Frank Giles obituary
Editor of the Sunday Times who was at the helm during the fake Hitler diaries scandal of 1983
Mon 4 Nov 2019 12.27 EST
Last modified on Mon 4 Nov 2019 12.34 EST
Frank Giles, who has died aged 100, enjoyed a lengthy and distinguished journalistic career that culminated in the editorship of the Sunday Times. But his short tenure in the chair was dogged by disputes with his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, and then destroyed by the Hitler diaries fiasco.
Giles was only partially to blame for the paper’s publication, in April 1983, of the forged diaries. He would later claim he had been steamrollered by Murdoch. His decision had rested on authentication by an academic regarded as the foremost authority on Nazi Germany, Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre of Glanton). When Trevor-Roper changed his mind on the diaries’ legitimacy, he chose to tell the editor of the Times, Charles Douglas-Home, who did not pass the message on to Giles.
It was not until the presses were rolling with the first extract that Giles learned of Trevor-Roper’s revised opinion. The drama, as recounted years later by Giles’s deputy, Brian MacArthur, was witnessed by Sunday Times executives who overheard Giles speaking to Trevor-Roper on the phone and noted the marked change in his tone of voice.
“The office fell silent. ‘Well, naturally, Hugh, one has doubts … but I take it that these doubts aren’t strong enough to make you do a complete 180-degree turn on that? Oh. Oh. I see. You are doing a 180-degree turn.’”
Two weeks later, the diaries were officially denounced by the German authorities as forgeries. The Sunday Times apologised to its readers. Trevor-Roper apologised to Giles. Murdoch, however, made no apology for removing Giles from the editor’s chair, giving him a two-year non-job as “editor emeritus”.
Murdoch had been unhappy with Giles ever since appointing him in 1981 in succession to Harold Evans, whom he switched to the editorship of the Times. The two men could not have been more different. Giles was, according to a Sunday Times colleague, Magnus Linklater, “urbane, cultivated and unflappable … a somewhat Wodehousian character”. Murdoch viewed such laid-back qualities as examples of British upper-class weakness.
It soon became clear that they had distinctly opposing opinions on the roles of owner and editor. Giles believed in editorial independence; Murdoch believed in proprietorial rights. While Giles did manage to resist Murdoch’s attempts to interfere in editorial content, he was forced to accede to his demands over executive appointments, reluctantly agreeing to fire the magazine editor, Ron Hall, and replace him with Murdoch’s choice, Peter Jackson.
In what became something of a guerrilla war, Murdoch took to belittling Giles. He was in the habit of telling guests: “There goes Frank Giles, ruining a great newspaper.”
It was an ignominious concluding chapter to Giles’s professional life. He was born in London, the son of a colonel in the Royal Engineers. His father, also Frank, died when he was 10, leaving the family in straitened circumstances and forcing his mother, Elgiva (nee Ackland-Allen), to take in lodgers. Even so, enough money was found to send Giles to Wellington college, Berkshire.
Given that he suffered from poor health as a child, a bout of rheumatic fever having left him with a heart murmur, it was a surprising choice. Wellington was famous for its sporting prowess, which carried no interest for the aesthetic, academic Giles. He was lucky enough to be favoured by a teacher who helped him win a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford, to study history.
His studies were cut short by the outbreak of the second world war. Unfit for military service, he was appointed as aide-de-camp to Major General Sir Denis Bernard when he became governor of Bermuda in 1939. Among their early visitors were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Giles recalled Bernard’s outrage when the Duke remarked: “If I’d been king there would have been no war.”
Among other visiting dignitaries were Clement Attlee, Joseph Kennedy, who believed Britain would lose the war, and Sir Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert.
On his return to Britain in 1942, Giles worked in the directorate of military operations at the war office, staying until demobilisation. He transferred to the foreign office, where, after the 1945 general election, he was one of the private secretaries to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin.
He dined out on Bevin anecdotes, relishing his coarse jokes. On one occasion, while standing side by side with his boss at the urinal, Bevin said: “This is it, Giles, the socialist dream – the means of production in the hands of the people.”
Giles’s diplomatic career ended when he failed the permanent foreign office examination. In 1946, he joined the Times as a subeditor. He was soon writing leader columns and a year later was appointed as assistant correspondent in Paris. A two-year stint in Rome followed before he returned in 1953 to Paris as the paper’s main correspondent.
He witnessed the collapse, in 1958, of France’s fourth republic, the subject of one of his later books, and the return to power of Charles de Gaulle. His reporting was regarded as sober, balanced and well-sourced. In 1960, he was encouraged by Ian Fleming, the James Bond author who was working part-time as a consultant at the Sunday Times, to try for the post of foreign editor.
Giles took up the post in 1961 – and was delighted by the change of atmosphere he found at the paper. The Sunday Times had become less formal and more populist in tone.
He did not remain tied to his desk, winning plaudits for his coverage of the 1967 six-day war in Israel. In the same year, he held hopes of becoming editor. Instead, Evans got the job – and Giles accepted the deputy editorship. They proved to be a good team, playing to each other’s strengths, and enjoyed a terrific rapport. Their partnership ended when Murdoch acquired the Times and Sunday Times in 1981.
After his retirement, Giles wrote several books, including a biography of Napoleon and an autobiography, Sundry Times.
He married, in 1946, Lady Katherine (Kitty) Sackville, daughter of the 9th Earl De La Warr, who died in 2010. He is survived by his children, Belinda and Henry. Another daughter, Sarah, predeceased him.
• Frank Thomas Robertson Giles, journalist, born 31 July 1919; died 30 October 2019