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Obituary: JOHN WHALE

18 June 2008

In the editor’s chair: John Whale at his desk in the former Church Times offices at 33 Upper Street in August 1993 ©SALLY GREENHILL

In the editor’s chair: John Whale at his desk in the former Church Times offices at 33 Upper Street in August 1993 ©SALLY GREENHILL

JOHN WHALE, who died on Tuesday, aged 76, was a liberal churchman with a love of the Prayer Book and the English language who brought to the editorship of the Church Times the fruits of a distinguished career in journalism.

John Whale edited the Church Times for a comparatively short period (September 1989 until February 1995), but oversaw more changes to the newspaper and its method of production than perhaps any other editor in its history.

He was one of only two national-newspaper journalists ever to occupy the editor’s chair. Like Sidney Dark, the Socialist editor in the 1930s, his newspaper background was Fleet Street — or, to be precise, Gray’s Inn Road. It fell to his lot to supervise the conduct of the paper as it moved from its Edwardian home off Kingsway to less imposing accommodation in Islington.

The eldest son of the Revd Dr John Seldon Whale, a distinguished Congregationalist minister and academic, John Hilary Whale had a stern work ethic, and regarded journalism as a profession with professional standards.

Educated at Winchester on a scholarship, he went on to read Greats at Corpus Christi, Oxford. At Oxford, he developed an interest in acting, through which he met his future wife, Judy Hackett; and for a time he acted in rep. After their marriage, they moved to Paris, taught at the Berlitz School, and worked as translators. John began to broadcast with French radio’s English section.

Television news, however, was where he made his name. He later said that he had learned true professionalism from the cameramen at ITN. He joined ITN in 1960, and became political correspondent in 1963. His interview with Harold Wilson on a train, on the morning after the 1966 election, was given to ITN because Wilson believed that the BBC had been unfair. ITN lacked the kind of costly live studio link that the BBC had set up. After the interview, the recording was dropped out of the train window at Crewe, and was broadcast several hours later.

John was appointed ITN’s first Washington correspondent in 1967, and it was a job that played to his ability to speak flawless extempore prose without hesitation, deviation, or repetition. But TV reporting had its shortcomings: he later spoke with shame of the way in which the highest standards had not always been held by young reporters to be necessary for “mum in Wigan”. While writing his first book, The Half-Shut Eye, about TV journalism, he decided that he would prefer print. In 1969, he joined The Sunday Times, owned by Lord Thomson, and edited by Harold Evans.

He worked happily there until Rupert Murdoch bought Times Newspapers. When a lifelong friend, Alasdair Milne, Director-General of the BBC, invited him to become Head of Religious Programmes on BBC television in 1984, he accepted. He ran a department of more than 50 people, but, as a practising Anglican — a churchwarden at St Mary’s, Barnes, whose history he wrote — he now cherished the hope of editing — and transforming — the Church Times.

In the late 1980s, the proprietor and editor, Dr Bernard Palmer, was scouting around for his successor on both fronts. John Whale at first approached him as, with others, a possible buyer; then, when the paper was to be sold to Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd, John was the obvious candidate to succeed him as editor.

Together with the change in the way the paper was produced — a result of the changing economics of newspaper production, and the expiry of the lease on 7 Portugal Street — he was responsible for a comprehensive change in the appearance, tone, and content of the Church Times. His vision was of a tabloid paper produced to broadsheet standards.

During his first months on the paper there was a revolution not only in the way in which staff and contributors were expected to write, but in the range of figures who contributed. New reviewers were immediately brought in for books, broadcasting, and the arts — many of them people he had come into contact with through his previous work — and the contributors of general opinion articles also increased in number. (David Johnson, the TV columnist, was recruited because of his success at guying the paper in a one-off venture, Not the Church Times.) Established contributors whose services were no longer required were visited and informed by the editor in person.

His ideas were not easily accepted in all quarters, and within weeks of becoming editor, he had dispensed, too, with the post of news editor and the services of its long-serving occupant, Susan Young, much to the consternation of many in the Church. Even long-serving reporters were told their stylistic shortcomings, while being praised for their industry.

Most adjectives and other value-added words were zealously excised from news items and many features. One of John’s first acts as editor was to distribute copies of The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, whose rulings on matters of style were generally to be regarded as Holy Writ. As an assistant editor at The Sunday Times, he had drawn up its style book. A fastidious prose-writer, he required conscientious punctuation, and adhered to the old-fashioned rule that reporters were in the business of telling the truth, which was not the same as airing their opinions.

At the beginning of his editorship, the Sunday Correspondent was enjoying a short life in offices visible from his house. A greater influence was the new Independent, which John, disapproving of the turn that The Sunday Times and The Times had taken, regarded as a beacon of hope for independent journalism.

Oscar Turnill, a sub-editor and layout man who had redesigned The Times for Harold Evans, was drafted in to redesign the paper. His brief was to produce something very like The Independent, with an emphasis on running good pictures larger, and a classical approach to typefaces, though the idea that text should fill every space not used by photos or headlines quickly fell out of fashion.

There was no longer a band of hot-metal compositors to make a story fit: the paper was computer-typeset far from the London office at Hadleigh, and then at Colchester, in Essex. At first the new technology gave the staff only a poor idea, before page proof, of how much space the copy would fill. The system made for intensive work, especially at the typesetters on Wednesdays. Judy Whale would often accompany him and proof-read.

