Donald Trelford, pugnacious editor of The Observer who steered the paper through turbulent times – obituary

Trelford at The Observer in 1988: he was a skilled office politician - Independent/Alamy
Trelford at The Observer in 1988: he was a skilled office politician - Independent/Alamy

Donald Trelford, who has died aged 85, was editor of The Observer from 1975 to 1993, a period which saw his survival skills tested to the full; his public battles with proprietors, especially Tiny Rowland of Lonrho, were reported gleefully in other newspapers, causing the writer Alan Watkins to describe his diminutive editor as “the Rocky Marciano of newspaper politics”.

All editors must deal with the frequent tension between editorial and commercial imperatives, but for most of Trelford’s tenure The Observer was owned by Lonrho, which had been transformed by the ruthless and autocratic “Tiny” Rowland from a small African mining company in Africa into a huge international conglomerate. In the early 1970s Lonrho had been condemned by the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, as “an unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”; and for the liberal-leaning Observer, Rowland would always be a problematic proprietor, demanding protean qualities in its editor.

A consummate office politician, Trelford proved equal to the task, one observer concluding that he was “the Harry Houdini of journalism”. For much of the time he operated in what he called “a hostile and threatening environment”, writing in his autobiography: “I never knew who was plotting against me, whether the paper was being sold, or whether I was safe in the editor’s electric chair.”

Trelford in Coventry in 1976 with the novelist Susan Hill - Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Trelford in Coventry in 1976 with the novelist Susan Hill - Mirrorpix/Getty Images

To help him navigate his way through internal intrigues, he enlisted the paper’s East European correspondent – a Hungarian called Lajos Lederer who had once sought to install the 1st Viscount Rothermere as King of Hungary – to “spy” on his behalf.

Trelford succeeded to the editor’s chair in 1975 on the retirement of David Astor, who had run his family’s newspaper for the past 33 years.

By the time of Trelford’s appointment, losses at The Observer were mounting, with the unions resisting all efforts to end gross overmanning on the print floor. The chairman of The Observer’s trustees, Lord Goodman (who was under the impression that the new editor’s name was “Treffle”), warned Trelford that he could not guarantee that the paper would survive another six months. There was no budget for an editor’s salary (Astor, a rich man in his own right, not having drawn one for 27 years), and Trelford had to take his out of the general editorial budget.

By the following year the trustees were planning to sell the paper to Rupert Murdoch, at that time owner of only The Sun and the News of the World. Fearing what Trelford called a “suicidal” lurch to the Right, and a drift down-market, The Observer’s journalists were openly hostile. In the ensuing publicity Murdoch withdrew from the deal, later accusing Trelford of organising the opposition. “My mistake was to underestimate Donald Trelford,” he said. (Years later, the man Murdoch had planned to install as editor-in-chief at The Observer, Bruce Rothwell, tried unsuccessfully to get Trelford blackballed from the Garrick Club.)

There was interest from other potential proprietors – among them Associated Newspapers, Sir James Goldsmith, Robert Maxwell, the oil heiress Olga Deterding, Colonel Gaddafi, and the Saudi Arabian royal family – but in the end The Observer was sold for £1 to the American oil giant Atlantic Richfield (Arco), which also took on all its debts. While Arco presented the purchase as an act of gallantry (“a good deed in a dirty world”), Trelford, who continued as editor, suspected that the motive was to improve Arco’s chances of securing North Sea oil and gas licences.

Under its chairman, the stetson-wearing Robert O Anderson, Arco’s ownership was, however, largely benevolent, although Trelford was vexed that nothing was done to curb the powers of the print unions.

Preparing for a televised debate during the miners' strike with his fellow journalist Alastair Hetherington, left, and the NUM leader Arthur Scargill - ANL/Shutterstock
Preparing for a televised debate during the miners' strike with his fellow journalist Alastair Hetherington, left, and the NUM leader Arthur Scargill - ANL/Shutterstock

According to Trelford, Arco fell out of love with The Observer at the 1979 general election, which saw an exhausted Labour government under James Callaghan defeated by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. In the run-up to the poll, Trelford had been in favour of letting the readers decide for themselves which way to vote; Arco wanted the paper to back Thatcher; and Conor Cruise O’Brien, Trelford’s editor-in-chief, wanted to back Labour. In the end The Observer did come out for Labour, and in 1981 Arco sold the paper to Lonrho.

Rowland wanted The Observer because of its high reputation in Africa, where he had extensive business interests and close relations with many heads of state. But Lonrho’s ownership of Scottish newspapers prompted an inquiry by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC), at which Trelford sought to have Lonrho’s bid overturned. In his evidence to the MMC, he cast doubt on Rowland’s “honesty and reliability”, adding: “For Rowland to grant The Observer editorial independence would be to give one of his companies carte blanche to damage the whole business to which he has devoted his life. It is as illogical as it is unbelievable.”

