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May 3, 2023updated 04 May 2023 11:33am

Two-time editor of Press Gazette Tony Loynes dies aged 73

The editor and publisher saved Press Gazette from closure and fought to chart a way forward for trade publishers.

By Peter Kirwan

During two periods at Press Gazette, Tony Loynes built finely-balanced relationships with some of Fleet Street’s most (and least) esteemed names. He defended the title against a wave of SLAPP-style lawsuits and placed Press Gazette on a firm commercial footing, first by bringing the British Press Awards under its wing and later by reestablishing the awards’ credibility.

Tony spent around a decade working at Press Gazette, longer than most of the eight proprietors that have owned the title since its launch in 1965. His first stint as editor kicked off in 1986. The weekly’s new boss was a fresh-faced 36-year-old with a solid background in the regional press, some experience of Fleet Street and a track record in management. Val Williams, managing editor of Press Gazette, was quoted in her own paper: “We’re delighted he has agreed to join us. He’s exactly the sort of person we wanted.”

Tony dived headlong into the story of the moment: the rise and rise of Robert Maxwell, ‘war hero’, former MP, owner of the largest printing company in Europe and proprietor of the Mirror Group Newspapers.

As Maxwell’s dealmaking reached dizzying heights in the late 1980s, senior executives drifted away from his newspapers. The number of sources with stories to tell expanded. The media, including Press Gazette and Private Eye, took an increasing interest in the ‘Bouncing Czech’.

The inevitable result was legal action against Press Gazette – lots of it. In addition, Maxwell’s hand was visible in the 1989 launch of a well-resourced rival title, Journalists’ Week.

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It was all too much for Timothy Benn Publishing, which sold Press Gazette to Maclean Hunter, a much larger Canadian media conglomerate with extensive interests in radio, TV and newspapers.

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It soon emerged that someone had neglected to tell Maclean Hunter about the outstanding Maxwell lawsuits, any one of which could have spelled significant trouble, even for a well-resourced owner.​

Tony responded to Maxwell’s intimidation by finding a lawyer who would defend the title on a minimal budget: Peter Carter-Ruck. Once described by a fellow solicitor as having “that English look, where they smile at you and cut your balls off”, Carter-Ruck was already the most eminent libel lawyer in the country. But his later reputation obscured the fact that Carter-Ruck had started out as an advocate for libel defendants including the Daily Express and liked to style himself as “the friend of Fleet Street”.

Carter-Ruck had only just recently set up his own law firm, at the age of 67. He had a reputation to burnish. Press Gazette offered an opportunity to confront Maxwell, the biggest legal bully of them all. “The publicity Carter-Ruck received was quite useful to them,” former group publishing director of Maclean Hunter Denis Jones recalled recently. “It was all down to Tony’s ability to get them on board. My recollection is that we never paid them anything.”

By November 1991, the worst of the danger was past. Cap’n Bob fell to his death from the deck of his 55m yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, off the coast of the Canary Islands. The lawsuits withered on the vine and Journalists’ Week closed for good.

Press Gazette launches the British Press Awards

Press Gazette had been offered the opportunity to manage and run the British Press Awards. To do this successfully, Tony needed the support of as many of the nationals as possible. In particular, he needed the support of Sir David English, the editor of the Daily Mail.

With some trepidation, Tony invited English to lunch at the Savoy Grill. On arrival at 12 noon, English instructed Loynes to purchase an expensive bottle of wine (sufficiently costly to trash Press Gazette’s monthly expenses allowance). Next, the Mail’s presiding genius ordered a fried egg. Despite the waiter’s plea that fried eggs didn’t feature on the Michelin-starred menu, English quietly insisted.

A short time later, there was a commotion at the end of the restaurant: two waiters struggled at the other tables carrying a huge silver salver, which they placed in front of English. Lying within, on what Tony would later describe as kilos of crushed ice, was a modest plate bearing a single fried egg. English asked for some salt and pepper and ate it without complaint.

Soon after, the Daily Mail resurrected its support of the awards, which were successful. Tony followed up with the profitable Regional Press Awards. In Maxwell’s wake, life became calmer.

However, another change in ownership was on the horizon: in 1994, EMAP acquired Press Gazette. Aware that the awards required diplomatic skills to rival anything on display at the United Nations, Tony wanted to continue with the combined editor-publisher role given to him by Maclean Hunter. EMAP wanted to limit him to editorial duties.

