The fact that William Rees-Mogg was lampooned for his pomposity and also teased for making misguided predictions tended to cloud his journalistic achievements.
It is only fair that he gets his due following today’s announcement of his death at the age of 84. Despite his conservatism and apparent caution, his editorship of The Times – which ran from 1967 until 1981 – was marked by his reforming zeal in the face of considerable opposition from many staff.
The year before his arrival, the paper had started printing news on the front page instead of adverts. He gave that substance by deliberately rejecting the elitist view that The Times was only for “the top people” – an ill-advised promotional campaign launched under his predecessor – by making the paper more popular, though never populist.
As part of his strategy to make The Times more accessible to more people, he dared to innovate. He gave more space to the arts, more to sport and introduced a women’s page. Reporters were allowed to have bylines and he hired columnist Bernard Levin from the Daily Mail who soon became a readers’ favourite.
He famously took the side of Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards when they were given disproportionately long jail sentences for drug offences in 1967. His editorial, “who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel”, helped to ensure that Jagger and Richards spent less than two days in prison, and the sentences were thrown out on appeal.
In 1969, he condoned his reporters going undercover to secretly tape-record witnesses in order to provide evidence of corruption among London’s police. It was to prove one of the most influential newspaper investigations of the period, a journalistic turning point that is too often overlooked.
It can be contested that this fertile and innovative period of Rees-Mogg’s editorship did not endure. But The Times was in turmoil for much of his term of office.
There were consistent union problems that bedevilled its owners, the Thomson Corporation, and many issues went unpublished. This culminated in the paper being shut down for nearly a year, from December 1978 until November 1979.
From then on, it was clear that Thomson wanted to no more to do with The Times and the Sunday Times, the paper where Rees-Mogg had previously been city editor, political editor and deputy editor.
When the papers were put up for sale in 1981, Rees-Mogg opposed the bid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. He even led a rather lame attempt to find an alternative buyer. But, unlike several of his staff, he was pragmatic enough to accept Murdoch as the new owner.
He resigned as editor of The Times but went on writing a column for the paper until he moved across to the Mail on Sunday early in the new millennium.
It was true that he did make many odd and incorrect forecasts in columns were too often rather stuffy and repetitive. I see that David Cameron found him “full of wisdom and good advice,” but I doubt that too many people agree with the prime minister.
Even Rees-Mogg himself was self-deprecating enough, in his 2011 memoirs, to write: “I was manifestly clever, without being particularly consistent, accurate or profound.”
But, as Harold Evans wrote in his memoirs, Rees-Mogg wrote with astonishing fluency. He had a true journalist’s gift for polemic. I tended to read him only occasionally in recent years, but there was always something in his columns to make me splutter. And isn’t that what columnists are supposed to do?