To Trelford’s dismay, Lonrho got The Observer. But he demanded, and got, stringent written editorial safeguards at the Department of Trade and Industry, including the stipulation that the editor could not be dismissed without the approval of a majority of five independent directors. By the end of all this, however, he recalled: “Rowland had an editor he didn’t want, and I had an owner I didn’t want.”

Trelford now demanded guarantees from Rowland that the editor would control the paper’s content and the recruitment and dismissal of journalists, and that he would have the final say on editorial policy and be free to comment on Lonrho’s affairs. Rowland agreed, but this did little to allay the fears of many of the The Observer’s journalists. And those fears seemed justified when Rowland embarked on a vendetta against the Egyptian businessman Mohammed Fayed over the ownership of Harrods.

When the MMC had approved Lonrho’s takeover of The Observer it had rejected its attempt to bid for House of Fraser, which then owned the Knightsbridge department store. Fayed succeeded in buying it in 1985, leading Rowland to launch a two-year investigation into Fayed’s life and financial dealings in an attempt to discredit his rival.

Outside court in 1988 - PA/Alamy
Outside court in 1988 - PA/Alamy

He provided files on Fayed’s business dealings to the DTI and the Inland Revenue, and when the DTI eventually produced a highly critical report of Fayed’s conduct in the Harrods takeover, a leaked version of it, headlined “The Phoney Pharoah”, was published in 1989 in a special midweek edition of The Observer.

This clearly opened Trelford to accusations that he had allowed the paper to be used to serve its owner’s commercial interests. Trelford’s defence was that “if a major British institution had been secured by fraud, and the authorities had been negligent in their regulatory duties, it was a matter of genuine public interest. We determined, however, that every line should be double-checked and not accepted simply on Lonrho’s say-so.”

Five years earlier, in 1984, Trelford had visited Matabeleland, in Zimbabwe, to investigate alleged massacres by President Robert Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade. When he published his story in The Observer, Rowland – who was seeking to ingratiate himself with Zimbabwe’s president – was furious. He condemned the report as lies, publicly called Trelford “an incompetent reporter” and announced that he would be sacked. Trelford offered to resign, but after the independent directors had supported the editor, Rowland refused to accept his resignation, dismissing the matter as a “lovers’ tiff”.

Trelford later claimed to have established a “good working relationship” with Rowland over the years; and he took advantage of his proprietor’s extensive international contacts with the powerful, notably Gaddafi, with whom Trelford was twice granted audiences.

By the early 1990s Lonrho had debts of almost £1 billion, and in 1993 The Observer was sold to the Guardian Media Group. Trelford left the paper, having survived both Tiny Rowland’s ownership and a brazen attempt by his deputy editor, Anthony Howard, to unseat him.

Outside the Iraqi embassy in 1990 following the execution in Iraq of the Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft - Bill Cross/ANL/Shutterstock
Outside the Iraqi embassy in 1990 following the execution in Iraq of the Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft - Bill Cross/ANL/Shutterstock

He also survived a moment of high comedy when the tabloids cast him as a rival with the Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil for the affections of the former Miss India, Pamella Bordes, variously described as a “high-class call girl” and a House of Commons researcher. Trelford claimed that he was using an innocent friendship with Ms Bordes to gather useful information about The Sunday Times.

In a tribute to Trelford, Peter Preston, a former editor of The Guardian, wrote: “He was fated, for many years, to be a defender as well as a crusader; a bruising role where he sometimes felt himself beset on all sides. But Trelford was first and foremost a journalist and an editor: multi-talented, hands-on, a master of sport as well as news, shrewd and decisive. … Trelford, at the end, was there to pass The Observer on, unbroken and unbowed.”

He left the paper when it was taken over by the Guardian Media Group in 1993 and launched a new Department of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University, where he became an emeritus professor in 2007. The department he founded, now a School of Journalism, has the highest research rating of any media department in Britain.

Donald Gilchrist Trelford was born in Coventry on November 9 1937 to Tom and Doris Trelford. Tom, the son of a Co Durham coal miner, was a van driver who rose to become manager of a wholesale tobacco business after serving in the Army; Doris, née Gilchrist, was also from Durham mining stock and had been the first girl from her village to win a scholarship to Durham County High School for Girls. She later worked briefly in domestic service.

Gifted from childhood, Donald was privately educated at Bablake School, Coventry, his father taking a second job to afford the fees. Trelford later liked to joke about his diminutive stature, and recalled that on his first day at Bablake he was called on stage by the headmaster and declared to be the shortest boy admitted since the school’s foundation by (Edward II’s wife) Queen Isabella in 1344. On the same day the gym master singled him out for his size, put a hand on his head and announced: “Henceforth this boy will be known as Bruiser.”

But he made his mark as a scrum-half for the first XV, turning out for the county schools team; rugby was to become a lifelong passion. He was also captain of cricket, school captain, and editor of the magazine.

