British Journalist and Politician
Born 1913 Died 2007
William Deedes, commonly known as Bill Deedes or as WFD to his contemporaries, was best known as a journalist and former editor of the Daily Telegraph, although he was also the Conservative Member of Parliament for Ashford from 1950 until 1974 and a cabinet minister under both Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. He was also believed to have been the inspiration behind the character of William Boot who stars in the novel Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, and also featured as the entirely fictional recipient of the 'Dear Bill' letters in Private Eye, purportedly written by one Dennis Thatcher.
1. Early Life and Career
William Francis Deedes was born on the 1st June 1913 being the eldest son of Herbert William Deedes and Melesina Gladys Trench. The Deedes family were, as they say, "long established" in Kent and indeed there had been a Deedes Member of Parliament in every century since 1600. William's father was a Christian Socialist who dabbled in Labour politics and lived comfortably enough on £900 a year in the village of Aldington. He then inherited Saltwood Castle in Kent in 1919, a far grander property with expenses to match, and the elder Deedes was obliged regularly selling off bits of the estate to maintain the property.
The young William spent three years at Harrow before his father became one of the financial casualties of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and with no money left to pay the school fees William was forced to abandon his education and earn a living. It was at this point that his uncle, Brigadier Sir Wyndham Deedes, and former Chief Secretary of the Palestine Administration (1920–23) decided to lend a hand, and arranged three interviews for his nephew with Marks and Spencer, the BBC, and the Morning Post, a somewhat ultra-conservative daily newspaper. As fate would have it was the Morning Post that offered William a job, which he accepted and took up lodgings with his uncle in Bethnal Green.
William soon displayed something of a talent for journalism and in 1935 the Morning Post sent him as their correspondent to Abyssinia which at the time was under the threat of attack by Italy. It was there in Addis Ababa that he met Evelyn Waugh, who had similarly been sent to cover the expected war by the Daily Mail. By this time Waugh had become rather disilluiones with the whole business of journalism, but was impressed by the fact that the Post had despatched William to Abyssinia armed with a zinc lined cedar wood chest which weighed a quarter of a ton, together with three tropical outfits from Austin Reed. (All three of which were of doubtful utility given that Addis Ababa was some 8,000 feet above sea level and decidedly untropical in climate, which left William wearing the same tweed suit in which he had left London.)
Back in Britain by the beginning of 1936, he covered the Jarrow march for the paper becoming the Post's lobby correspondent at the House of Commons at the end of the year. It was however in the following year that the Morning Post was merged into the Daily Telegraph and William was one of the few Post journalists retained under the new regime. It was therefore as a Telegraph reporter that he found himself outside 10 Downing Street when Neville Chamberlain flourished the infamous piece of paper which he claimed meant "peace in our time". William was not entirely convinced by this argument, wrote the Telegraph handbook on air-raid precautions, and signed up for the 2nd Battalion, Queen's Westminsters which was a Territorial Army company.
With the outbreak of war he transferred to the parent company of the King's Royal Rifle Corps and initially he had something of a quiet war, as he spent the three years between 1941 and 1944 training at Ampleforth in north Yorkshire. It wasn't until shortly after D-Day that he was posted to France as a member of a motor battalion, that he saw action as part of the second wave of Normandy landings. His battallion was involved in the capture of the fortress at Bourg Léopold outside Brussels, and was later involved in a fierce fireight on the 2nd April 1945 whilst attempting to cross the Twenthe Canal, near Hengelo in the Netherlands. it was for his part in this action that William was awarded the Military Cross.
2. Post-War Career
By the end of 1945 William was back at the Daily Telegraph writing for the Peterborough column, and in the following year acquired New Hayters, a Victorian farmhouse near the village of Aldington in Kent, overlooking Romney Marsh, and set up home with his wife Hilary Branfoot whom he had earlier married in 1942. In the
aftermath of the war his thoughts turned to politics and in 1947 he was selected as Conservative PPC for the constituency of Ashford in Kent, where the local party preferred him to Edward Heath; a quite understandable decision given that both William's grandfather and great-grandfather had earlier represented the constituency. William was duly elected at the General Election of 23rd February 1950 with a majority of 6,147, and made sufficient impact to be selected in 1952 to appear in the very first party political broadcast on British television, during which he interviewed Harold Macmillan.
In 1954 Winston Churchill appointed him as the Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Housing under Duncan Sandys, and when Anthony Eden replaced Churchill as Prime Minister, he was moved at the end of 1955 to become Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office under Gwilym Lloyd- George. However it does not appear that William particularly enjoyed the business of government and apparently came to the conclusion "I was simply not equipped to be a good Minister." As soon as Harold Macmillan became prime minister in January 1957 he resigned, citing the financial demands of raising a family. Although he therefore returned to active journalism and began contributing political articles to the Daily Telegraph, he remained an active backbencher, if a little too liberal for some tastes (he was apparently known as a member of the party’s so-called 'kissing circle') and became chairman of the party’s Home Affairs Committee in 1959, where he came to be on good terms with the Home Secretary Rab Butler.
William's subsequent promotion to the cabinet came about as a result of the Night of the Long Knives in July 1962, when Macmillan decided to sack seven Cabinet ministers in an attempt to re-invigorate his government. He then approached William and offered him a seat in the cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio with responsibility for what was then referred to as 'Information Services'. Although William appears to have been initially reluctant to accept the offer, he accepted the job, acting on the principle that "A sinking ship is my spiritual home".
3. Minister for Information Services
William's objectives in his new post were to improve government relations with the media and to inform the public about the benefits of British membership of the European Economic Community. Unfortunately relations with the press rapidly went from bad to worse through no fault of his own, since the conclusion of the Vassall affair in late 1962 saw two journalists jailed for the crime of failing to disclose their sources.