Later John steered the paper towards in-house computer type-setting, believing this to be in its long-term interests; though he regretted losing his personal contact with the typesetters and printers in Colchester, who regarded with amused interest the gentleman-editor from London who spoke, as one elderly contributor put it, “in the authentic tones of Aldous Huxley”.

It was as a freelance leader-writer that he had come to the paper several years before his appointment as editor. During Dr Bernard Palmer’s editorship, he had contributed about one leader in every three or four.

Leader-writing was a skill that he had honed at The Sunday Times, where his speciality had been home affairs and Northern Ireland. With his classical education, long journalistic experience, and exact command of English, his own leaders were always recognisable by their urbanity, clarity of expression, and a pragmatic approach that readers sometimes took for defeatism.

His leaders often represented a departure from earlier policies of the paper. John made clear to his staff that, though he regarded a leader as an opinion piece, he held that it ought in a church newspaper to be non-partisan, and, if necessary, to set out both sides of an argument without coming to a firm conclusion. He wanted the Church of England to be broad enough to include all who claimed it as their home.

He was often strongly affected by the personal circumstances both of people in the stories the paper reported, and of his staff, contributors, and their families. He never reproached his staff for mishaps that occurred in his absence, and seldom expressed his own strongest feelings. But he was shocked and baffled by churchpeople who did express theirs. He once devoted an editorial to a bemused discussion of why Church of England people were always so angry. He was amazed by the rudeness of some of the letters he received.

The most controversial leader of his editorship was one on the Osborne report (on homosexuality) in February 1990: it was denounced by The Sun, and in many readers’ letters. On the eve of the November 1992 vote on the ordination of women, he intended at first to write a supportive leader. He eventually responded to divided opinion in the newsroom, and wrote what he himself would have called a “hand-wringing” piece that did not presume to tell the Synod how it should vote.

It was chiefly the influence of his Anglo-Catholic senior reporter, Betty Saunders, which made him in his last two years as editor a supporter of the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, which provided for “flying bishops”.

Though he and Betty (who died in 1997) could not have been further apart on many theological or ecclesiastical points, they could work closely and cordially together because they respected each other’s professionalism, teased each other about their views, and maintained unfailing courtesy.

For most of John’s reign, he and Betty shared the duties of a news editor, though John remained in control of the final selection of stories. He had little tolerance for the small beer (the “Around the Dioceses” column continued on sufferance), limited patience with so-called human-interest stories, and a conviction that in the public interest a newspaper “should not be afraid to be dull”. Most churchpeople seldom needed to buy a substantial church report once they had read the Church Times’s coverage of it.

But he also had the investigative instinct that came in part from his association with Harold Evans during the thalidomide litigation and the early years of renewed IRA activity. This kind of journalism was usually beyond the resources of the Church Times, but at the beginning of 1990 he alighted on something said by the then Dean of Lincoln, Brandon Jackson, in the intercessions at a communion service, questioned him, and commissioned a freelance journalist to investigate Lincoln Cathedral’s loss-making Australian tour of the Magna Carta.

His initial coverage of the Lincoln affair was, perhaps, the scoop of his editorship; but it took too little account of his source’s perspective, and was consequently a story that caused him much stress and anxiety.

A lecturer and writer on media questions, he introduced a review of the press, which became a popular feature. Other new features included weekly profiles of prominent church-people — a series that continued for several years, a page devoted to the arts, Ronald Blythe’s column, and Noel Ford’s weekly cartoon.

The price of pursuing his ideal of the paper was the many hours in the office, not only apart from his wife, but at a distance, also, from many of the people and events reported, though he made a special effort to be present at Greenbelt and the Anglican Evangelical Assembly. It sometimes seemed as if he wished to compensate Evangelical readers for the pastings they received in the first 100 years of the paper’s history.

His outstanding commitment would not have been possible without Judy Whale’s active help, and her accommodation of its demands on their lifestyle. Her visits to the office, often bringing wine and snacks for the staff who were required to work late, were much appreciated, as was the hospitality extended to staff and contributors both at the series of big Church Times functions held in Sion College Library and elsewhere, and in smaller parties at the Whales’ home.

In his retirement John served the paper with wise counsel when requested, and with copy, chiefly crisp book reviews about literary figures of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and obituaries that were always models of tact and kindness.

Though, on his retirement, the prognosis for his prostate cancer was gloomy, the treatment in fact gained him a long reprieve. He and Judy spent the six summer months at their house in Villers-sur-Mer on the coast of Normandy, where, every day that the weather allowed, he would swim in the sea. Swimming in the Thames was another pleasure, and so was walking, either alone or in company with (among others) his daughter-in-law, the actress Susan Brown. He also reviewed books for The Times Literary Supplement.

A few months ago, he appeared to have suffered a stroke, and contacted the Church Times to say that his journalistic life was now over; but then, as his health declined further, an advanced brain tumour was diagnosed. He chose not to be treated for it.

His other books included Journalism and Government, The Pope from Poland, and Put it in Writing.

He is survived by Judy Whale and their son Toby, a casting director.

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