The Times stalwart, who has died aged 84, was born into a life of privilege and became one of Fleet Street’s most respected leaders after failing to become a Tory MP
William Rees-Mogg, who edited the Times from January 1967 to March 1981, has died. He was 84 and worked to the last, writing his regular column for the newspaper and an opinion piece on the departure of editor James Harding just two weeks ago.
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said his father had only discovered in the last couple of weeks that he was suffering from inoperable oesophageal cancer. “He died very peacefully and a member of his family was with him. He was very prepared for it,” said Rees-Mogg. He paid tribute to his father, who was also a former vice-chairman of the BBC and chairman of the Arts Council.
“I had the greatest father anyone could ever want, who always encouraged his children in the different things that they did. He had the most extraordinary knowledge of almost every subject you could ever ask him about, and had this fascinating position in British public life for the last 60 years.
“He interviewed the leader of the opposition only six weeks ago. We are all enormously proud of him and all that he did; and yet he found time to be the most active and loving father.”
David Cameron also paid tribute. “William Rees-Mogg is rightly a Fleet Street legend – editing The Times through a tumultuous period with flair and integrity. I always found him full of wisdom and good advice – particularly when I first became leader of the opposition,” he said.
Rees-Mogg was born in Bristol and educated at Charterhouse. After graduating from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1950, he was recruited as a reporter at the Financial Times.
He stood as a Tory parliamentary candidate in 1956 and 1959, and was biographer and speechwriter to Anthony Eden. After failing to become an MP, he concentrated on journalism, joining the Sunday Times as city editor in 1960. He became deputy editor in 1964. That year he wrote an article headlined “A captain’s innings” in which he called for Alec Douglas-Home to resign as prime minister, which he did shortly afterwards.
Aged 38, Rees-Mogg became editor of The Times in 1967 when the paper was acquired by the Thomson family, Canadian media magnates who already owned the Sunday Times. In July 1967 he published a leading article criticising the jailing of Mick Jagger for a minor drugs offence, headlined “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”
Roy Thomson died in 1976 and his son, Kenneth, was less interested in English newspapers, leading to conflict between management and the print unions over an attempt to impose the use of new technology and to change working practices. Kenneth Thomson’s shock tactics, backed by Rees-Mogg, led to the paper shutting down from December 1978 to November 1979. After losing about 40 million copies, the Thomson board capitulated, later using a strike by Times journalists in 1980 as a pretext for putting Times Newspapers up for sale.
Rees-Mogg assumed leadership of a group of journalists that sought an alternative buyer to Rupert Murdoch. He later supported the Murdoch bid, leading to accusations of betrayal from staff, and resigned as editor, making way for Harold Evans. He referred to his departure in an editorial in March 1981 as “My resumption of liberty”.
Rees-Mogg, who received a life peerage in 1988 and sat as a cross-bencher, was highly influential in Tory circles, particularly during the Thatcher and Major governments.
In 1962 he wed Gillian Morris. They had two sons and three daughters.