‘A champion for editorial freedom who inspired a generation of journalists’
Peter Sands looks back on the life of Nick Herbert, who was editorial director of the newspaper group Westminster Press for 18 years, and has died aged 88.
In the 1970s and 80s Nick Herbert was a “kingmaker” who appointed many of the regional Press’s high-profile editors.
Former colleagues described him as a “visionary” and “a champion for editorial freedom” who “inspired a generation of journalists to create campaigning and compassionate community newspapers”.
He is credited with modernising the regional and local Press by appointing young, energetic and often untested editors.
Terry Quinn, who became editor of the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford in 1984, said: “I and many other unworthy characters owe their careers to Nick. Despite his ‘establishment’ background, he gambled on a new generation of young, rude upstart editors (including me), to reboot and modernise regional newspapers in the eighties. He and his sidekick Bob James did more than anyone else to change the face of stuffy, stale provincial journalism and shepherd in game-changing computer technology.”
Nick also fought against any threat to editorial integrity, be it from politicians, advertisers, lawyers or the unions.
Allan Prosser, who Nick made editor of the Acton Gazette at 25, recalled: “When a production union threatened, just before midnight, to ‘black’ a story they didn’t like he asked me four quick questions: ‘Was the story accurate; was it fair; was it balanced; did I trust the reporter?’ Once satisfied he said: ‘Tell the union that if they interfere with editorial content then publication will be suspended until the story runs in the form that you deem acceptable as editor.’ After a hastily convened chapel meeting the report went in as written and the paper hit its deadline.” It is one of many examples of Nick supporting his editors to the hilt.
Before becoming WP’s editorial chief in 1974, Nick enjoyed an illustrious reporting career.
He started on the Reuters sports desk before moving to the diplomatic desk in America. He then joined The Times as assistant Washington correspondent, under the legendary Louis Heren, in 1960. Nick covered the assassination of JFK, the Cuban missile crisis, attended the first Beatles concert at the Washington Coliseum (which he described as sounding like a jet engine taking off due to all the screaming fans) and interviewed Martin Luther King Jr while walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
He was appointed Middle East correspondent and moved, with his wife Jenny and two small children, to Beirut. There he covered the Six Day War in 1967, the Shah of Iran’s inauguration and the withdrawal of British troops from Aden.
Nick returned to Britain as deputy features editor at The Times and in 1970 took on the editorship of the Cambridge Evening News. Four years later he was appointed editorial director of Westminster Press — owners of 120 regional and local newspaper titles including The Northern Echo, the Oxford Mail, the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, the Bath Chronicle and the Brighton Evening Argus.
The role included appointing, guiding and supporting his editors. Nick, who was a keen sportsman, said that being captain of his school cricket and rowing teams stood him in good stead for the task.
During his tenure he guided the WP titles from hot metal to new technology, set up the renowned editorial training centre in Hastings and, as chairman of the Guild of British Newspaper Editors, was an architect of the Society of Editors.
Dennis Nicholas Herbert was born in Watford in 1934 to Dennis and Elizabeth Herbert, spent his early childhood in Uganda, where his father was a headteacher, attended Oundle School in Northamptonshire and read English at Clare College, Cambridge.
He married Jennifer Bailey, who he met at a New Year’s Eve party, in 1958. The couple had four children Libby, Cally, Alice and Chris and 12 grandchildren. Jenny died in 2018.
Nick found happiness again and married the novelist Jill Paton Walsh in September 2020 but she died just three weeks after the wedding.
His daughter Cally said of her father: “He stoically bore the pain and sadness of both deaths and continued to live independently with help from family, friends and a dedicated team of carers until his last day.”
In 1982 he succeeded his father, a hereditary peer, becoming 3rd Baron, Lord Hemingford of Watford and used his maiden speech in the Lords to speak against water company privatisation.
He left the House of Lords in 1999 when the Labour Government restricted the number of hereditary peers. His last speech was on the introduction of the Press Complaints Commission.
