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December 5, 2022updated 09 Jan 2023 4:55pm

Former Press Gazette chief reporter Jean Morgan – ‘a brilliant story getter’ – dies aged 86

Jean Morgan was trusted (and feared) by a generation of Fleet Street journalists.

By Jon Slattery

Press Gazette’s former chief reporter Jean Morgan has died aged 86. She retired after 19 years reporting on the national and regional newspaper industry for Press Gazette in 2003. Here, former Press Gazette deputy editor and news editor Jon Slattery pays tribute to her.

Jean was a news editor’s dream. She had fantastic contacts and was a brilliant story getter. Journalists always took her calls because they wanted to know what she knew.

Jean joined UK Press Gazette, as it was then, in 1984 but her roots were very much in newspapers and the regional press. She regarded UKPG as a newspaper and not a magazine.

She was passionate about national and local newspapers and the importance of a free press. Jean was trusted by tabloid journalists and editors at a time when they felt under fire from the “posh” papers and broadcasters and were often reluctant to speak publicly and put their head above the parapet to defend themselves.

Jean’s appearance could be deceptive. I once overheard a Fleet Street editor telling members of his staff that Jean “looks like everyone’s favourite aunty but is very dangerous”. She was fearless and liked to bypass PR offices and go straight to the source. I remember Jean putting it bluntly to an evasive editor about the sudden departure of two of his staff: “I heard that you caught them rogering each other on your desk.”

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Jean became an MBE for services to journalism in 2002. She said generously: “One never knows why we get these awards but I imagine it is something to do with our fight for the free press, which is what the Press Gazette is all about. This really is for everyone at the paper.”

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As Press Gazette’s various owners came and went and the office moved around London to Croydon and back to Fleet Street, Jean was a constant. She had a fierce intelligence and never ever backed down when she thought she was in the right. The force of her personality won over every new Press Gazette publisher and owner who quickly realised Jean was not be underestimated or patronised. When Jean finally retired from Press Gazette in 2003 she held a huge farewell bash attended by many of the editors and journalists she had spent the previous 19 years writing about.

One of them was Roy Greenslade, who had given Jean such an honest interview about the future of the tabloid press while he was editor of the Daily Mirror that Robert Maxwell sacked him.

Roy wrote in the Guardian: “I can certainly testify to Morgan’s honesty and understanding. When I gave her what was considered an outspoken interview during my brief and stormy editorship of the Daily Mirror, she called back to ask whether I was really happy to be quoted on the record. 

“For a reporter with an explosive scoop on her hands, she showed amazing concern and compassion. I agreed that she should publish and that article was later cited by Robert Maxwell as the reason for my departure from the Mirror.”

Both the Sun and Daily Mirror presented Jean with dummy front pages on her retirement, which she proudly displayed on the walls of her flat in London.

I once persuaded Jean to come out of retirement to help for a couple of weeks when we moved back to Fleet Street under the Piers Morgan/Matthew Freud ownership of Press Gazette. Naturally, she got the splash with an exclusive story on how Hollywood star Sharon Stone was suing the Mail using a no-win, no-fee agreement.

Piers Morgan tried to make her return permanent claiming, in his understated way, that it would be the “biggest comeback since Lazarus”. He had obviously forgiven Jean for one of her Press Gazette front page stories which was headlined: “Piers Morgan ‘I’ve been a total prat and a tosser’”, based on a leaked private letter he had sent to the editor of the Sun.

Jean could not be persuaded to return but in retirement did sterling work as a trustee and member of the management committee of the Journalists’ Charity.

She was also a member of the Old Codgers group of journalists who used to meet for lunch but whose guest speakers, agonisingly for Jean, spoke strictly off the record so she could not report on what was said.

Jean started her journalism career on the Bridgend Advertiser as a trainee in 1954. Later she worked for the Bedfordshire Times, Leicestershire Evening Mail, South Wales Echo and then Thomson Regional Newspapers London Office, where among her assignments was interviewing pop stars and covering the Paris fashion shows.

At the South Wales Echo she met and married Phil Morgan who went on to be a news editor at the Sun.

In the last few years Jean moved out of London to Falmouth in Cornwall to live near her daughter, Clare, a journalist who works in university communications.