A parting of the ways ensued, bringing down the curtain on the first of Tony’s two periods in charge of Press Gazette.

The Press Awards which Tony revived were the mainstay of Press Gazette’s profitability until 2011, when they were taken over by the Society of Editors. Ownership of the event is now claimed by the News Media Association which licences it out to Haymarket.

Press Gazette part two: Wilmington era

In 2005, the Press Gazette (at this stage a weekly magazine and website) was acquired by former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan and PR guru Matthew Freud from then-owner Quantum Business Media. Just over a year after buying Press Gazette, they put it up for sale. Eventually, an administrator was appointed, the staff were all made redundant and the closure was announced.

In December 2006, Wilmington Group, where Tony was now ensconced as editorial director, rode to the rescue. A deal was done. In the words of Press Gazette veteran Jon Slattery, the title had “broken out of its coffin, just as it was being buried”.

Tony made light of the near-death experience. “Press Gazette has missed an issue,” he said. “But we will be making that up to the loyal readers of the publication.”

Tony’s second coming at Press Gazette was a whirlwind affair. Dominic Ponsford was appointed editor, reporting to Tony in his new role as editor-in-chief. Efforts to recruit new columnists weren’t always straightforward: after treating Jeffrey Barnard to an epic lunch at the Coach & Horses, their conversation continued into the evening. The following morning, Tony’s family were astonished to find the bibulous scribe asleep on the floor beneath their kitchen table. Barnard awoke, refused the gig and headed for the nearest pub.

Ponsford said: “He was a really energetic boss with plenty of ideas who played a key role in ensuring Press Gazette’s survival. He really loved journalism, all the characters involved and particularly the networking element.

“Sadly the financial crisis which hit the whole news industry with the force of an Atomic bomb in 2008 put paid to any hope of quickly restoring Press Gazette’s profitability and Wilmington decided to close the title down in late 2009 (and also part ways with Tony). Thankfully Press Gazette was saved again at the 11th hour by current owner who purchased it after its closure had been announced for a second time in the space of three years.

“I invited Tony to the Press Gazette British Journalism Awards at Stationers Hall in 2015 (our 50th anniversary year) when I paid tribute to the role he others and had played in ensuring Press Gazette’s survival. He seemed really touched and said afterwards how proud he was to see Press Gazette doing so well.”

From provincial press to London Evening News

Tony Loynes was born in 1949, near Crystal Palace in south London. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Suffolk. His mother and father were both teachers, the former from a well-heeled family with Oxbridge antecedents, the latter from a more modest background in Clacton.

From a relatively early age, specific tendencies became visible, including a resilience that would be required in his future career. On his first day at grammar school in the early 1960s, his new schoolmates tried to subject him to their customary initiation ceremony. Tony took exception, went for the ringleader and knocked him out.

By 1970, Tony was a trainee reporter at Essex County Newspapers. His beats included Colchester, Clacton and Frinton.

Before too long, London beckoned. In 1973, Tony started work for the Fleet Street News Agency, where he became familiar with darker arts, including the hacks’ habit of delaying rivals by cutting the cables in phone boxes after phoning in a story. Tony was soon covering major stories, including the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne at gunpoint in 1973 and the murder of Lord Lucan’s nanny Sandra Rivett the following year.

By the mid-70s, he was working as a reporter at London Evening News. He went full-time at the News in 1976, just as editor Louis Kirby introduced a more upmarket approach. Tony experienced the new seriousness first-hand: more than once, he was despatched to Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.

Playing football with Bob Marley

Next, Tony’s career took a brief diversion: he became marketing manager for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. Between gigs and recording sessions, he was sometimes roped into entertaining the talent. In the case of Bob Marley and the Wailers, this meant playing five-a-side football in Battersea Park. Photographer Adrian Boot captured one such outing in March 1977 (Tony is on the left, back row).

In the late 1970s, responsibility knocked. Tony married: two daughters, Kathryn and Isabelle, followed. The family moved to East Bergholt in Suffolk, next door to Dedham Vale, a landscape to which Tony remained devoted over the years.

Back in Suffolk, Tony found work as features editor and then as deputy editor of the Evening Star in Ipswich.