Having won an open exhibition in English to Selwyn College, Cambridge, Trelford did National Service in the rank of pilot officer in the RAF (1956-58), spending much of his time playing cricket but also acquiring a romantic love of flying.

At university he continued playing cricket and rugby, bemoaning the fact that in all his three years the Cambridge scrum-half was also the England scrum-half. The magazine Rugby World described him as “a more than useful scrum-half”.

At Cambridge he wrote about sport for Varsity, and in his last long vacation secured a reporting job on the Coventry Standard. He was appointed chief reporter after only three weeks when the incumbent was sacked for keeping a bottle of port on his desk.

With the Guardian editor Peter Preston outside Nottingham Crown Court in 1993 to answer charges of contempt following the trial of the murderer Beverley Allitt - PA/Alamy
With the Guardian editor Peter Preston outside Nottingham Crown Court in 1993 to answer charges of contempt following the trial of the murderer Beverley Allitt - PA/Alamy

He also combined his degree studies with contributing to The Observer’s sports pages (he had “worshipped” the paper since his school days), including coverage of the first Oxford v Cambridge tiddlywinks match.

On coming down, Trelford spent two years as a Thomson graduate trainee on the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, and in 1963 was appointed editor of the Nyasaland Times, Thomson’s English-language newspaper in Nyasaland (Malawi). At 25 he was, as he proudly recorded later, “the youngest editor of a national newspaper in the world”.

It proved an early lesson in the often difficult demands of a proprietor. Malawi’s dictator, Dr Hastings Banda, was hostile to foreign journalists, and Trelford soon crossed swords with him. (Dr Banda once poked him in the chest and said : “Keep out of my politics, white man.”) But Thomson had other business interests in the country and Trelford was instructed to change the paper’s character and win the approval of the government.

He hired black journalists and announced “a policy more in line with the aspirations of the people”. He was blackballed by the British Club, but impressed African MPs in the national parliament and established a working relationship with Dr Banda. Circulation increased by 30 per cent.

During his three years in Malawi Trelford filed stories to the British media, primarily to The Observer, but also to The Times, the BBC and the Daily Mail. With the proceeds, he was able to buy a four-bedroom house in Kew in 1966 for £6,000. While in Africa he also occasionally passed information to MI6.

In 1966 David Astor appointed him deputy news editor of The Observer. Astor, Trelford would later write, “taught me many things about editing, including the important principle that the paper should always be better than the editor. By this he meant that an editor who acted like a dictator and banned any opinions he didn’t agree with, and removed staff he didn’t agree with, could only produce a newspaper as good as himself.”

Trelford wrote a rugby column for the Telegraph and contributed rugby obituaries - Graham Trott
Trelford wrote a rugby column for the Telegraph and contributed rugby obituaries - Graham Trott

Three years later, at the age of only 31, Trelford succeeded Michael Davie as deputy editor. He introduced separate news editors for home and foreign affairs (previously jobs done by one person); and to compete with The Sunday Times, he bought book serials, such as the memoirs of John F Kennedy’s mother Rose Kennedy.

At a lunch with Mrs Kennedy, he asked her: “Do you know Mr Ford, Mrs Kennedy [Gerald Ford had just succeeded Richard Nixon as President of the United States]?”

“You mean the man who makes the motor cars?”

“I meant the President, Mrs Kennedy.”

“No, he’s a midwesterner. I wouldn’t know a man like that.”

After leaving The Observer Trelford wrote a weekly sports column in The Daily Telegraph for 15 years. He was also a regular contributor to the Telegraph’s obituaries page, specialising in rugby players. In addition to launching Sheffield University’s new journalism school he took roles on a multitude of press bodies, notably as chairman of the London Press Club (2002–07) and as its president (2007–12).

Trelford was a member of MCC (serving on its committee from 1988 to 1991), and sport remained an abiding interest. He published books about his cricketing hero and friend Len Hutton (1992), and on W G Grace (1998) and snooker (1986). He ghosted an autobiography for the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov (1987), and in 2017 published an entertaining memoir of his life and career in journalism, Shouting in the Street, then in 2020 a collection of his journalism called Heroes and Villains. Perhaps surprisingly, he voted for Brexit in 2016.

At the age of 65 Trelford moved to Majorca with his third wife, 25 years his junior, where he spent the rest of his life, producing two children. He described this as the happiest time of his life, living in a beautiful finca on the side of a mountain, writing a column for the Majorca Daily Bulletin, and entertaining friends liberally – looking down on the old town of Pollenca in the north of the island, where his wife had opened a shop and restaurant.

He married first, in 1963, his childhood sweetheart Jan Ingram, with whom he had two sons, one of whom predeceased him, and a daughter; he married secondly, in 1978, Kate Mark, niece of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, with whom he had a daughter; and thirdly, in 2001, Claire Bishop – their son was born when he was 73, their daughter when he was 76.

Donald Trelford, born November 9 1937, died January 27 2023