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date: 27 February 2021

Pickering, Sir Edward Daviesfree

(1912–2003)
  • Brian MacArthur

Pickering, Sir Edward Davies (1912–2003), journalist and newspaper editor and executive, was born at 311 Newport Road, Middlesbrough, on 4 May 1912, the third son of George Pickering, master pawnbroker and draper, and his wife, Louisa Jane (Louie), née Davies. He was educated at Middlesbrough high school. On 3 October 1936 he married Margaret Grant Soutter, also twenty-four years old, and the daughter of John William Paul Soutter, technical engineer. They had one daughter. By the time of his marriage Pickering (usually known as Pick or Ted) had begun his career as a journalist with the Northern Echo, a daily morning newspaper published from Darlington. He remained a working journalist until a few months before his death, following a remarkably long and distinguished career during which he worked closely with three of the most powerful British newspaper barons of the twentieth century—the second Viscount Rothermere, Lord Beaverbrook, and Rupert Murdoch.

After his apprenticeship on the Northern Echo as district reporter and sub-editor, Pickering moved to Fleet Street, first to the Daily Mirror as a sub-editor and then to the Daily Mail where by 1939 he was chief sub-editor, a senior and demanding position requiring sure news judgement and technical proficiency. After the Second World War was declared he joined the Royal Artillery. He became an instructor in radar, was commissioned, and by 1944 was working as a major on group planning communications for General Eisenhower on the staff of supreme headquarters, allied expeditionary force. When the invasion of Normandy was launched Eisenhower himself wrote the historic 'Crossing the Channel no. 1 communiqué' but the regular 11 a.m. message was drafted by a committee representing the American, Canadian, and British armies, navies, and air forces. When Eisenhower slimmed this unwieldy body into a more efficient unit, Pickering remained as the only British representative. Trying to edit a communiqué whose chief contributors were such prima donnas as generals Montgomery, Bradley, and Patton, and the RAF's Bomber Harris, was the hardest 'subbing' job he had ever done, Pickering subsequently recalled. But the final drafts never missed Eisenhower's 9 a.m. deadline. Pickering became so close to Ike that he sometimes attended his regular meetings with King George VI when Eisenhower reported on progress after D-day. After the war Pickering and Ike continued to meet when Eisenhower was in London, and Eisenhower invited Pickering to the White House when he became president, but Pickering never found the time.

After the war, and a brief stint in Manchester, Pickering returned to Fleet Street in 1947 as managing editor of the Daily Mail and number two to the editor, Frank Owen. It was a reasonable expectation that he would be the next editor but in 1950 the job went instead to Guy Schofield and Pickering immediately resigned. As he considered his future in a gloomy nightclub, he was summoned to the phone where the rasping voice of Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, offered him a job, and in 1951 he became second-in-command to Arthur Christiansen, editor of the Daily Express, the Mail's fiercest rival. The partnership of the capricious and demanding Beaverbrook and Christiansen, the supreme journalistic professional, had driven the Express to a sale of more than four million; for ambitious journalists it was the most glamorous and exciting newspaper in Fleet Street. But Christiansen had been editor for eighteen gruelling years. His health was failing and Beaverbrook was beginning to lose confidence in him. It was soon Pickering who really ran the paper and who was in control at night, as he was on the night before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II when, as so often happens, another big news story broke: The Times reported that Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had conquered Everest. As he studied the front page with its picture of the eve-of-coronation celebrations, Pickering had a simple solution of genius and wrote a headline across eight columns: 'All This—and Everest Too!'

In 1956 Christiansen suffered a heart attack when he was staying with Beaverbrook in the south of France. He was moved aside and in 1957 Pickering became editor of the Daily Express. It was now his turn to be at the beck and call of the constant phone calls and memos from 'the lord'. Among journalists the flamboyant and inspirational Christiansen had been a legend and there were doubts in Fleet Street that Pickering could follow him successfully. But Pickering confounded the critics, mainly because he was an utterly different kind of editor, quiet and unruffled, especially against the barrage from Beaverbrook, who sometimes complained that Pickering was an 'old soldier' who always had an excuse ready to hand. He would tell Beaverbrook that the phones were down or the reporter was ill to explain why he had been scooped by the Mail. 'That will make him stutter', Beaverbrook would say savagely as he dictated his latest memo. The truth was that Pickering protected the staff from Beaverbrook's rages, often saving them from the sack or at least delaying their departures.

Although Pickering was a man of few words and of conversational silences, he relished the rivalry, companionship, and conviviality of Fleet Street in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was known to journalists as the Street of Adventure (and often too, more cynically, as the Street of Disillusion). He enjoyed a drink and gossip in El Vino or the Press Club, especially when the Express had been put to bed and he relaxed by displaying his gift as a pianist who played Gershwin and Cole Porter to professional standards. There was a tried and tested system of protecting him if Beaverbrook called when he was enjoying a drink, 'We'll find him and get him to ring back immediately', his office would say. Beaverbrook's secretary would know that he was in the pub and could soon be got back to the office. Just as Beaverbrook shouted 'Where's Pickering?', Pickering was on the phone as calmly as if he had just returned from sorting out a problem in the composing room (private information). Any anger, impatience, or anxiety Pickering was feeling, whether from Beaverbrook's menacing calls or stupid editorial decisions, were kept effortlessly concealed. When others ranted, Pickering would raise a quizzical eyebrow or permit himself a shrug of the shoulders. When angry, he might allow a quarter smile of disdain. He was generous with praise.

