David Astor (1912-2001)
David Astor was editor of The Observer newspaper in London for 27 years from 1948 to 1975. Renowned as one of the most influential editors of the post-war era, he transformed Britain’s oldest Sunday newspaper (first published in 1791) from a pillar of the conservative establishment into an internationally respected voice for liberal causes.
Under his editorship, The Observer advocated decolonisation, championed the anti-apartheid struggle, opposed the death penalty, promoted human rights and free speech, and raised environmental awareness, among a host of other big issues that preoccupied him throughout his life.
He was also an active and generous lifelong philanthropist. He founded and supported a wide range of charitable organisations and pressure groups, and aided many individuals whose work he believed was important.
Prison reform, the search for peace in the Middle East and in Northern Ireland, controlling the nuclear arms threat, defending minority rights, and addressing ecological problems were among the many causes to which he devoted considerable energy, both during and after his time at The Observer.
A genuinely modest, self-effacing man, he always shunned the limelight and any public recognition for his many achievements.
He was born in London in 1912 into a wealthy, privileged and politically active family. His parents, both American-born naturalised British citizens, mingled with the intellectual and political elites of the times, and were ardent internationalists.
His father, who founded the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House), served as a Member of Parliament until he (reluctantly) moved to the House of Lords upon inheriting his father’s peerage. He also inherited The Observer, which his father had bought in 1911. David’s mother was the first woman ever to sit in Parliament, and remained an MP for 25 years.
David was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, but left before receiving a degree. In 1936, he spent a year as a trainee at The Yorkshire Post and later briefly took up a management-training position at The Times.
But his greatest preoccupation in the pre-war years was to try and help his close friend from Oxford, Adam von Trott, who joined the German underground resistance to Hitler and was one of the most influential figures in David’s life. (Trott was executed in 1944 for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.)
David’s involvement with The Observer began in 1941 while he was serving in the Royal Marines. He started recruiting a pool of talented writers with progressive and radical ideas, which gave the paper a distinctly new identity.
In 1944, he was wounded in action while on a special operations mission in France. After the war, his father transferred control of The Observer to an independent Trust and David became Foreign Editor. He started a successful foreign news syndication service, which earned the paper a new international reputation, and two years later, at the age of 36, he was appointed Editor.
David made The Observer staunchly independent of any political party and introduced numerous innovations during his long tenure. He insisted on interpreting the news, not just reporting it, and on first-rate writing.
With a keen instinct for spotting talent, he recruited many exceptional and creative writers over the years (sometimes from unlikely places). But above all, he was determined to use the paper to promote ideas and causes he deeply believed in.
He was fearless about taking risks and challenging authority, most notably during the 1956 Suez Crisis. In an unprecedented intervention by a newspaper in a time of war, The Observer alone vigorously attacked the British government’s actions, accusing it of “folly and crookedness”. Though uncharacteristically strident (David prided the paper for its moderation), he still considered this uncompromising, and commercially damaging, stance “the most effective thing I did with the paper, apart from the long campaign on Africa.”
It was George Orwell, a close friend and contributor to The Observer, who first sparked David’s interest in Africa. That interest became an enduring passion, which he not only boldly pursued through The Observer, but also through a great number of personal initiatives.
In 1952, he set up and financed the Africa Bureau to promote anti-colonial policies. He put money into the Central African Mail, which opposed white minority rule in what was then Northern Rhodesia. He helped fund anti-apartheid campaigners, and backed the liberal Weekly Mail in South Africa, which openly challenged the regime in the 1980s.
He also supported various educational and technical training programmes for Africans, including the Southern African Advanced Education Project, which brought black South Africans to England to be trained for future leadership positions in their own country.
One of the earliest editorials David wrote for The Observer in 1948, when all other papers were turning a blind eye to Africa, warned of the dangers posed by the then newly elected Nationalist government in South Africa, which soon set about institutionalising the apartheid system.
The paper began advocating sanctions against South Africa as early as 1952. Its continuing opposition to the apartheid system became the paper’s longest-running and arguably most effective campaign, for which David withstood considerable criticism.
Reflecting on his long editorship when he stepped down in 1975, he wrote: “My aim has been to be militant in fighting for tolerance, freedom of expression, non-prejudice – all causes of moderation – here and abroad. What’s wrong with moderates is that they lack militancy.”
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