Editor and journalist Peter Preston

Peter Preston

23rd May 1938 - 6th January 2016

On Thursday 5th July, 2018, at 11:30am a service of thanksgiving for the life of Peter Preston was held at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street.
Download Order of Service (pdf)


The Revd Canon Dr Alison Joyce delivered the opening and prayers:

As the Journalists’ Church we hold many services here honouring the great and the good of the industry.  But in celebrating the life of Peter Preston today we remember a man to whom the superlatives really do apply.  There can be few individuals more courageous, more innovative, and more influential than Peter – a man who had journalism in his blood, and was unsurpassed in his commitment to the newspapers he served.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, we remember before you this day with thanksgiving, Peter, a man of modesty, integrity, and principle.

We give thanks for his extraordinary and outstanding achievements, as a writer and editor; one who stood for all that is best in journalism

We give thanks for his dedication; his commitment; and his courage.  For his vision and insight and energy.

We remember too a man with a great love of films and sport. 

A deeply private man whose family was always at the heart of his life.

A loving and much-loved husband to Jean for so many years; a man devoted to his children, Ben, Rupert, Kate, and Alex; and who adored his grandchildren.  A man who inspired warmth and affection in all who knew him.

God of compassion, we pray for all members of Peter’s family, and all who share their sense of loss.  May you be their comfort and consolation at this time.  Surround them with your love, and help them to know your peace.



Liz Forgan

You couldn’t second guess Peter.
Apparently a down-the-line liberal leftie.
Guardianista-in-chief after all.
A Newspaper pro. Chary of digits.
Shy to the point of social gaucheness. Earnest. High minded.

And he certainly had iron principles. Core beliefs.
Europe. Freedom of information. The institutions of democracy. Pluralism. You could see them every day in his paper.

But you couldn’t second guess Peter.

I remember sitting on the leader desk the night of the 1979 Callaghan election waiting for Peter’s leader to come up the pneumatic tubes

(For the children present, this was the only way – in the dark days before digits – to get information from one floor of the office to the other without running upstairs.)

Whoosh. The first par arrived. “Christ he’s going Liberal”… Whoosh. Par 2: “no he’s not. It’s Callaghan.” Whoosh. Par 3: “Christ it’s definitely Liberal” and so on paragraph by paragraph until the final tortured conclusion. Everyone else on the paper may have assumed the usual endorsement. Not Peter.

Anyone who had the codes to decipher his weekly Observer column (encrypted partly out of discretion, partly by his naturally elliptical prose style) knew of his deep mistrust of the rush to digits and away from print on paper. He feared the qualitative impact of digital technology on his beloved craft of journalism – not to mention on its basic business model. But he was no Luddite. He eventually took to Twitter. He became absolutely expert at reading the runes of the media marketplace, analogue and digital and came to rejoice in the Guardian’s success in the global digital world.

He was shy. Usually the quietest person in the room. He didn’t walk among princes and prime ministers, let alone tv cameras. He never wanted to be a player. His passion was to see the game explained clearly and fairly so that everyone could choose who to back.

No one remembers Preston oratory. And indeed one of the reasons you couldn’t second guess him was that he never told anyone what was going on at all. But the inimical Preston charm (and shy or not he was charming beyond belief when he wanted to be) is to be found in little notes written in unmistakeable Prestonese like the one he sent me when he had offered me a job on the Guardian and the Evening Standard immediately upped my salary in a flattering attempt to keep me.

Peter went into zen mode. “Personally I always mistrust those who strew rose petals when others are throwing carnations from a great height” he wrote. What could I do? Reader I joined his paper.

The contradictions run on. He was a deeply serious man but his Miscellany column shocked loyal readers with a gossipy, demotic approach never previously seen in the Guardian. A Guardian man to his marrow bones but a doughty champion of the Observer when the sibling rivalry got a bit hot.

He was a man of plain style in his personal habits. He mostly seemed to exist on macerated biro ends. Lunch, when it happened, was a horrible kebab house known as the Cheap Greek. (There was an Expensive Greek in Charlotte Street but only for hirings and firings) and his clothes were – to put it kindly – unremarkable. But his arrival as editor transformed the look and feel of the Guardian with a superbly elegant redesign and a sparkling approach to features that attracted a new younger audience put off by the austere provincialism of the paper he inherited.

He was a brave and principled editor. Time and again he bet the farm (and in those days it didn’t stand much betting) to take on the powerful and unscrupulous. The Spycatcher campaign which he led with iron determination was a real milestone in the fight for freedom of expression. He trusted his journalists. Well…. up to a point Lord Copper, as he might have said. He took the flak, bore the worry and kept the faith.

