Times obituary: Brian MacArthur

From The Times, 26 March, 2019

Convivial journalist at the centre of the Hitler Diaries saga who helped to start a revolution in Fleet Street as founding editor of Today

Brian MacArthur was dining with the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in Hamburg when he felt the first glimmerings of concern about The Sunday Times’s proposal to publish the so-called Hitler Diaries in 1983.

The eminent historian and expert on the Führer who had been brought in to authenticate the diaries confessed to The Sunday Times deputy editor that he could not read the German menu.

On the Saturday evening before serialisation of the diaries on April 24, 1983, as colleagues gathered in the editor’s office to admire the front page, the paper’s editor, Frank Giles, made a routine call to Lord Dacre (Trevor-Roper) only to be told by the historian that he had changed his mind about the authenticity of the diaries.

Glasses of champagne were being clinked when MacArthur noticed Giles’s ashen face and heard him say: “But these doubts aren’t strong enough to make you do a complete 180-degree turn on that? Oh, I see.”

According to Robert Harris’s account of the saga, Selling Hitler, MacArthur “slowly slid down the wall”. After a “council of war”, MacArthur phoned the proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, in New York to suggest that they stop the press and start again. Murdoch’s response was emphatic and explicit, the gist of it being: “Publish.” The diaries turned out to be an elaborate fake. The Sunday Times’s circulation increased.

A clubbable man with a deep, fruity voice, who was described by the journalist Harold Evans as resembling “one of those 18th-century portraits of a well-fed cardinal”, MacArthur soon retreated to the West Country where he took on the challenge of reinventing the Western Morning News. He could not stay away from Fleet Street for long. In 1985 he accepted an invitation from the buccaneering entrepreneur Eddie Shah to be the editor of a new national newspaper, Today. His mission was to adopt the computer technology that would break the stranglehold of the print unions, enable colour printing and revolutionise Fleet Street.

As a local newspaper owner, Shah had introduced computer technology at his Warrington printworks. When challenged by the unions he invoked legislation put in place by the Thatcher government to contain wildcat strikes and mass picketing. The result was a violent running battle between the police and strikers. For Shah it seemed like an outright victory.

The launch of the tabloid format “quali-pop” was backed by a £2 million advertising campaign, though MacArthur later admitted that the launch on March 4, 1986 was rushed. Budgets were hopelessly unrealistic. MacArthur had to make do with a staff of 500 for a seven-day operation, while his mid-market rivals employed thousands. Journalists had not been trained properly how to use the new computers and in any case they kept breaking down.

MacArthur later wrote that preparations, such as dummy issues to test the systems, had been inadequate. When they launched the real thing the paper’s IT systems went into meltdown — often at the point when pages were created. The first issue was savaged by critics and, though MacArthur steered improvements, it never made its ambitious target of 900,000 sales and had to settle for half that amount. Advertising rates plunged and the paper was soon in financial difficulties. The amiable MacArthur would be summoned to meet an incandescent Shah.

MacArthur left Today the next year, when he was on the point of being sacked, to rejoin The Sunday Times. Today closed in 1995. Many regarded it as a failure, but MacArthur remained proud of what was achieved. He wrote in The Sunday Times in 1991: “Although Shah lost control of Today, his model of how to run a newspaper has become the norm . . . Shah was the innovator who tried to run too fast and suffered the fate of a pioneer.”

News International, the publisher of The Times and The Sunday Times, had been modernising its own printing operations at the same time and was in the midst of a dispute with picketing printworkers at its new site in Wapping, east London. When the company produced an advert stating its case in the dispute, most newspapers declined to print it. Showing solidarity, MacArthur printed the advert in Today.

He later moved to The Times and was editing the paper on the Sunday in 1997 after news emerged that Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash. His marshalling of the paper’s coverage, including the editor Peter Stothard’s leading article written on a British Airways breakfast menu as he flew back to London from Scotland, was described as masterful.

Brian Roger MacArthur was born in Chelmsford, Essex, in 1940. His father, Sylvestor Hubert MacArthur, was an education officer who had met his mother, Marjorie Wybrow, at the local council where she worked in the town clerk’s office. Brian’s Enid Blyton-esque childhood was shattered when a rich aunt paid for him to attend a local prep school. He kept the tear-stained entrance examination paper as a reminder of how wretched it had been.

The family moved north to Ellesmere Port when Brian was 13. While at Helsby Grammar School, he started commentating on the local football ground for hospital radio. When the Queen visited the Cheshire town he branched out and did a broadcast from the railway station, describing the arrival of the royal party. He wrote his account up and sent it to the Ellesmere Port News and Advertiser. It was published word for word and his career as a journalist had begun.

He read English and French at the University of Leeds, graduating with a “half-hearted” third. However, his press cuttings attracted a job offer from The Yorkshire Post. From the start, he was hungry: “In the generation I came from there was a real sense that grammar school boys and girls were fighting against public school boys and girls.”

Progress was rapid. After two years he joined the Daily Mail in London and then returned north to work for The Guardian. As an education correspondent he covered the expansion of the universities and the introduction of comprehensive schools. In 1967 he was poached by The Times to perform the same role. Four years later he was the natural choice to create The Times Higher Education Supplement. He was given a staff of six and two years to turn a profit. Having met the target and more, in 1976 he was appointed the paper’s home news editor before joining the Evening Standard as deputy editor. It was a job that The Times editor William Rees-Mogg warned him he would hate. He did.

He eventually settled back into life at The Sunday Times, where he traded on his reputation as a lothario and bon vivant, loading his diary with a heavy round of breakfast, lunch and dinner engagements, often with publishers to secure serialisation rights. He was disappointed not to be offered the editor’s chair when Giles was sacked in 1983 and replaced by Andrew Neil, but recognised that Murdoch favoured a more abrasive personality. He left for two years on the Western Morning News.

MacArthur’s final stint at The Times started in 1991 when he was brought back to oversee travel and books. “Paper Round”, his weekly column on media matters, ran for 18 years.

His final job was as the books editor of The Daily Telegraph from 2006 to 2010. He wrote several well-received books, including Deadline Sunday about a week in the life of The Sunday Times.

MacArthur’s private life was complicated. His first wife, Peta Deschampsneufs, whom he married in 1966, died in 1971. In 1975 he married Bridget Trahair. The marriage was dissolved in 1997. His third wife was Maureen Waller, the writer and historian, whom he married in 2000. They had first met briefly when sitting next to each other at a literary awards dinner in 1990. They met again some time later at the launch of a John Grisham novel at the Savoy hotel in London. She recalled that Grisham was surrounded by “groupies” and she was on the point of leaving when MacArthur walked in. They moved in together three months later.

She survives him along with two daughters from his second marriage: Tessa, who works for the Department for International Development, and Georgina, a registrar in public health based in Bristol.

In 2006 Maureen persuaded him to move with her to north Norfolk, “kicking and screaming”. He made regular excursions back to the capital, to meet old friends at the Garrick Club; he founded a dining club for retired journalists there called the Old Codgers.

Brian MacArthur, journalist, was born on February 5, 1940. He died of leukaemia on March 24, 2019, aged 79

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