Hugo Young: Guardian columnist and chairman of the Scott Trust

Hugo Young was born in October 1938, and died last week. His extraordinary career as a leader writer on the Yorkshire Post, columnist and political editor of The Sunday Times and, since 1984, the pre-eminent columnist of The Guardian (as well as being chairman from 1989 of The Guardian’s owner, the Scott Trust), was extensively covered in the national newspapers last week.

What follows is Andrew Knight’s personal view of how Hugo Young came to be what he was.

One has to ask: when a journalist dies and praise for him is as vast and universal as it was for Hugo Young last week, what caused it? UK journalists are seldom so well regarded. And Hugo did not win his encomia by flattery.

Few figures in Britain’s public life escaped Hugo’s withering fire at some time or other.

Hugo Young was esteemed, even by his antagonists, because he exuded an almost Buddhist sense of “Right Thought”. He had prejudices. He had views – strong ones. He could be proved wrong by events (though less often than many, thanks to the sheer professionalism of his foot-slogging and note-keeping).

But when all was said, you knew just from reading him that he was impervious to spin or fashion; that his bias was a liberal ideal, worn on the sleeve for all to see. And if that bias was – as I often thought – unworldly or misguided, yet, even so, it was utterly decent.

The snag for journalists who would emulate Hugo Young is this: what made him the journalist he became was a background so deeply anachronistic as to be hardly available to the young wannabe journo today. And few human beings will cleave as steadfastly to their origin as Hugo Young did to his through a whole life.

Hugo was born nearly 65 years ago with a silver spoon in his mouth – or rather the spoon was made of finest steel. His father, Gerard Young, who lives barely dimmed today aged 93, was the Master Cutler of Sheffield, the most respected industrialist in what was still then the cutlery capital of the world. He was pro-vice-chancellor of Sheffield University having been its main fundraiser; later still he was to be Lord Lieutenant of the county.

Hugo’s mother, Diana Young, was (and remains at 89) one of the bestloved women in the city.

These parents were clever, subtle, very well-to-do. In those pre-BlunkettPeople’s-Republic times, the Youngs were a family Sheffield turned to.

They were upright, hard working, Roman Catholic, utterly unassuming in the very real aura of authority around them. From early days, their elder son seemed just the same. The Hugo I remember as a youth – tall, grave, laconically witty – was always the one everybody respected and whose motives nobody doubted. This was never to change.

Next, Hugo went to private boys’ boarding school, remote on the escarpment of the Yorkshire moors and run by a Benedictine monastery.

And there, at Ampleforth, Hugo Young learnt an important truth about reporting and life: his classics master, the future Abbot Patrick Barry, dinned into him that Virgil could get his grammar wrong, and yet be right… because he was Virgil.

Talking to Ampleforth boys years later, Hugo described this as his “eureka moment” when he discovered “the humility of the true reporter. The reporter must deal with what the man or woman said, not what he wanted them to say. It’s of the essence of the political journalism and history I try to write.”

Deeper still, Hugo Young became as an adolescent the prize pupil and disciple of a man who was not merely one of the finest, utterly stimulating (and surely the funniest) European history teachers of his day, but also the 20th century’s most celebrated Benedictine monk, one of its saintliest moralists, a future abbot, archbishop and cardinal of the church, leader of the English Catholic hierarchy.

This paragon was Dom Basil Hume.

Basil was Hugo Young’s housemaster, and Hugo repaid him by becoming (there was never any doubt about it) head of St Bede’s, Basil’s house, and head of the school. (Basil was also, incidentally, the best rugby coach the England team never had – but that is another story.) Next, after a spell at the Sorbonne, Hugo went for three years to Balliol College, Oxford, the power house behind so many occupants of (or aspirants to) Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street. There, in Balliol’s Ved Mehta years, instead of reading the modern history in which he surely would have won a first, Hugo Young deliberately set out to equip himself for a future in journalism by reading law.

He did it well. The best book Hugo meant to write, but never did, was to be about the English judiciary.

Finally, Hugo Young took his first job in journalism. He walked straight into the leader writers’ room at the Yorkshire Post in Leeds. His first great battle in life, indeed, was to convince his father that he would not join the family business, which he was destined to run.

Now, however impressive all this is, it certainly ain’t typical of the path open to most young people hoping to reach our Street of Shame. Here is the nub.

Hugo Young was an elitist from a time when none of us, who aspired to join him in that elite, felt remotely ashamed of the word. In Hugo’s gene was a natural grace and humour which made it a pleasure to be his friend, to disagree passionately with him, to be furious – and yet never to question his credential and his motive.

Hugo’s disdain for tabloid journalism was of a piece with his elevated view of how the world should be. As Press Gazette was the first to point out in August 1998, Hugo exercised the powers of a press proprietor with notable toughness as chairman of the Scott Trust.

Nevertheless, he could not himself abide the long line of farouche UK press proprietors stretching back to the 19th century. Their newspapers told lies, he said, and they demeaned what he believed the Fourth Estate should be about. He despaired of the proliferation of British newspapers (“Watch,” he said to me just after The Independent was founded in 1986.

“More will mean worse”).

Coming from the North, regarding most aristocrats as merely comical, Hugo was utterly un-snobbish; but he was innately superior. This rarely showed in Hugo’s demeanour, courteous, modest, full of good humour. But in Hugo’s writing this innate, elite sense of prescriptive superiority peeped through all the time.

Hugo Young’s lapidary bromides – the last of them a fortnight ago lashed Tony Blair for being “in thrall to Bush and his gang”- were sometimes so brutal in their sweep as to be, to me at least, ludicrous. Or rather they would have been ludicrous from the pen of almost anybody else.

Because Hugo’s record and his personality were so transparently decent and strong, and because his information was so painstakingly researched, he could get away with Olympian excathedra denunciations of this kind.

For Hugo, like Virgil, was who he was. His columns in The Guardian simply set a standard. It was the standard drawn from years of unsmug (indeed dutiful) intellectual security at home. From years steeped in Benedictine humanism. From other years at post-war Balliol. It was a highminded standard from which nothing – the Sixties rebellion, the advent of pop culture, the Thatcher years, the Blair disillusion – ever had the slightest chance of deflecting him. It was not the standard – more is the pity – of most modern newspapers. Nor always of The Guardian itself. Nor of most modern newspapermen. And is never likely to be.

Andrew Knight, former editor The Economist, chief executive of The Daily Telegraph and chairman of News International

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