But he was also commercially smart. All those public sector ads that kept the Guardian going for years didn’t get there by accident and he was in the engine room of the technological innovation of the 1980s. Peter may have been a champion of liberal idealism but he was a determined business man too.

You could never second guess Peter Preston.

But I bet it’s not Spycatcher – or the transformation he wrought which set the Guardian on its path from austere Manchester daily to a global leader – that Peter remembered most about his time as editor. He wasn’t one to dwell on the triumphs.

I bet the day Peter remembered to the end of his life was the day he returned documents that led to the conviction of Sarah Tisdall, a young civil servant who blew the whistle on military preparations at Greenham common. It was an agonising decision. He was convinced there was an existential threat to the Guardian if he did not do so. He immediately offered his resignation. My predecessor as Scott Trust Chair, Hugo Young, refused to accept it. But I don’t think Peter ever forgave himself.

Not all journalists stick the knife in and go home happily for tea.

He was a master of his profession. He knew its history, its economics, its technicalities and its politics. He adored every part of it. He was expert in most. He poured his energy after retirement into fighting for journalists in trouble and facing oppression all over the world. He worked for the Guardian Foundation almost till his dying day, encouraging and teaching young journalists in need of support in Turkey, the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

In the end, though, the quality which for me shines out of Peter Preston as out of no other journalist I have ever known is integrity. Copper bottomed. Clear sighted.. Sometimes quizzical to the point of self-parody but non-negotiable. It infused the whole paper. Some saw it as sanctimonious. Opponents sometimes claimed to see hypocrisy. You could find those two qualities here and there in the history of the Guardian. But never in Peter.

He was the most modest great man I ever met. The most morally admirable self-deprecator. And, when journalists sometimes do things that rightly earn public disgust, I think of Peter and I recover my faith that journalism is a noble calling.

And that wasn’t a guess at all.

Paul Dacre

I have a confession to make: I cannot claim to have known Peter Preston well. Not one for chit-chat myself, our few social encounters invariably left me drowning in the sea of those famous unnerving silences while my not infrequent mentions in his column were a mix of good, bad and, I suspect, deliberately elliptical.

That said, Peter was a hero of mine. I always felt – and here you must forgive my presumption – that in his love of… his obsession with… his addiction to journalism – we were kindred spirits.

As a young reporter on the Express when its circulation was about 4 million, I would sometimes have a late dinner at that Greek greasy spoon called The Kolossi Grill, known as the Colostomy, in the hope of catching sight of him.

He was, after all, the journalists’ journalist. The editors’ editor.

Liz has described Peter the private, shy, socially gauche individual who eschewed the swanky parties and glitzy first nights at which too many of his trade loved to be seen hobnobbing with the powerful and the celebrated.

I see a different man.

I see a slightly lonely figure – one who was all too acutely aware that an editor, who operates without fear or favour, can’t really have friends. And then again, good editors need to be outsiders because, let’s be honest, most people only befriend journalists to get something into a paper or – more pertinently – keep it out.

I also see a man who, even after the First Edition had gone, was glued to the Back Bench, a micro-waved pizza and plastic bottle of plonk on his desk. This was not because he was against gossiping in the pub but because, frankly, even after a 12 hour day, it was a wretched distraction from a job that had to be done. Like sharpening a headline, writing a cleverer intro, or cropping a more dramatic picture, because, let me tell you, when you’re fixated by journalism like Peter was, there’s virtually nothing more important in life than trying to produce the perfect paper. And, on the rare occasions that you do, there’s no greater buzz on this earth.

Now I am not going to provoke my own lynching by suggesting that I’d have made a good fist of editing The Guardian.

But I am going to risk a collective cardiac arrest in this congregation by offering you the view – that politics apart, and actually, with the exception of his passion for Europe, I don’t think Peter was ideological – it’s not fanciful to say the man would have made a great editor of the Daily Mail.

After all, he came from the lower middle class. He was instinctively anti-Establishment. Politically, he was difficult to define though on the unions he was almost Thatcherite. He believed, to the deprecation of too many of his colleagues to whom profit is a dirty word, that it was actually rather a good thing for a paper to be financially prudent and commercially successful.

He was evangelical about the need for what he called “zing”. His mantra was “serious doesn’t need to be dull.” He initiated great women’s pages. In G2 he created a brilliant tabloid that has been imitated but never equalled.

He was fascinated by popular culture and determined Guardian readers should not be excluded from the national dialogue because some of his staff had an aversion to anything that interested ordinary people.

