Times obit for Robin Esser

Robin Esser

Former editor of the Sunday Express who relished the glory days of Fleet Street and was a staunch defender of press freedom

November 8 2017, 12:01am, 

The Times

Robin Esser beat his rival at the Daily Mail to be the first British journalist to interview the astronauts from the 1969 moon landing


Robin Esser was eight years old when he announced his ambition to be a journalist. “I wanted to edit my mother’s favourite newspaper, the Sunday Express,” he told Press Gazette in 2007. It took 40 years, but as he said: “I did it.” Once in the editor’s chair he found that events moved fast, not least within the industry. Esser was the last British newspaper editor to see his paper printed on Fleet Street, but in April 1989 he said farewell to the rumbustious world of clattering typewriters and steaming hot metal as the Express titles moved into clean and clinical corporate offices.

Esser had honed his craft in a world where reporters kept pennies in one pocket to ring in stories from a telephone box and a knife in the other — to puncture the tyres of rival reporters’ cars. Lunches were long, liquid and invariably on expenses. He was editor of the Hickey column on the Daily Express when the title was owned by Lord Beaverbrook, who took a keen interest in the people he mentioned. “He would ring me up and say, ‘That was a good lead in your column this morning, Mr Esser. I hope it was right because I’m having lunch with him today.’ ”

He told of one lunch with an Express editor during which they drank champagne, a goblet of dry sherry, a bottle of chablis, two bottles of claret, a couple of cognacs and several glasses of port. The editor died young, but as Esser said, more good stories were elicited over a boozy lunch than can come from a tuna sandwich at the desk.

On one occasion he called Aris-totle Onassis on his yacht in Monte Carlo and was invited to fly over and meet Maria Callas. Another time he helped John Paul Getty to disentangle himself from a girlfriend who was angling for marriage by making it plain in an article headlined “I’m married to an oil rag” that the oil magnate would always put his business interests before matrimony.

Esser’s influence on the media landscape extended beyond gossip column anecdotes. He was a friend and ally of Margaret Thatcher, who he interviewed at the Sunday Express, and gave Nigel Dempster, the diarist, and Paul Dacre, now editor of the Daily Mail, their first jobs. Earlier, while running the Daily Express’s New York office, he beat his rival at the Daily Mail to be the first British journalist to interview the astronauts from the 1969 moon landing.

The three years in which he was editor of the Sunday Express were a period of big news stories and Esser got to the heart of them quickly. After the Herald of Free Enterprise sank in Zeebrugge harbour on March 6, 1987, Terry Fincher, a photographer, chartered an aircraft to fly over the stricken ferry. Although the cause of the disaster, in which 193 people died, was not officially known, Fincher’s pictures showed how the ship had set sail with her bow doors open and the sea had rushed in. Brian Hitchen, Esser’s deputy, recalled him scribbling the headline “The Doors of Death” on a sheet of paper and saying: “That’s it. I don’t think we need to look any further for the cause, gentlemen.”

Robin Charles Esser was born in Harrow in 1935, the son of Charles and Winifred. He was a small boy when the family moved to West Yorkshire, where he started a newsletter for his neighbours. He was educated at Wheelwright Grammar School, Dewsbury, and read history at Wadham College, Oxford, where he edited Cherwell, the university newspaper. At the time Varsity, its Cambridge rival, was edited by Michael Winner, later to be a film director and restaurant critic, and the two engaged in a circulation battle.

Esser played hockey for Wadham, recalling how returning late from one match landed him an early Fleet Street story. Finding himself locked out, Esser climbed over the wall into the garden of Sir Maurice Bowra, the warden, who was taking a stroll. He was summoned the next morning to account for himself, but when he arrived at Bowra’s office “a rather agitated man in a tweed suit came up” complaining that he had been refused permission to view a painting at Keble College. The man was Evelyn Waugh and Bowra, having forgotten Esser’s indiscretion, instructed him to entertain Waugh with a glass of wine while he finished a telephone call. It turned into several glasses. “The next morning, with a slight hangover, I related the whole occasion to the William Hickey column in the Daily Express,” he said.

I might leave my liver to medical science to mark the hard-drinking days

He was commissioned into the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry for his National Service, during which he was attached to the army’s press team in the build-up to the Suez Crisis and served with Michael Parkinson. They were reunited at the Henley Literary Festival in 1985 when Parkinson interviewed Esser about his career.

By 1957 he was working as a freelance reporter with the Daily Express before joining its staff in 1960. Two years later he took over the Hickey column, later claiming to have spent more time in the pub than the newsroom. “I might leave my liver to medical science to mark the hard-drinking days,” he quipped.

In 1959 he married Shirley Clough. She died in a car crash in France in 1972 in which Esser and their four children were injured. They are: Sarah Jane, a home maker; Daniel, a chef; Toby, who works in reinsurance; and Rebecca, a veterinary nurse. They all survive him. In 1981 he married Tui France, who sources products for allergy sufferers. She survives him with their sons, Jacob, who works in reinsurance, and Samuel, an investment banker.

After a spell as northern editor for the Daily Express, Esser worked in America before joining the London Evening News as consultant editor, engaging in a circulation war with the Evening Standard. He was back at the Daily Express in 1985 and the next year succeeded Sir John Junor to achieve his ambition of editing the Sunday Express. In 1989, with sales dipping, he was deposed and handed the consolation title of group editorial consultant.

He jumped ship to the Daily Mail in 1991, claiming that he had done so because “I’m used to being on the winning side”. He oversaw the introduction of a weekly arts and entertainment supplement and the early days of the paper’s website, remaining as executive managing editor until 2015. He served as president of the Society of Editors in 2011 but turned down a knighthood in 1990, insisting that a serving editor should not be in the debt of the establishment, and was one of the loudest voices in defence of the press at the time of the Leveson inquiry.

His memoir, Crusaders in Chains, was published two years ago and contains a wealth of Fleet Street anecdotes. However, he ended it on a serious note by declaring: “My fervent hope is that newspapers, in all their forms, local regional and national, serious and unabashedly popular, will continue to entertain but above all be a thorn in the side of cheats, wrongdoers, those who abuse the young and the old, and the hypocrisy of those in power.”

Robin Esser, journalist, was born on May 6, 1933. He died after suffering from heart problems on November 6, 2017, aged 84

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