Wadham journalist speaks out

16th June 2015

News, Alumni news

“Newspapers must continue to entertain, but they must also be a thorn in the sides of those in power, wrongdoers and those who abuse the young and old,” writes Wadham alumnus, journalist and author Robin Esser (1952, History).

  • Robin Esser ©Daily Mail

    Robin Esser (1952, History) Photo © Daily Mail

His recent book Crusaders in Chains (Palatino) combines entertaining anecdotes from his days as editor of the William Hickey gossip column at the Daily Express with his longstanding campaign against attempts by the state to extend its control over the media and to put newspapers in chains.

Robin is particularly critical of Leveson Report recommendations that threaten the right to protect journalists’ sources, and which mean information acquired confidentially can be seized by the police. He points out that legislation designed to have a chilling effect on investigative journalism already exists — laws on contempt of court, data protection, bribery, harassment and terrorism, among others.

He is also concerned about the arrival by the back door of a privacy law. The British Press is now regulated and self-regulated to such an extent, he says, that it is only half-free. “The ‘outrageous’ recommendation that whistleblowers should report misgivings only to the organisation that is responsible for the abuses — never to the media — guarantees that fewer scandals will be exposed,” he says.

Robin’s career spans more than 60 years in journalism, from cutting his teeth on the newly formed Cherwell Oxford student newspaper while at Wadham, to working in Fleet Street at the Daily Express and Daily Mail.

His career in journalism began when, as a child, he started a street newspaper for his neighbours in Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, going on to write for his school magazine. “When I came up to Oxford there was no newspaper so friends and I decided to launch the Cherwell, with Mike Pike (now Sir Michael Pike) as its first editor and me the first news editor.”

Robin describes how lucky he was to arrive at Wadham during ‘a golden age’.  “Sir Maurice Bowra was Warden and my history tutor was Pat Thompson - we got on very well and he remained supportive of me for the rest of his life.”

Playing hockey for Wadham resulted in an early journalism success for Robin: “I was back late from a match in Cambridge and was locked out so had to climb in over the wall into the Warden’s garden, ending up in his cabbage patch. To my surprise, a voice greeted my arrival. The Warden was taking an evening stroll and told me to report to him in the morning. As I nervously arrived at his office in my gown, a rather agitated man in a tweed suit came up. He complained to the Warden that he had just been refused permission to view a painting at Keble because he was not an MA. It turned out to be Evelyn Waugh. The Warden said, ‘Mr Esser, take Mr Waugh into my study and pour him a large drink while I finish my telephone call.’  We then spent several hours together with the Warden, enjoying a large lunch with fine wines. The next morning, with a slight hangover, I related the whole occasion to the William Hickey column in the Daily Express. Fortunately Sir Maurice and Pat Thompson were supportive of my ambitions to be a reporter!”

“Among the top stories during my time on the Cherwell was a fire at the Clarendon Laboratory at the time when the atom was first split; there were fears of radioactivity in the air. I got on the telephone to Fleet Street to file the story and it appeared in every national newspaper in the UK.”

With his Cherwell colleagues, Robin formed the Oxford University Press Club and invited Fleet Street figures to come to Oxford to talk. “The then News Editor of the Sunday Express, Bernard Drew,  was so impressed with us that he invited me and Mike to come and work on the Saturday paper.”

Robin describes his career in journalism as “marvellous fun” allowing him to travel the world on various assignments, including being in America to cover the moon landing, where he was the first British journalist to interview the Apollo 11 astronauts.  Crusaders in Chains is a hugely entertaining read, containing a wealth of good stories featuring names like Jean Paul Getty, the Duke of Marlborough, Lord Beaverbrook and Aristotle Onassis.

Biography of Robin Esser

Now Executive Managing Editor of the Daily Mail, Robin Esser worked as a freelancer before taking on the William Hickey column at the Daily Express. He then worked as Daily Express Features Editor and head of the New York Bureau, before returning to the UK in 1970 to become Northern Editor. Consultant editor of the Evening News in 1977, he later re-joined the Daily Express, working closely, as Executive Editor, with Sir Larry Lamb, in 1985. The following year, he succeeded Sir John Junor as Editor of the Sunday Express, and became Group Editorial Consultant for Express Newspapers in 1986. Esser moved to the Daily Mail in 1991 introducing an arts and entertainment supplement. He subsequently became the paper's Executive Managing Editor, with special responsibility for its website.