And his philosophy, outlined in his last media column, that readers in a jam should be treated like human beings and that a paper, by identifying with distress, becomes a functioning part of society rather than a commentary on its edges – should be the credo of every editor.

Above all, he loved features and beautiful words and brilliant writers several of whom the Mail poached. Others were rogues whom he tolerated because of the glory of their writing. To others he gave whopping pay increases – at least whopping by Guardian standards – to stop them defecting to rivals.

And the making flesh of those wonderful words and a manifestation of Peter’s genius for lateral innovation was G2. Why he asked – if it effervesced with flair, wit and creativity – should a tabloid be downmarket.

Inevitably, there were the quali-pop sneers. Jonathan Miller, in self-condemnatory words, called Pass Notes a pollutant infecting culture.

But G2 had it all… Jaw dropping covers… A dizzying range of views and voices … Bold pictures … Important investigations and profiles… G2 was both serious and salacious even if there were, for my taste, a tad too many articles intellectualising the female orgasm. And not a week went by when, at its height, the Mail didn’t buy one of its articles.

Now I don’t want to overstate this “zing” factor because ultimately Peter’s Guardian was a very serious newspaper that broke important stories and pulled off some historic investigations. He put together a superb stable of reporters, writers and often extraordinarily courageous foreign correspondents. His specialists, particularly in Westminster, Whitehall, the City and Sport, broke an embarrassment of exclusives as I knew to my cost when News Editing the Mail in the 80s.

He also, in masterminding the paper’s journey from narrow socialism to broad liberalism, created a unique tone in which writers with many different voices, Left and Right, co-existed but then Peter’s paper had a compassion, a burning desire to confront social wrongs, a reasonableness and a tolerance that eschewed dogma.

Others have rightly said that by seeing off the malicious militancy of the unions, and launching those highly profitable classified supplements, Peter arguably saved The Guardian from oblivion.

But ultimately, it was G2 and his daring redesign of the main paper – with its emphasis on creative white – which were hugely significant in the transformation of a somewhat austere high-brow regional paper that haemorrhaged losses into a radical, young, modern, profitable respected global liberal media brand that saw off the ferocious predatory price cutting of The Times, routed the incursions of The Independent and achieved, at its height, a Guardian circulation of 500,000.

That remarkable legacy prompts me to risk another presumption. I don’t know Peter’s wife, Jean, though she wrote an enchanting letter asking me to give this address.

But I do know there are two sides to workaholism.

There are the insane, grinding, attritional hours that, yes, produce great front pages. And there is the empty seat in the theatre, the querulous exhausted weekends, the nagging anxious need to be near a telephone on holidays, and the absent father at the family dinner table.

Which is why I can say with absolute certainty, that Peter could not have achieved everything he did on the Guardian and brought up four remarkable children without Jean.

I am told, in later years, he was, rightly, proud of the Guardian’s online achievements.

Whether he was ever reconciled to the digital revolution though, I doubt.

The reason, of course, was that he was quite simply, a print man. He loved that magical symbiosis of newsprint, pictures, headlines, fonts and beautiful words that at their best can make a paper a functioning part of society rather than a commentary at its edges.

Inevitably, sadly, those Fleet Street skills needed for that magic symbiosis are dying in an internet age which seems to have a voracious need for free, somewhat crudely expressed, round-the-clock information and gratification.

Yes, of course, journalism will survive and may, one day, flourish again. But it will be different. Whether it will, in future, have the creative beauty and sheer power of Peter’s Guardian, I don’t know. But I do know – and there’s no presumption here – that, for the sake of our industry’s collective memory, we should today salute a very great man of print.

Ben & Rupert Preston


Alex Preston read Proverbs 3: 13-23

13 Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding,
14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver
and her profit better than gold.
15 She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed.

19 The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
20 by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.

21 My son, do not lose sight of these—
keep sound wisdom and discretion,
22 and they will be life for your soul
and adornment for your neck.
23 Then you will walk on your way securely,
and your foot will not stumble.
24 If you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
25 Do not be afraid of sudden terror
or of the ruin[a] of the wicked, when it comes,
26 for the Lord will be your confidence
and will keep your foot from being caught.

Maggie O’Kane read A Tribute by Harry Evans

Katherine Viner read In Pursuit of Truth by Peter Preston


The choir & organist of St Bride’s performed the following anthems and songs:

God be in my head – Walford Davies

Loquebantur variis linguis – Tallis

Only in sleep – Ešenvalds

Moon River – Mancini/Mercer arr. Shaw

Ring of fire – Cash arr. Morley

Prelude and Fugue in C – J S Bach


Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer

Praise, My Soul, The King Of Heaven


Obituaries & Comment

congregation sitting for service


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