Those who worked with Nick during his Westminster Press days have been paying tribute to their colleague and mentor.
Former WP chief executive and chairman, Hew Stevenson, said: “Nick was immensely charming and commanded the respect of everyone throughout the Westminster Press group, being totally at ease with all walks of life. I shall never forget his courage, a quality sorely needed in the newspaper industry, as we fought to introduce new technology in the face of determined union opposition in the 1980s. He had a gift for spotting the best in people and promoting them into jobs in which they then flourished. There were many in Westminster Press — not just editors but young managers as well — who went on to enjoy happy and successful careers as a result of his benign and powerful influence. He had all the qualities that would have made him an exceptional officer in the armed forces.”
Allan Prosser, who went on from Acton to edit the Crawley Observer, The Northern Echo and become MD of North of England Newspapers and York and County Press, said: “Nick was a man of deeply held convictions and opinions and one of the most fundamentally decent and honourable people you could ever meet. I lost count of the times he told me that it was important that journalists leave the office to ‘get the winds of the world in their face’ For years he formed a formidable double act with Bob James, the master typographer of his age, and championed the role of technology which he thought would liberate editorial from artificial and restrictive ‘old Spanish customs’.”
Neil Benson, who worked at the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford, said: “I remember Nick as a charming and thoroughly decent man, who always had time for people. On one occasion, he’d heard I was disappointed at missing out on a promotion, and he went out of his way to meet me and to explain his decision. I was very impressed by that. When I was made editorial director at Trinity Mirror Regionals, I thought about the way Nick had done the job at Westminster Press, and took a lot from it.”
Paul Deal was appointed by Nick to launch the Luton Leader aged 25 and went on to edit weeklies in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire and the Evening Chronicle in Bath. He said: “I owe a great deal to Nick for trusting me at an early age to build a team and launch a paper against well-established competitors. I recall a complaint to Nick about a campaign I was running in the Bedfordshire Times to stop a nuclear waste dump on the outskirts of the county town. Nick called to get my side of the story. He then gently advised me not to allow our coverage to be too sensationalist but stressed he was supportive of our aims and would deal with the complainants. He was similarly steadfast when a major advertiser threatened to pull out if a negative story was published. The story stayed in. He was a gentleman — kind-hearted and considerate. He was also a shrewd judge of when his editors were ready to move up to a bigger league.”
Perry Austin-Clarke, who Nick appointed as editor of the Yorkshire Gazette and Herald and who went on to be the long-standing editor of the Telegraph & Argus, said: “I will always be grateful for the example he set of a rigorous adherence to traditional editorial principles — one I tried hard to uphold over my next 30 years as an editor. He was unfailingly good humoured and, in my early years, I was always grateful for the occasional motivational notes he typed up on copy paper and dispatched from Newspaper House. ‘Old school’ he may have been but he always had an eye to change and future trends. I remember sitting around a green-screen computer in his London office as he introduced editors to something called ‘the worldwide web’ — and urged us to get to know it intimately! Integrity and a passionate belief in the fourth estate were key to the respect and admiration he was held in by all the editors.”
Robin Thompson was editor of the Shields Weekly News in Tyneside and the Evening Despatch in Darlington. When the Despatch folded in 1986, Nick persuaded Robin to take over the Hastings training centre. Within five years WP had won two National Training Awards. This helped mark out WP Training as the best in-company scheme, attracting the best trainees from national and provincial newspapers. Nick presented the certificates at the bi-annual awards.
“He was immensely proud of the top quality training he had created and, for me, Nick was the father figure,” said Robin. “He gave me the opportunities to work with hundreds of our best journalists in the editorial departments and then as the Westminster Press Diploma in Journalism replaced the NCTJ scheme as industry standard for excellence. These were the glory days of the British provincial press and Nick was the visionary and political force at the centre of it all. It will never be repeated. Nor will he.”