Any early doubts about Pickering's translation to the editorship were quickly dispelled and under his editorship the Daily Express reached the highest circulation in its history of 4,313,000 in the first half of 1961, up by more than 200,000 in four years (when he died it had fallen below a million). But his triumph was short-lived. Beaverbrook was now eighty-four, his time was running out, and although he was successful, the taciturn Pickering could not give him the political conversation he relished. Beaverbrook decided that the Daily Express again needed an editor with the flair and panache of Christiansen. On Christmas eve 1962 Pickering was fired and replaced by his deputy, Robert Edwards. It was a characteristically brutal act by Beaverbrook, who further humiliated Pickering by putting him in charge of Farming Express.

Pickering was rescued from journalistic oblivion by Hugh Cudlipp, chairman of the Mirror Group. The Sunday Mirror had had to pay heavy damages for a libel when Cudlipp was away and Cecil King, chairman of the International Publishing Corporation, which owned the Mirror titles, was advised that he needed an experienced editor by his side during Cudlipp's absences. Cudlipp recommended Pickering and in 1964 he became editorial director of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, and The People. He was subsequently chairman of the newspaper division and the International Publishing Corporation's magazines before retiring in 1977, when he was knighted. His 'retirement' did not last long. When Pickering was editor of the Daily Express, Sir Keith Murdoch, the Australian newspaper tycoon, had asked his old friend Beaverbrook if he could find work experience for his son Rupert, who had just graduated at Oxford. Beaverbrook put him on the sub-editors' table. 'Take care of him, Pick, you never know where he might end up', he said (private information). Pickering did indeed take good care of the young Murdoch and taught him the rudiments of journalism. After his father, said Murdoch, Pickering was his great mentor. Murdoch remembered his mentor in 1981 when he had bought The Times and Sunday Times and had fallen out both with Harold Evans, whom he had made editor of The Times, and with Gerald Long, the managing director whom he had hired from Reuters. Murdoch invited Pickering to become an independent director. He soon became executive vice-chairman and started restoring calm and equilibrium after a period of turmoil, particularly at The Times. He remained with Murdoch and News International, owner of the Times titles, until his death.

Pickering worked a long day. When at the Express he was in the office at 9.30 a.m., when he had read all the other newspapers, and stayed until the second edition was completed at 11 p.m. He was the journalist's journalist, a peerless craftsman, according to Rupert Murdoch, who mastered the entire detail of newspapers in a manner Murdoch never saw bettered by any editor. He was as keen on the power of an eighteen-word ‘intro’, a properly cropped picture and its caption, or a twenty-five-word news in brief as he was on a top leading article. No detail was too trivial: to keep the circulation department on its toes, Pickering even kept a railway timetable on his desk. Even at ninety he worked a full day, interrupted only by lunch at the Garrick Club. He was quick to detect threats to press freedom from parliament or the courts and editors relied on him for sage advice. Nothing escaped him, said one Times editor, Simon Jenkins. The unicorn's head of The Times coat of arms had mysteriously tilted. Who did it? Was the College of Arms consulted? What on earth was that item on the court page? Pickering prepared papers for meetings of The Times board and was a hands-on chairman of the Times Educational Supplement, the Times Higher Education Supplement, and the Times Literary Supplement, and appointed the editors. Above all he had the ear and the trust of Rupert Murdoch.

Pickering was a man of many interests. He was a skilled bookbinder. He was the first Western editor to interview the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchov and the first editor to serialize a James Bond novel—Dr No—which put Ian Fleming on the map. He knew Picasso well enough for the artist to inscribe a book to him with a personal drawing. At various times he was vice-chairman of the Press Council and chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union; master of the guild of St Bride's, the Fleet Street church; and an honorary freeman of the Stationers' and Newspaper Makers' Company. He organized the campaign to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of William Tyndale in 1994 and masterminded the negotiations with the Chinese embassy and the British Museum which led to the successful sponsorship by The Times of the ‘Mysteries of ancient China’ exhibition in 1996. And he had a unique relationship with Winston Churchill. Once or twice a week after the Second World War, Churchill would phone Pickering at the Daily Express. The conversation never varied:

Good evening, Mr Pickering.Good evening, Mr Churchill.You have my information?I do.

Pickering would then read out the closing prices of certain stocks on Wall Street.

Pickering's first marriage ended in divorce in 1947, and on 3 June 1955 he married his second wife, Rosemary Alice Whitton, a 28-year-old fashion model, and daughter of Harry George Whitton, a pictorial advertiser. They had two sons and one daughter. Pickering died of heart failure on 8 August 2003 at his home, 22 Rutland Gate, Knightsbridge, London. He was survived by his wife, Rosemary, and his four children.

Sources

  • Daily Telegraph (9 Aug 2003)
  • The Guardian (9 Aug 2003)
  • The Independent (11 Aug 2003)
  • The Scotsman (11 Aug 2003)
  • R. Murdoch, memorial service address, St Bride's Church, London, 1 Dec 2003
  • WW (2003)
  • personal knowledge (2007)
  • private information (2007)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.

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  • obituary photographs
  • photographs, News Int. RO, The Times archive
(1849–)
News International Record Office, London
British Library, National Sound Archive