Hitch: The Ebullient Patriot

From The Times, 4th December 2013

Ebullient editor of the Daily Star who improved the paper’s respectability and was known for his patriotism

Like wine, the stories attached to Brian Hitchen improved with age. There was, for instance, the time when he orchestrated the world scoop of photographs showing Elvis Presley in his coffin — a scoop so big that he arranged for the pictures to be printed twice in the National Enquirer; and the time when he masterminded the arrest of the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs by “Slipper of the Yard” for theDaily Express in 1974; Hitchen’s role in the latter “world exclusive” was reprised in the 1986 film The Great Paper Chase, though Hitchen noted that the actor who played him was “far too thin”. He also gave Piers Morgan his first shift on Fleet Street, and was once offered a kraal in KwaZulu by Chief Buthelezi.

One of Fleet Street’s most ebullient, mischievous and jovial characters (as well as one of the most hard-drinking), he would summon his staff to the daily editorial conference by blowing a horn. At the Daily Star, which Hitchen edited from 1987 to 1994, staff nicknamed him Benito, due to his resemblance to Mussolini and his right-wing views. “British bulldog” was another epithet, for his intensely patriotic stance, shiny bald head and penchant for Churchillian cigars.

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A newsman to his core, he took a deep, almost personal, interest in the Falklands War and the First Gulf War, going so far as to invite General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf, who led coalition forces in the latter conflict, to one of the “gold awards” ceremonies at the Savoy that Hitchen had introduced at the Daily Star. Schwarzkopf couldn’t come, but sent his wife and family instead.

Hitchen’s love of the good life continued undimmed despite a quadruple heart bypass in his early forties. Although he was a legendary drinker and could drink any of his staff literally under the table, he always retained his clarity of thought. One member of staff who bearded Hitchen in the bar at Ludgate House (the headquarters of Express Newspapers on Blackfriars bridge), outlining various of the paper’s perceived shortcomings in great detail, was dismissed on the spot with the words: “You don’t have to work here, you know . . . In fact: you don’t.”

Such behaviour was untypical; Hitchen was more likely to support his staff through thick and thin, on one occasion continuing to commission a photographer who had been dismissed. His essentially warm-hearted personality was matched by his love of sunshine; emerging blinking into Fleet Street one fine April day, he remarked: “I wish we had destroyed the ozone layer years ago.” Such comments were typical of him. Though trenchant and right-wing, his views were always leavened by their mischievousness.

His battered contacts book was one of the finest in Fleet Street: he prided himself on the breadth and depth of the people he knew, and made full use of his expense account to that end. Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister, made more than one visit to the offices of theStar, on one occasion even coming to have lunch with Hitchen there.

Born in Lancashire in 1936, Brian Hitchen began his career as a copy boy on the Daily Despatch in Manchester in 1951. He then joined theBury Times as a reporter before two years of National Service in the Parachute Regiment, followed by a brief stint on the Manchester Evening News. He joined the Daily Mirror as a reporter in 1958, and was sent from Manchester to cover the 1965 India-Pakistan conflict. From 1965 to 1972 he was the paper’s foreign correspondent in the US, reporting on the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and on the “Bogota Bracelet” scandal involving Bobby Moore before the 1970 World Cup; the England captain was detained in Colombia after being accused of stealing from a jewellery shop.

He returned to London as deputy news editor of the Daily Mirror in 1972, moving the next year to become news editor of the Daily Express. He was instrumental in tracking down Ronnie Biggs in Rio de Janeiro before Scotland Yard did; after the paper received a tip-off he co-ordinated the efforts of the paper’s US reporters, sending them to Brazil to locate Biggs and arranging for the Great Train Robber to be hidden away and then suddenly “produced” for Jack Slipper to arrest. Biggs, as the paper noted, was arrested while wearing red bathing briefs as he prepared for a day on Copacabana beach — resulting in the headline “ The Express sees Train Robber caught with his trousers down”.

At the National Enquirer, which he joined in 1976, Hitchen was responsible for persuading one of Elvis’s bodyguards to smuggle in a miniature camera and take pictures of the singer lying in his open coffin (other accounts suggest the pictures were taken by one of Elvis’s family). The pictures were splashed across the world — and were used for two consecutive editions of the Enquirer, which doubled its circulation.

After a spell on Jimmy Goldsmith’s ill-fated NOW! magazine Hitchen joined the Daily Star as London editor in 1981. He was subsequently deputy editor of the Sunday Express for a year before becoming editor of the Star in 1987. Lord Stevens of Ludgate, the chairman of Express Newspapers, brought him in to replace Mike Gabbert, who had brought the Star resolutely downmarket. Hitchen won back readers with initiatives such as the Star’s “gold awards” celebrating extraordinary individual achievements; harder news stories, features and pictures; and a series of campaigns, such as a dogged fight with BNFL over its allegedly dubious practices at Sellafield. Hitchen was proud that none of that company’s numerous complaints to the then Press Council was upheld.

Hitchen was moved to take over the editorship of the Sunday Express from Eve Pollard in 1994. Sadly his last year at Express Newspapers was blighted by his association with Mohamed Al Fayed, the chairman of Harrods. Al Fayed told Hitchen that he had details of corruption among senior members of the government and that he felt the Prime Minister should know. It was the first sign of the sleaze scandal that was to haunt John Major’s term in office Hitchen duly took the allegations privately to No 10, but was later revealed to be the “mystery middleman” who had brought the allegations to light.

Outside work, Hitchen liked the occasional round of golf and clay pigeon shooting. He loved sea-swimming and was a keen sailor at one time, owning a boat that had previously belonged to Sir John Junor, the longstanding editor of the Sunday Express. He was more interested, though, in good food, good wine and good company, at his holiday home in Spain and his main home in Shoreham-by-Sea (and later Hove). He married Nelli, an Irish nurse, in 1962, and enjoyed spending time at the house they owned on the Dingle peninsula.

He was appointed CBE in 1990. Six years later he founded Brian Hitchen Communications and was appointed chairman of the Irish publishers Kerry Life. He was also chairman and publisher of Irish Country Life, 1996-2000.

He and his wife died after being hit by a car while crossing a road near their holiday home in Alicante. He is survived by his two children, Alexander, a picture editor on the New York Daily News, and Claire, a make-up artist.

Brian Hitchen, CBE, journalist, was born on July 8, 1936. He died on December 2, 2013, aged 77


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