David Banks lit up rooms. Newsrooms, mostly. But every room and every bar where he held court with his stories, jokes, mimicry and, quite simply, his laughter.
His death, within days of his 74th birthday, carries off one of popular journalism’s most beloved characters. An archetypical gentle giant, he was as much entertainer as editor, always smiling, even under the pressure of a deadline.
He was known at the two newspapers where he rose to prominence – the Daily Mirror and The Sun – for his gift for writing brilliant, punning headlines. But he secured his place in newspaper history by playing a key role in Rupert Murdoch’s revolutionary switch from hot metal Fleet Street to computerised Wapping in 1986.
Banksy, as he was always known, was chosen months ahead of the move to fly to the United States in order to learn how to operate the Atex system. He mastered it so well he was able to train other staff and, due to his work, The Sun didn’t lose an edition after leaving its old headquarters.
It was a far cry from his first hesitant step into journalism, aged 16, after leaving Boteler grammar school in Warrington, where he grew up on a council estate. He had not been long on the Warrington Guardian when he was “discovered” by a Daily Mirror executive, Mike Taylor, not so much for his journalistic skill but for his talent as a pub raconteur. No matter. It was a good contact and David was on his way.
He went on to join the Mirror’s Manchester operation as a sub-editor and, on transferring to London, his ability as a headline-writer was soon recognised.
He was persuaded to join him in America. He recalled: “I was a good sub but had no layout knowledge at all. Almost overnight he taught me tabloid presentation.”
He also taught him how to deal with Murdoch’s phone calls, a useful lesson because, when MacKenzie was transferred to London to become editor of The Sun in 1981, David stepped into his shoes to be the Post’s managing editor. That didn’t last too long before he joined MacKenzie in London, heading up the back bench as night editor.
We were colleagues at The Sun for five years and occasional drinking chums too, often at the Press Club, where his story-telling flair came to the fore. He was always the very best of company, seeing the funny side of even the most discouraging of situations.
After his Wapping heroics, he left Britain for a while, doing a stint as editor of the New York Daily News before rejoining Murdoch’s organisation to become deputy editor of The Australian and then, in 1988, editor of the Sydney Daily Telegraph.
Four years later, he returned to Britain as editor of the Daily Mirror in its difficult post-Maxwell period under chief executive David Montgomery.
David was obliged to reduce staffing and, for once, his good humour deserted him. A spell as consultant editor of the Sunday Mirror, combined with the group’s editorial directorship, didn’t lift his spirits.
It was time to move on, and move away from newspapers. In 1998, he accepted an offer by MacKenzie, who had recently headed a consortium to acquire Talk Radio, to co-host a breakfast show with an old Sun colleague, Nick Ferrari. As David later noted, without rancour: “It only lasted 18 months. He [MacKenzie] is as good at firing as he is at hiring.”
He also spent a couple of years as a breakfast broadcaster with LBC before returning to his first love, writing, as a columnist with the Press Gazette. Its then editor, Ian Reeves, was delighted to welcome aboard a journalist with so much experience and wit.
Current editor Dominic Ponsford says: “Banksy had an infectious enthusiasm for journalism and was a wonderful supporter of Press Gazette for many years, as both a columnist and a British Journalism Awards judge.
“As a working class grammar schoolboy who rose to the top through hard work, I always got the impression that he had achieved more than he ever dreamed he would in journalism and was keen to give something back to the industry and to younger journalists.”
Ponsford recalls “one of his high points” at Press Gazette was a profile of Daily Mirror editor, Richard Wallace, three years after he had taken over from Piers Morgan.
Wallace, who believed his best hope of survival was to be the opposite of the publicity-seeking Morgan, wanted to keep a low profile. David wasn’t having that, however with his write up of an “off the record” lunch. Ponsford says: “ I think Wallace was a bit miffed to find his ‘private’ lunch featured in Press Gazette. But, for Banksy, the story was more important and he felt that journalists who dish it should also be able to take it.”
When David retired to rural Northumberland, suffering from leukaemia, he convinced Brian Aitken, the editor of The [Newcastle] Journal, to give him a column. It proved to be a great success.
He found an audience eager to read his stories of life in the village of Crookham. Brian says: “The verbal pictures he painted of the characters he encountered, meant that the column quickly became a hit. People made day trips to the village to see Jock the Cock, the Byreman and David’s domino-playing buddies in the pub.”
In 2007, David was told he was in complete remission from leukaemia. On the day he got the news, the Journal published a front page story about a girl, called Josie Grove, who had decided to stop having chemo for her leukaemia so that she could live the rest of her life to its fullest.
Brian says: “The picture of the smiling, effervescent young teenager, with only months to live, had a huge impact on David. ‘Why her and not an old bugger like me,’ he said.”
With encouragement from his wife, Gemma (whom he married in 1975), David started a sponsored slim to raise money for the Dragonfly Cancer Trust, a charity set up by Josie’s parents to raise money to support children and young people with cancer. “Needless to say, The Journal’s readers were not slow in supporting David’s charitable efforts,” said Brian.
David Banks, Banksy, is survived by Gemma and their two children: a son, Tim, who runs a restaurant in Ghana, and a daughter Natasha, who followed her father into journalism.