Bob Johnston: A rare Fleet Street gentleman


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By JON ZACKON

The diminishing band of journalists who worked for the Daily Sketch in the 1960s will have fond memories of Bob Johnston, the paper’s managing editor, who has died aged 93.

He was one of the nicest men you could wish to meet. Without pretension and possessing the unique ability to treat editors and staff as equals.

There were other reasons why he was a legend by the time I joined the paper as a down-table rabbit in 1963. Still in his mid-30s, he had already lived through two brilliant careers.

In 1947, at the age of 20, while in his fourth year in the Royal Navy, he was posted to HMS Vanguard as a petty officer writer to cover the Royal Family’s historic voyage to South Africa. It was his duty to produce an onboard newspaper and magazine. Viewers of The Crown will know how important that trip was, coming so soon after the Second World War; a show of strength and glamour by a country in a debilitated state.

Bob enjoyed his stay in my hometown, East London. But professional discretion prevented him from elaborating on a rather famous incident that took place there. On a sunny day, 17-year-old Princess Margaret and her lover, Group Captain Peter Townsend, went riding to an isolated beach at Hickman’s River, a local beauty spot, giving rise to a multitude of rumours.

Bob was happy to talk about other aspects of the Royal trip and we became friends. He did me several favours and when my wife Anne an I were desperate to return to the UK from a six-month sojourn in South Africa he sent us two VC10 tickets by return of post.

After the Navy Bob joined the Daily Record in Glasgow. He rose rapidly through the ranks to be appointed Chief Assistant Editor.

It took a stupid mistake by one of the staff to cost him that particular career. The editor, Alex Little, had gone home, leaving Bob in charge of the paper. That night, without Bob having any knowledge of it, the Record published a photograph of a man accused of a serious crime in a case that depended on identification by witnesses. The judge was enraged and summonsed those responsible to appear before him. Presumably he meant the editor but The Record’s lawyers stitched Bob up, leaving him to take the rap. The judge told Bob it would be best for all if he were to leave Scotland. It was a bitter departure, but it brought him to Fleet Street, where fellow Scots on the Sketch, among them former Daily Express northern editor Ian Howard and now serving as Editor Howard French’s deputy, offered help.

Bob was appointed Managing Editor, a job for which he was massively over-qualified. Typically, he made the most of it, ensuring the paper was as agreeable as possible for its staff.

My last meeting with Bob was about 12 years ago. He phoned to say he was coming up to London from the West Country, where he now lived, and suggested I join him for lunch at a pub in the West End. To my horror, when I got there he was accompanied by a relic from the Sketch sports desk, an individual from whose lips dripped bile and loathing, a genuine dyed in the wool misanthrope. Plus he’d never liked me in the first place.

Bob didn’t give him a chance. Every time he set out to tear me apart Bob interrupted, cracking a joke, keeping things light and amusing. It was a brilliant performance, for which I was grateful. And that’s how I remember him – articulate, diplomatic and funny. That quite rare breed, a Fleet Street gentleman.


© 2005-2021 Alastair McIntyre