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Fearless editor who first exposed the Gukurahundi killings

04 Feb 2023 at 20:11hrs | Views
While there were a few local Zimbabwean journalists writing for periodicals and foreign correspondents like Peter Godwin for the Sunday Times (UK) and some filing for the South African media who wrote stories about the Gukurahundi massacres starting 1983, it was the fearless British journalist Donald Trelford - editor of The Observer for 18 years from 1975 - who first exposed the atrocities in detail to a wider audience after secretly venturing into the Matabeleland killing fields in 1984.

The Observer's owner Tiny Rowland, who was Lonrho chief executive, threatened to fire Trelford as his company had business interests in Zimbabwe under Mugabe's rule.

Trelford, who died last week on Friday, described his interview with Mugabe after his daring adventure as "disastrously dull, unusable for television, of interest only to a specialist African magazine (where, in fact, it subsequently appeared)".

Trelford wrote: "When I asked him if he would consider a political rather than a military solution in Matabeleland, where a curfew had been in force since February, he replied bluntly: 'The solution is a military one. Their grievances are unfounded. The verdict of the voters was cast in 1980. They should have accepted defeat then.''

Then he added chillingly: ''The situation in Matabeleland is one that requires a change. The people must be reoriented.''

DONALD Trelford, who has died from cancer aged 85, edited The Observer, the world's oldest Sunday newspaper, for 18 years from 1975, while fighting for much of that time to preserve its existence, its editorial integrity and its separate identity under three successive owners in less than two decades.

The Observer, to which he first contributed sports reports as a freelance while still a student – three guineas for 300 words on a rugby match – was the focus of his career for nearly 30 years. Some editors are writers, some technicians, able to design and layout pages: Trelford was both. He could write with facility and enthusiasm about a range of sports from cricket to snooker, but also tap out editorials and news reports, and each Saturday design the paper's front page.

At a time when the The Observer struggled to compete with the much better resourced and flamboyant The Sunday Times and came close to bankruptcy, Trelford managed to keep the show on the road and enhanced its reputation as a writers' paper, covering the arts distinctively and foreign affairs incisively with a formidable roster of journalists. They included, at various times, Clive James, as the paper's television critic, the columnists Katharine Whitehorn and Sue Arnold, the environment correspondent Geoffrey Lean, Simon Hoggart and Alan Watkins covering politics, Jonathan Mirsky in China, Julie Flint in Lebanon, and Hugh McIlvanney on sport.

Trelford was born in Coventry, the son of Doris (nee Gilchrist), who had been a cook in domestic service before her marriage to Tom Trelford, originally a delivery driver who later became a sales manager for a wholesale tobacconist. Both grandfathers had been miners in the Durham coalfield and Tom had headed south to avoid the same fate.

Trelford's earliest memory was being carried by his mother to an air-raid shelter on the night of the German blitz on Coventry in November 1940: the family home was near a car factory that was heavily bombed.

He was educated at junior schools in the north-east, to where the family was evacuated, and then back in Coventry; at secondary level he won a scholarship to attend the fee-paying Bablake independent day school.

Trelford did his national service in the RAF, becoming a pilot officer, before taking up a scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he studied English and wrote for the university magazine Varsity. Seeing an advertisement in an office window in Coventry for a reporter on the local weekly paper, he took the post during the summer holiday without telling the editor that he was still at university. Within weeks he was made chief reporter.

On graduation, Trelford won a place on the training scheme run by the Thomson chain of regional papers, on the Sheffield Telegraph, where, in 1963, he spotted an internal memo seeking applicants to become editor of the Times of Nyasaland (subsequently Malawi), which the company owned. The story in his memoir, Shouting in the Street, was that he and his colleague, the future comic writer Peter Tinniswood, broke into the editor's office at the Sheffield Telegraph late one evening in search of alcohol and he happened to see a letter about the job. Appointed in his mid-20s, Trelford spent three years in southern Africa, also freelancing for the Times, the Observer and the BBC, covering the civil wars in the Congo, Nigeria and Rhodesia.

Back in London in 1966, he was made deputy news editor of the Observer, where he would spend the rest of his career. Trelford's first Saturday at the paper was the day England won the World Cup and he was appalled to discover that there were no plans to cover the sporting triumph on the front page. Querying this, he was told: "If you think it's that important you'd better write it", which he did from agency copy, while McIlvanney dictated the match report over the telephone from Wembley.

Within three years Trelford was deputy to the paper's long-serving editor David Astor, whose family had owned the newspaper before transferring ownership to a trust. When Astor retired in 1975, Trelford, still in his 30s, was the popular choice of the paper's journalists to become editor, even winning the confidence of its much older and longer-serving writers.

