incidentally provoked Nancy to the sort of racist abuse of her son which sounds incredible to contemporary ears. Astor introduced Nelson Mandela to the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and other key figures when he visited London in the mid-1950s, and was a loyal supporter throughout Mandela’s long imprisonment, sending him the law books to enable him to finish his legal studies among many other personal kindnesses. (Doing good by stealth was a key element in Astor’s make-up and continued after his retirement in 1975 until shortly before his death in 2001 at the age of 89.)

If 1956 was a key year in British drama, it was also a pivotal one for the Observer. Urged on by his long-serving managing editor Ken Obank, Astor gave over most of the paper to an exclusive verbatim report of Nikita Khruschev’s landmark speech denouncing Stalin. He also published the most controversial leading article of his career at the height of the Suez crisis, denouncing the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden. It was written by the liberal grandee Sir Dingle Foot but Astor added the memorable words, “We had not realised that our government was capable of such folly and such crookedness.” It caused a sensation: three of the Observer’s trustees resigned, and 866 protest letters arrived (against 302 in favour). The circulation rose, but the new readers were the wrong sort, idealists without much disposable income. The damage was done by big advertisers dropping out (clearly, they were more high-minded in those days). With the arrival of a new owner, Roy Thompson, in 1959, the Sunday Times moved ahead and never looked back. Struggling to produce fatter newspapers in more affluent times, Astor had to dig ever deeper into the family fortunes, and the print unions’ pig-headed refusal to adopt new technology or new working practices spelt long-term doom for a stand-alone Sunday.

Worn out by this hopeless task, Astor quit suddenly and unexpectedly in 1975, and a year later sold the Observer to an unlikely new owner, the American oil company Atlantic Richfield. But his spirit (and many of his old writers) still dominated the paper for many years afterwards, even during the turbulent Lonrho ownership years of 1981-1993. (It now belongs to the Guardian group, although this has not brought profitability any nearer.) 

Astor’s Observer was essentially a newspaper of ideas, with news usually coming a distant second. With the advent of the internet and social media, people now rely less and less on newspapers for news, with the result that they are increasingly dominated by features and columns, rather like the Observer of half a century ago. Astor should be remembered as a far-sighted editor as well as a man of great integrity.