Many of Tony’s old contacts recall his role as a mentor, including Paul Geater, who arrived at the Evening Star in Ipswich as a trainee in 1982: “Unlike some of his colleagues he was always very supportive to a young reporter. He encouraged all of us to channel any enthusiasms we might have into longer pieces for the paper.”

After seven years at the Star, Timothy Benn’s offer of the editor’s job at Press Gazette in 1986 turned out to be a defining moment. From this point onwards, Tony’s career focused on London and B2B publishing.

After his first stint at Press Gazette, Tony spent the best part of a decade at VNU Business Publications, the UK subsidiary of the Dutch media multinational, which produced content for both consumers and corporate IT buyers.

Tech publishing was a rollercoaster: these were the years of the dot.com boom (and the subsequent, very painful, bust). Early on, Tony argued that VNU needed to buy an established online job board to follow recruitment advertisers as they moved online. He also argued against the company’s decision to begin making journalists redundant in 2001. Without the writers who made titles a compelling read, he pointed out, advertising revenues would continue to decline.

But the winds of change were blowing in a different direction at VNU’s HQ in the Netherlands. VNU would not be the last publisher to try to reinvent itself as a data-driven enterprise. But it was one of the first to fail in the attempt. In 2006, the company was dismembered by a huge private equity consortium. The following year, VNU’s UK-based magazines were sold off to Incisive Media.

Tony Loynes was an exceptionally talented reporter, editor and publisher whose career started in the days of hot metal and finished in the era of algorithms. He believed that high-quality editorial was the fundamental driver of audience attention and therefore advertising revenues.

The ultimate seal of approval for any editor putting a front page under his nose was a sigh, the removal of spectacles, a hand passed through his hair – and then the following words: “I can see that this has been properly thought through.” Typically, the next words out of his mouth would involve a suggested improvement. He was rarely wrong.

Gregarious, quick-witted and generous to a fault, Tony was the life and soul of countless gatherings (and workplaces) in Fleet Street, Frinton, Soho and beyond. He was blessed with a newsman’s sense of mischief. Despite a mile-wide streak of anti-authoritarianism, he was also ridiculously hard-working, enterprising by default and frighteningly intelligent.

He never became CEO of a big media organisation because he was far too interested in people, what made them tick and how they viewed the world. In particular, he was fascinated by journalists and journalism, and he was unfailingly loyal to his own tribe.

In the 1980s, when Robert Maxwell commenced legal action on a personal basis against Hugh Sharpe, one of his Press Gazette contributors, Tony fought back. At VNU in the 2000s, when Intel sued Mike Magee, the founder of The Inquirer, his response was the same. “Loynes was always on the side of journalists because he was one,” said Magee. “I found him generous, funny and he had that rarest of qualities, intuition.”

Tony was alive to the possibilities of technology from an early stage. In the pre-internet era, as an NCTJ trainee, Paul Briggs recalls receiving copies of Press Gazette bearing a free floppy disk containing up-to-date contact information for journalists. “That cover disk was probably the reason I went into tech journalism rather than covering the local Donkey Derby at Great Yarmouth,” said Briggs. Within a few years, he would be working for Loynes at VNU.

Later, Tony became profoundly worried by the tech industry’s strategy to corral all of the advertising revenue and sidestep responsibility for producing content. For the shareholders of Google and Facebook, this was a fine bargain. Much sooner than most, Tony recognised that the results would be devastating for the quality of public life in Western democracies.

Tony never really retired: he was horrified by the idea of the sending-off party and the engraved carriage clock. Working alongside others to solve problems was what made him tick. After his second stint in charge of Press Gazette at Wilmington, he worked for a successful family business, volunteered locally and even returned to the East Anglian Daily Times as a reporter for a short spell. By the late 2010s, however, ill health started to make its presence felt.

Tony passed away surrounded by family in Suffolk on 16 May 2023, nine months after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He is survived by brothers Peter and Chris, daughters Kathryn and Isabelle, their respective partners Ross and Chris, and grandchildren Oliver, Noah, Lillian, Dorothy and Winston.

Tony’s funeral will take place at St Mary the Virgin, East Bergholt, Suffolk CO7 6TA, on 22 May 2023 at 10am. Refreshments afterwards at The Lion. Friends, both old and new, will be warmly welcomed.

Tony Loynes, journalist and publisher: born in Lambeth on 12 November 1949; died in Ipswich on 16 April 2023.

Additional reporting by Bill Boyle

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