Donald Trelford: Being Observer Editor Was The Best Job in the World
Long-serving editor of The Observer Donald Trelford defended his notorious "rollercoaster" relationship with "swashbuckling" owner Tiny Rowland - once dubbed "the ugly and unacceptable face of capitalism" by Ted Heath - at a packed Media Society soiree.
Trelford, now 80, (with six children, including his latest Daisy, aged three), was grilled by media commentator Roy
Greenslade about his 30 years at the ‘Obs’ before a full-house audience which included many of the paper’s high-profile former ‘hacks’ at The Groucho, Soho, on the launch of his autobiography: “Shouting in the Street”.
Despite Rowland being “a thoroughly disreputable character, hugely corrupt, with a malevolent influence on British
public life”, had Trelford “a grudging admiration”, asked Robin Lustig, who went on work for BBC Radio Four news.
“Yes - that’s true I think. He did engage in corruption in Africa - but that’s the way you did business there. But I did find him engaging in many ways - and challenging.
"And to a degree, I did ask myself at times whether I did fall under his spell. I think that’s a fair point, looking back. Not excessively so - I think my eyes were open."
'I did ask myself at times whether I fell under his spell'
He said Heath made his disparaging comments because Rowland had paid his then chairman Duncan Sandys
through the Cayman Islands. “But how many corporations do that – why single him out?”
“He took us on a rollercoaster ride and rollercoaster rides can be quite fun – and sometimes dangerous,” he said.
On the big question to what extent his own and the reputation of The Observer was damaged by Trelford’s
controversial decision to bring out a midweek edition of paper, entirely devoted to trashing rival Mohammed Al
Fayed’s bid for Harrods, he explained: “Looking back, I could have handled it differently. But at the time the NUJ
chapel gave it their full support.”
The paper had got early sight of a government report damning Al Fayed’s business plan to buy Harrods which he
feared might have been injuncted had they waited for the weekend to publish.
“It vindicated everything we had found out and shown Fayed to be a fraud. But I suppose we could have got enough
into the public domain to defy the injunction – in retrospect”.
The Harrods farrago was “the only story he ever interfered in - and it seemed a small price to pay.”
'We had to keep the owner on side'
“Fleet street was going through a huge technical revolution. You had to pay out printers’ redundancies, spend
money and keep the paper alive. We had to keep the owner on side.
“I didn’t want him as a proprietor and he didn’t want me as editor but somehow we had to get along.”
Trelford, originally hired by David Astor, “a man who looked in the mirror every day and saw the editor and the
proprietor” - said he had opposed the sale to Tiny Rowlands after Atlantic Richfield “dropped us after the paper backed
“I was absolutely appalled, " explained Trelford, who went about preparing a 10,000 word bill of evidence to the Monopolies Commission that there was a “a clear conflict of interest".
"But we lost the debate, and I grudgingly fell in. But he was an engaging person and opened a few doors especially
in Africa, and did invest in a new Business Section” when the previous owners failed “to invest in anything. There had been no commercial sense whatsoever."
At times of deep unpopularity among the staff, and others - including Andrew Neil, Charlie Wilson and Simon
Jenkins - being offered his job behind his back, did he not ask himself he asked himself ‘why bother?’, queried
“Editor of The Observer was the best job in the world. And I tried to make journalists know they had somebody
looking after them all the time.”