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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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Lady May pays tribute to talented Hickey reporter Philip Geddes
40 years after killing by the IRA 

They shall grow not old as we are left to grow old


The line from Laurence Binyon’s celebrated Great War poem swept into my mind when I first saw this picture of Philip Geddes and his friend Theresa Brasier at Oxford in 1978. Theresa Brasier became Mrs May, our second female prime minister and Philip Geddes, talented young Express Hickey reporter? He was killed by the IRA in the Harrods bomb 1983 aged just 24.


It is the great What If question, what would Philip have achieved had he not died so young, so violently and so needlessly? And it is the question Theresa May asked when she spoke movingly about Philip at a Commons reception on Monday evening (23 October). We were there to mark the 40th anniversary of the Philip Geddes Prize, set up with his old Oxford college, St Edmund Hall, by our chum Christopher Wilson.


The Prize has been a spectacular success and Philip would have been very proud of that. And like little acorns, it grew from a spontaneous whip round in the Poppinjay two days after the blast. More of that later.


Theresa Brasier was at St Hugh’s when the pair met and they hit it off instantly. ‘He was brilliant, quite brilliant,’ she said. ‘I have often wondered, would he have been a great editor, a remorseless TV interrogator maybe, I know I would love to have been interviewed by him. Sadly we shall never know except that I’m sure he would have been a great star.’


It is the first time Lady May (as she now is) has spoken publicly about their friendship and of her admiration for our friend and colleague. And she revealed that Geddes once interviewed the disgraced former US president Richard Nixon while at university. When I spoke with her at the event, she was clearly touched talking about his death.


All that was then. But it all ended on the early afternoon of December 17, the Saturday before Christmas 1983. Philip was in Harrods shopping for a present for his girlfriend. The IRA rang through a coded warning that a bomb had been planted to go off in 35 minutes. Police cleared the store and Philip, being the reporter he was, stayed near police in Hans Crescent hoping to find out more.


Sadly, what he found was the flash of a devastating blast from 30lbs of explosive planted in a car, killing him, three police including a WPC and two other civilians.


Those of us who went to his funeral in his hometown of Barrow-in-Furness on the Cumbrian coast will never forget the sheer bleakness of the weather and the occasion. We were saying goodbye to a young friend of enormous promise. His parents, who had him late in life, were saying goodbye to their only child and in the case of his father, his only blood relative. Geddes senior was a Polish refugee who had lost his entire family to the Nazis.


The loss, understandably, destroyed them both and his father later died of a broken heart and of dementia. Philip is buried on a hillside graveyard facing directly out across the Irish Sea to the birthplace of his killers. And as proud Irishman it makes me sick to have to write that.


Philip’s death was reported worldwide and his smiling young face appeared on the front page of almost every British national and regional daily paper. Except, I am ashamed to say, the Daily Express. Wilson devoted Hickey to Death of a Gentle Man, a fine and balanced tribute. But the judgment of the editor of the day to downplay our coverage was beyond disgraceful.


Christopher Wilson was determined that the death of his young protégé should be marked with a prize for student journalism. And so the Geddes Prize was born 40 years ago and there were plenty of prize winners at the Commons reception including the outgoing chairman of the judging panel Peter Cardwell, Talk TV ’s political editor and our very own Rachel Trethewey, now a best-selling author of historical biographies.


Rachel won the Geddes prize in the second year of its inception when one of the judges was Nick Lloyd (himself an alumnus of Teddy Hall) who straight away offered her a job on the Women’s pages. Her best assignment? ‘Taking over from the great Peter Hitchens to report on Poland’s Velvet Revolution. I was just 21 and barely out of Oxford!’ 


Other prize winners over the years include many who are now the country’s leading names in journalism. (Incidentally the very first award of £2,500 was spent by its nameless recipient, not on an assignment as it should have been but on beer and a new motorbike!)


Each year the Geddes Lecture is given at Oxford by some of the most celebrated names in the media. This illustrious list includes Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Michael Crick, Ian Hislop, Laura Kuenssberg and the brave Lyse Doucet. This year’s was lecturer was Huw Edwards and, irony of irony, he delivered it on the day his accuser was telling The Sun about her allegations concerning her son.


The Geddes Foundation and its Prize would not have been possible but for the brilliant efforts of my friend Christopher Wilson who has been relentless in his determination to mark the killing of Philip Geddes in a positive and meaningful way. He has succeeded spectacularly and has given Philip, with all his promise, a deserving legacy.

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One of the speakers at the reception was Paddy Coulter who has been associated with the Prize for many years. We got chatting later and it turned out that the last time we had seen each other was at Leavers’ Day at Methodist College before he went to Oxford and I to plough a furrow in hackdom and its associated greasy poles. That was all of 59 years ago. Piccolo Mondo as we say in Belfast…


25 October 2023

Peter Cardwell , Lady May and Baroness Willis, Principal of Teddy Hall.