Jean was sharp, funny, good company and a great friend to me, my family and many of her old Press Gazette colleagues. We will all miss her very much.

Former colleagues share memories of Jean Morgan

Former Press Gazette editor Philippa Kennedy: “One of my fondest memories was when Jean was working on a story involving the Daily Telegraph and I tried to help by ringing Murdoch Maclennan who was chief executive at the time. We had a chat and then he said: ‘But Philippa, I’ve already given all this to Jean.’ Of course Jean would never reveal her sources, not even to me. That’s why people trusted her.”Naomi Marks, former Press Gazette features editor, adds: “I’ll miss her massively. Jean leaves behind her a swathe of younger generation of journalists who she unwittingly tutored and remain indebted to her in so many ways.”

Former Press Gazette editor Ian Reeves: “Jean’s great strength as a reporter – and she fiercely resisted any attempts to ‘promote’ her to any other role – was that she treated all of her sources with exactly the same genuine enthusiasm, whether they were a chief executive, an editor or a junior reporter.  

“In retirement she was a generous host to me and Maria (former PG reporter – we met at her leaving do and Jean was an honoured guest at our wedding) at her Kent cottage. Even in those later years, she always had surprising titbits of gossip up her sleeve from her extraordinary network of contacts.”

Jon Slattery: “Jean was such a good reporter she found out I was to be made redundant from a new job before I had even started. I was acting editor of Press Gazette but was leaving to join would-be PA rival UK News. Jean found out PA had won back the national press and UK News was not going ahead. I remember the fax beeping out the PA statement confirming her story just as we were putting the last issue to bed before Christmas. She got the splash (again) and luckily Press Gazette took me back.”

Former Press Gazette broadcasting editor Steve Busfield: “RIP Jean. I learned so much from you during my year @pressgazette half a lifetime ago. She worked contacts relentlessly & had a great nose for a story – & did it with such charm. After her retirement our occasional lunches with @jonslattery were always fun.”

Tim Walker: “She was a very special lady and protective of her friends. When I got Mandrake on the Telegraph, she said she’d do a story in PG and I said quote me as saying ‘I’ll give Mandrake a new and distinctive quack.’ What do you mean, she said. I told her I thought Mandrake was a duck. Typically and charitably she let me rethink the quote!…I wonder why I thought Mandrake was a duck. I suppose I was thinking of Mallard.”

Wale Azeez: “As a former broadcast editor at Press Gazette, I’ll forever remember Jean’s mix of determination, compassion (especially with a newbie colleague like me) and biting wit.

“Watching her at work often gave the whole team that extra push needed to get the best stories we could before we went to press. Jean may have had her final ‘banging out’, but her indelible mark on colleagues and the industry at large will last several lifetimes.”

Maureen Paton: “She was the nicest, sharpest story-getter in the world who must have disarmed many a target with her friendliness and warmth.
A lovely lady with an insatiable interest in people that made her just the best company.”

Anthony Longden: “I was greatly saddened to learn of the death of Jean Morgan. I had many dealings with her over the years while in various roles, usually being asked to comment on reorganisations, redundancies or rows with the police, but one of the worst moments of my entire career came in, I think, 1993. The attached excerpt says it all, really. All I remember is that Jean could barely contain her delight when she rang me up. Her opening line was: ‘Mr Longden, why exactly have you published a call to worship Satan in your newspaper’?

“She clearly didn’t believe a word of my explanation, but I’m afraid my cupboard was bare.

“I tried to resign, but the publisher flatly refused to accept. He was convulsed with laughter for several hours, but, bent double with mirth, managed to splutter: ‘Oh no you don’t, mate. Sorting this out is a far better punishment than anything else I can come up with.’

“Fortunately, Jean missed the sequel to this a few weeks later, when one of the photographs published in the paper carried the reference number 93/666. The last three digits were the problem and the phones started ringing all over again…”

Former colleague Michael Leapman said: “I wrote the “Dog eats Dog”  column in Press Gazette when Charles Wintour was editor.  Jean was a reporter and was generous in giving me stories that she thought would go better in my column than as news stories. More recently, it was always great to chat and gossip with her at Codgers lunches. We’ll miss her.”

If you have any memories of Jean Morgan you would like to share please email pged@pressgazette.co.uk

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Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

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