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The editor at the helm in the Guardian newsroom in 1984. Photograph:The Guardian

Peter Preston, a Guardian hero who could have edited the Daily Mail

Ihave a confession to make: I cannot claim to have known Peter Preston well. Not one for chitchat 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 4m, I would sometimes have a late dinner at the Kolossi Grill, known as the Colostomy, in the hope of catching sight of him. He was, after all, the journalist’s journalist. The editor’s editor.

Peter has been described as a 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 – to keep it out.

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. 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. 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, coexisted. 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 saved the Guardian from oblivion.

But ultimately, it was G2 and his daring redesign of the main paper – with its emphasis on creative white – that were hugely significant in the transformation of a somewhat austere, highbrow 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.

I am told that in later years Peter 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 that 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 salute a very great man of print.

 Paul Dacre is editor of the Daily Mail

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