Jonathan Cooper: freelance journalist and columnist

I last spoke to Jonathan Cooper the day before he died when, typically, I was asking for help, and he, just as typically, was giving it.

Michael Winner, the film director, had threatened me with a libel action because he disputed a story I had related in The Sunday Telegraph about how Nigel Dempster had telephoned Winner live on television on his mobile and made him look like a complete prat.

Jonathan, who came from a venerable Irish racing family and wrote a column about the turf for The Scotsman, said he would put in calls to his innumerable contacts to see if there was anyone who remembered the incident and could back me up.

“If you are sure of the story, then you must stick your ground,” he told me firmly. “Don’t let that old monster bully you.”

Jonathan gave me, among other numbers, that of Claire Balding, the BBC racing reporter, and said, in passing, how disgraceful he thought it was that The Mail on Sunday had “outed” her as a lesbian the week before.

That short conversation summed Jonathan up comprehensively: as compassionate as he was combative, it was always a very human form of journalism that he practised.

He died in London at the ludicrously early age of 42 from complications arising from a stomach ulcer that he never knew he had. In his private and professional life, he had never been happier, and, like every good gambler, I guess he quit while he was ahead.

I first met Jonathan in 1987 in the High Court, when we were both covering Jeffrey Archer’s libel action against the Star. It was my first assignment for The Observer. Jonathan, then working for the US People magazine, made an impression because he was the only one on the press benches to to congratulate me on what had been my first ever piece in a national newspaper.

It meant the world to me.

I next saw him in 1990, when I suspected that Tony Rennell had brought him in to replace me as the diarist on Robert Maxwell’s European, after I had run a piece that was based on the misapprehension that Andre Previn was a Frenchman. Jonathan and I both formed the view, quite quickly, that that particular job, on that particular paper, wasn’t worth fighting over and instead of tearing each other apart, as Rennell had wanted us to, we became firm friends.

In almost all my memories of him, Jonathan is smiling a warm, knowing, forgiving smile. He loved to laugh. I think one of the reasons we got on so well was because we both came from small towns. Perhaps that is a pattern in his friendships. He never changed or forgot where he came from. He never bought in to the elitism of the metropolitan media scene. To him, either you were a good man or you weren’t. What you wrote was either fair or unfair.

Jonathan did not talk much about himself. He was, like all the best journalists, a listener rather than a talker.

It is only now I read his obituaries that I have learned how he got into journalism pretty much by accident.

He was in his final year at Trinity College Dublin, studying English and history, when the Derby-winning racehorse Shergar was kidnapped. He was asked by a desperate People magazine to track the animal down. An investigation that took him into most of the bars and betting shops in Dublin was soon underway.

That Shergar remained stubbornly undetected did not deter People from putting Jonathan onto its staff. He was dispatched to the New York office, where he worked for two years before returning to London as the magazine’s UK correspondent.

After that came The European; when that folded, the Daily Express gave him a job as a feature writer, where his byline seemed to appear daily on features that were always fresh, funny and brilliantly written.

Then, at the prompting of columnist Francis Wheen, he pitched up as a features executive at the Daily Mirror shortly after Piers Morgan took over the editorship, when there had been much optimistic talk about the paper re-establishing itself as a serious leftleaning tabloid.

In the event, Jonathan bravely endured the daily nonsense of finding showbiz trivia for the features pages for several years before throwing in the towel, which he did with typical chutzpah, just after he had secured his first mortgage for a house in Islington.

A period of frenetic freelance activity then ensued. He helped to compile The Mail on Sunday’s first Rich List, a task he later undertook for The Sunday Times under its Rich List supremo Philip Beresford. Jonathan made a very healthy five-figure sum for giving The Mail on Sunday the idea to do a special supplement on the 100 Greatest Lovers of the Millennium and created a superb film profile of Lester Piggott for Channel 4’s Secret Lives series. At the time of his death, he was talking to me about a three-book deal he was negotiating.

It is only now he is dead and one sees how many newspapers and periodicals have claimed him as their own that one realises quite what an extraordinary portfolio of freelance contracts he had assembled, working for, among others, the Financial Times, the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail (as John McEntee’s understudy on the Wicked Whispers column) and, until it folded, Punch, where he wrote a memorable column.

At his funeral, in Monasterevin, Ireland, I was surprised to see how many hundreds of men and women there were who each considered him, like me, to be their best friend.

For me, in the years ahead, he will live on as my conscience. I will always ask myself, if I am worried that a story I am writing might cause unnecessary distress or I am feeling bullied by a fat film director, what would Jonathan do? He would be human and keep fighting.

Jonathan Kennan Cooper is survived by his wife of six years, journalist Zoe Brennan, and their two young sons.


Tim Walker, Mandrake editor,The Daily Telegraph

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