Then in the following year came the Profumo affair, probably the juiciest scandal to hit modern British politics, and since William occupied the position as the government's chief spin-doctor, it was he that was largely responsible for drafting Profumo's statement of 22nd March 1963 in which the latter denied any impropriety with Miss Keeler. Of course further revelations forced Profumo to eventually admit in June 1963 that his previous statement was a pack of lies. Some later criticised William for failing to get the truth out of Profumo in the first place, although his response was always to point out that it wasn't his job to interrogate fellow members of the government.
He was later called upon to help stage-manage the sequence of events by which Alec Douglas-Home emerged as the leader of the Conservative Party, but does not appear to have been too disappointed by the party's subsequent defeat at the 1964 General Election and happily returned to the role of the backbencher-journalist. Now a member of the opposition he joined the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration in 1968, which he later chaired from 1970 to 1974 and also became vice-chairman of the party's home affairs committee.
4. Editor of The Daily Telegraph
Shortly after William was relected at the General Election of February 1974 with a majority of 8,459, he was offered the job editor of the Daily Telegraph. In recognition of the responsibilities of this job, he decided to stand down from Parliament at the October election, but with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to view this as something of an impossible assignment. He was placed in an uncomfortable position between William Michael Berry, Baron Hartwell, who was both proprietor and editor-in-chief of the paper, and the Telegraph's Managing Editor, Peter Eastwood, who controlled the news pages; both of whom believed that they were actually in charge of the paper.
To add to his difficulties the printing unions still ruled Fleet Street, and even the National Union of Journalists held sufficient influence to prevent management from sacking any journalist regarded as being unusually poor or lazy. What made things worse was that Hartwell refused to consider any changes to the paper (he rejected out of hand William's suggestion of introducing a cartoon strip on the classified advertisement pages) since he took the view that everything had to wait until the new technology was implemented.
The net result was a steady stream of journalists who left the paper including the trio of Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds who left at the end of 1985 to establish The Independent. As things turned out Michael Berry made rather a hash of the new technology business and with the paper rendered virtually insolvent he was obliged to sell the paper to the Canadian Conrad Black in 1985.
5. The Grand Old Man of Fleet Street
Following the change of ownership William resigned as editor of the Telegraph on the 7th March 1986, being later granted a life peerage as the Baron Deedes. With his seventy-third birthday on the horizon, he was well past the age of retirement, but he decided to remain at the Telegraph under the new editor Max Hastings as a leader writer, columnist and general reporter, although he never much cared for the paper's new owner Conrad Black, whom he described as "the biggest bore on earth".
Essentially William was now free to write about whatever he liked. Whilst this meant that he would address his favourite subjects of golf and garden machinery in the 'Weekend' section of the paper, he otherwise sought to apply would he regarded as "Christian insight and experience" to matters of public policy and in particular to the introduction of practical caring initiatives. In 1989 he began his involvement with the charity Care (Christian Action Research and Education). Under the charity's auspices he visited Ethiopia in 1989, Sudan in 1990, and Mozambique in 1992, and again despite reaching the age of eighty spent most of 1993 travelling to Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola, and even paid a visit to Vietnam. In 1994 he was in Tanzania to inspect a camp for Rwandan refugees, whilst in 1995 he was off to Sarajevo.
It was in 1997 that he returned to Angola to cover the visit of Diana, Princess of Wales as part of her campaign against anti-personnel mines. The two appear to have struck up a rapport and he subsequently helped organise her next visit to Bosnia in August 1997. Of course within three weeks of her return from Bosnia she was dead, and he became the only reporter invited to her funeral in Westminster Abbey.
Despite the fact that William had earlier described his involvement with Diana's campaign as his "last crusade", he continued to work and indeed to travel the world. Although he suffered a stroke in February 2001 whilst reporting on an earthquake at Gujerat in India (he blamed this on his inability to have his customary whisky and soda in the teetotal state of Gujerat) this didn't prevent him continuing to travel the world and write of his experiences. In July 2004 he visited the Sudan to reported on the situation in Darfur, but shortly after his return he tripped over the doorstep to his house
and broke his leg. Although he largely recovered from this injury, a severe bout of pneumonia in 2005 left him confined to his wheelchair thereafter. He nevertheless continued to write and his very last published article appeared in the Daily Telegraph of the 3rd August 2007 in which he compared events in Darfur to those of the Holocaust. He passed away peacefully on the 17th August 2007.
William Deedes was married to Hilary Branfoot who died in 2004. Together they had two sons, Julius and Jeremy, and three daughters named Juliet, Victoria and Lucy. His younger son Julius suffered from aplastic anaemia and died unmarried 1970, his elder son Jeremy Deedes, followed him into the newspaper business and was at one time the managing director of the Telegraph Group. His autobiography Dear Bill:A Memoir appeared in 1998, the the proceeds of which, and indeed much of his later writings went to fund the Lord Deedes of Addington Charitable Trust.
- Obituary: Lord Deedes, BBC News, 17 August 2007
- Charles Moore, Dear Bill, the greatest journalist, Daily Telegraph, 18/08/2007
- Obituary: Lord Deedes, The Times August 18, 2007
- Obituary: Lord Deedes, Daily Telegraph, 17/08/2007
- Richard Ingrams Obituary The Guardian August 18, 2007
- Duff Hart-Davis Obituary The Independent 20 August 2007
- Cassandra Jardine, Lord Deedes: Legacy of noble Deedes, Daily Telegraph, 08/12/2007
- The entry for DEEDES from Burke's Peerage and Baronetage 107th Edition
- See also the Daily Telegraph's tribute to his life and works:
W. F. Deedes 1913-2007