Beset by a financial crisis and printers' strikes, the Observer had shed a fifth of its staff and the trust's chair Lord Goodman told Trelford that the paper would not last six months without new ownership, as the trustees could no longer sustain its losses. He had already privately offered it to Rupert Murdoch, who was yet to buy the Times, but the possibility was seen off in the teeth of opposition from the Observer's journalists. Within months a saviour was found in the unlikely shape of a Texan oil multimillionaire called Robert O Anderson, the boss of Atlantic Richfield. Anderson, who had probably never heard of the Observer before, agreed over the telephone to buy the paper and arrived in London, dressed in cowboy hat and boots. He borrowed the pound note the deal cost him from Trelford himself.

The paper's losses continued, however, and within four years Anderson decided to pull out. Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Mail group, had expressed interest but when the oilman rang to sound him out, he was away. Casting around for another who might be interested, Anderson lighted on Roland Rowland, universally known as Tiny because he was so tall, a rapacious corporate businessman and head of the Lonrho corporation. The deal was done in 1981 with a handshake at Claridge's hotel without Trelford or the paper's staff knowing that the Observer had been sold, indeed while Anderson was still assuring them it was safe in his hands.

There was considerable fear that Rowland would interfere editorially, in particular over stories about African countries where he had substantial financial interests – Lonrho stood for London-Rhodesia. A challenge was made by Observer journalists to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which was already investigating Rowland's attempt to buy the House of Fraser department store chain, the owners of Harrods, in a bitter competition with the Fayed brothers. The purchase of the newspaper was allowed to go ahead with the appointment of a board of independent directors, but Rowland was left aggrieved that he had lost the Harrods battle.

The new owner certainly did try to interfere with the paper's editorial independence, when Trelford went back to his old haunts to interview Zimbabwe's leader Robert Mugabe in 1984 and discovered that thousands of Ndebele people opposed to the government had been killed during an uprising in Matabeleland. He informed Rowland about the story only on the night of publication and the furious owner apologised to Mugabe, threatened to close the paper and promised to sack Trelford. The row only blew over after several weeks when the independent directors ruled in favour of the editor.

Although Rowland's subsequent threat to sell the paper to Robert Maxwell did not eventuate, the paper was later involved in an even bigger fight. The Harrods takeover was referred to the Department of Trade and Industry, which produced a secret report highly critical of the Fayeds, who Rowland was convinced had lied about their finances and duped the government in taking over the company. In the spring of 1989, he obtained a copy of the report, which Trelford published pre-emptively in the first and only-ever midweek edition of the paper on the morning of the Lonrho annual general meeting, before the government could injunct its publication. The move was highly controversial, not least because it appeared to prove Rowland's commercial intervention in editorial matters once more, but Trelford argued that the report's findings were important independently of Lonrho's interests, and he survived once more.

If the row damaged the Observer's integrity, the arrest and subsequent execution of the freelance journalist Farzad Bazoft by the Iraqi regime in 1990 while he was in the country working on a story for the paper was the worst single tragedy during the editor's time in charge and it affected Trelford deeply.

The question of the paper's ownership arose again within a few years, as Rowland was losing his grip on Lonrho and began casting around for a buyer. The newly established Independent had recently started a Sunday edition and was confident that it could buy the Observer, but the move was opposed by the paper's staff on the grounds that it would be subsumed and its title lost for ever. In the event, the Guardian bought the paper in 1993 and maintained its independent profile. Trelford stood down after 18 years in charge. The following year he became a professor and head of the department of journalism studies at Sheffield University. He continued as visiting professor from 2000 until 2007.

Trelford and his third wife, Claire, retired to Mallorca. He wrote a number of books on sport, and sports columns for the Daily Telegraph, as well as his memoir Shouting in the Street, published in 2017, and a book of selected journalism, Heroes & Villains, in 2020.

He is survived by Claire (nee Bishop), a television producer, whom he married in 2001, and their son, Ben, and daughter, Poppy; a son, Paul, and daughter, Sally, from his first marriage, to Janice Ingram, which ended in divorce; and a daughter, Laura, from his second marriage, to Kate Mark, which also ended in divorce. Another son, Tim, from his first marriage, predeceased him.

Donald Gilchrist Trelford, journalist and editor, born 9 November 1937; died 27 January 2023.

This article was amended on 30 January 2023. The first midweek edition of the Observer was published in the spring of 1989, rather than in 1990, as a previous version stated. It was further amended on 31 January 2023. Geoffrey Lean was mistakenly described as "the first environment correspondent appointed by any national newspaper"; in fact Jeremy Bugler preceded Lean at the Observer from 1971-77.
The Guardian (UK)

Source - Sunday Times
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