Peter Sands, who Nick appointed as editor of The Northern Echo in 1989, said: “Nick gave me an opportunity that genuinely changed my life forever. I had run-ins with judges, politicians, advertisers threatening to boycott the paper, and was twice threatened with prison, and he never failed to offer wise counsel and support — always on the side of editorial integrity. He was certainly one of the good guys and I owe him a great deal.”
Lawry Sear, who worked for Nick as a reporter at the Cambridge Evening News and later as a WP editor, said: “Nick was a lovely man. He was always rock solid in terms of ethics and defending press freedom. A thoroughly good bloke.”
Tim Blott, former editor of the Wycombe Star, Bucks Free Press and Oxford Mail, said: “Nick was a wonderful man to work for. Patrician and provocateur. He inspired a generation of journalists to create campaigning and compassionate community newspapers.”
David Newell, past CEO of the News Media Association, said: “As a young lawyer joining the Newspaper Society in the 1980s and acting as Secretary to the Guild of Editors’ Parliamentary and Legal Committee, I remember Nick’s strong commitment to editorial freedom and his forensic interest in how the law — sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally — impacted on the search for truth. He gave editors a voice which paved the way to the establishment of the Society of Editors.”
Peter Wilson-Leary, appointed by Nick as editor of the Watford Observer in 1987, said: “He was inspirational. A visionary who foresaw the impact the internet would have on journalism from very early on. Yet, while one eye was on the future, the other was firmly fixed on harnessing and developing talent in core roles. I’ll always remember the indignation when he told editors at the annual conference they should pay their best writers more than themselves. And, at those conferences, he was not averse to using props to make a point hit home, for example delving into a carrier bag and hurling bread of various shapes and sizes into the air to make a point about the variety of publications.”
Chris Cowley, when deputy editor of the Bucks Free Press, had a run-in with sister paper the Oxford Mail for refusing to share a photo. He said: “I thought a lot of Nick for not giving me a bollocking and kicking off like others would have done. He was a true gent and a fine man — the likes of whom seem so rare in this industry today.”
Mike Glover, who Nick appointed as editor of the Bradford T&A in 1989, said: “He was a real gentleman, with an optimistic and passionate view of newspapers, which he instilled in us all. One of the last of the great regional press visionaries.”
Shamus Donald, WP’s human resources director, said: ”Nick was a wonderful champion for editorial freedom and local newspapers and a great judge of character having appointed many fine editors. He always had an interesting point of view; and, above all, he was a lovely man.”
Martin King, former editor of the Southend and Basildon Echo, said: “Nick gave me support in online ventures. He and Richard Wooldridge saw the winds of change way before most other regional and national execs.”
Despite his background, Nick certainly had a common touch. Terry Quinn, who went on to edit the Daily Record and became editor-in-chief at APN News & Media in Australia, said: “I remember him visiting me in Bradford in 1986. I took him to a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ Indian kiosk for lunch. There he was presented with a bowl of curry, a couple of chapatis, and no cutlery. Lord Hemingford (a title I never heard him use) then used his fingers to scarf his lunch, a smile on his otherwise lugubrious face.”
After 18 years as editorial director, Nick became WP’s deputy chief executive in 1992 and retired in 1996 when owners Pearson sold the newspaper group to Newsquest.
In retirement Nick enjoyed time as regional chairman of the National Trust (East Anglia) and served on the Trust’s executive committee. He is remembered by those who worked with him as “an exceptional mentor of staff who liked and respected him for his modesty, quiet authority, unexpected insights and wisdom”.
His other interests included genealogy and he published Successive Journeys: A Family In Four Continents in 2008 which “spilled the beans” on his forebears.
The funeral of Dennis Nicholas Herbert (1934 to 2022) will be held on Friday February 3 at 2.30pm in St Margaret’s Church, Hemingford Abbots. The service will be streamed on this link:https://youtube.com/live/VZFJyhJ8qms. If you would like to donate to one of Nick’s favourite charities in his memory, please visit https://dennisnicholaslordhemingford.muchloved.com/ and click on the donate button.