Peter Preston Obituary: A journalist who believed in action

Peter Preston, who died last week, knew that no one should escape scrutiny.

Peter Preston, a former Editor of Cherwell and the Guardian, died last week. He was 79 years old.

I did not know Preston and whilst the various obituaries published this week give some sense of this journalistic giant, it was the editions of Cherwell published when he was Editor that gave a true insight into his character.

For Preston, it was impossible to isolate journalism as merely his profession – it coloured his whole identity. He was certainly not anti- political, as Cherwell’s original slogan professes it to be, but his politics were by no means straightforward. He believed in action, organisation, and progress but applied this to varying and confusing cases. He wrote delicately, but with an anger about the laziness and the ‘good enough’ attitude of many of his subjects.

When he edited Cherwell in Hilary Term 1960, it was a very different beast to the one that publishes today. The paper was far shorter and published twice a week.

But Preston brought something to Cherwell that continues today: an expectation that all can do better. A universal assumption that all should strive for progress and that no one should become complacent or satisfied. In his first editorial, he wrote: “The days when we were all ‘young gentlemen’ are dead and gone. Every individual is to some extent concerned with what happens outside college walls.”

He said to people that there was no excuse for inaction. Preston unveiled the Oxford issues of his time, and was unsparing in his criticism. In one editorial he turned his attack on the religious community in Oxford saying: “Instead of counting the money in the collection bags Oxford Christians should start counting the number of starving in the world, and start acting…together.”

In another he criticised Union elections writing: “Rusty college block-vote machines have been galvanised into action. Old pals do deals to avoid unnecessary clashes. There is the smell of corruption in the air.” Perhaps some things really haven’t changed since his day.

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Preston was frustrated with his time at Cherwell. In his last editorial for the paper, he writes about the many things that he did not have time to talk about. He repeats the phrase “too late” throughout the column. This sense continued throughout his life. He expected the same thing of himself as he expected of the people and institutions that he covered. He was never satisfied and always wanted to fill another column, cover another story or hold another group to account.

Cherwell was just the start for Preston’s career. He went on to edit the Guardian, exposing the cash-for-questions scandal. He later ran the Scott Trust, managing the Guardian and the Observer. He also wrote two books, including 51st State in 1998, which had an eerily accurate prediction of the Brexit result.

Only six days before his death, Preston wrote his last article. Here, he turned his critical eye against his own profession saying that although journalism was certainly under threat it also had a responsibility to improve in order to regain the trust of its readers. Journalism was “a business that means treating readers in a jam like human beings, identifying distress, becoming a functioning part of society rather than commentators at its edges.”

This may have been his last comment on the world of journalism, but it was one of his first that summed up Preston’s theory about the industry he dedicated his life to. In his final editorial for Cherwell he wrote: “We would like to thank all of those who have given us help or encouragement during the term. And to those whose toes have been heavily trodden on. Tough. Your feet are too damn big anyway.”

No one escaped Preston; no one was without the need to improve; no one’s feet were small enough to deserve universal praise.

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Peter Preston leaves behind his wife, Jean, four children, and eight grandchildren.