Obituary: Bernard Shrimsley, journalist and author

Bernard Shrimsley, journalist who rose from messenger boy to edit three tabloids. Picture: News Group Newspapers Ltd
Bernard Shrimsley, journalist who rose from messenger boy to edit three tabloids. Picture: News Group Newspapers Ltd
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Born: 13 January 1931. Died: 9 June 2016, aged 85.

Bernard Shrimsley enjoyed a remarkable 50-year career in the cut-throat world of journalism, rising from messenger boy to editor of three national tabloid newspapers, The Sun, News of the World and The Mail on Sunday.

Described as “the uncle of Fleet Street”, the fastidious, tall, elegantly dressed Shrimsley wanted the work place to be a fun environment explaining, “News needs to be sensational, that’s what it’s all about. If you have flat stories, the public will be bored out of their minds. Just imagine the tabloids without any fun in them.”

A former Mirror editor Mike Molloy, recalled, Shrimsley “gave out a disturbing energy field as if he buzzed with ungrounded electricity,” although his tenure was “something of a rest cure for the staff, as he insisted on doing all of the work himself, including rewriting everyone’s copy.”

Born in London in 1931, Bernard Shrimsley was the son of immigrant parents, John, a tailor’s pattern cutter, and Alice, a housewife. They changed their name from Shremski to seem less foreign. During the Second World War, he and his younger brother, Anthony, were evacuated to Northampton where they endured mistreatment from their guardians, eventually going to the police to secure their release.

After leaving Kilburn Grammar School, he spent a year as a messenger boy at the Press Association, which sparked his interest in journalism, before joining The Southport Guardian as a trainee reporter, in 1948.

He worked here for five years, including two years of National Service in the RAF, during which he secured a post setting intelligence tests for prospective officers; he later admitted that perhaps some were a little too difficult.

In 1953, Shrimsley moved to Manchester as a reporter soon becoming deputy editor of the Sunday Express and then the Daily Mirror’s northern editor, while also raising circulation, which brought him to the attention of the paper’s proprietor Cecil King. He also edited the Liverpool Echo. Much to Shrimsley’s surprise, King told Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director of the Mirror group, to bring him to London “to be groomed for greater things”.

Shrimsley and staff worked 14-hour days to make the The Sun’s tabloid relaunch, following Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of it in 1969, a success.

Within a year or so its daily sales had doubled to 1.6 million. He worked as Larry Lamb’s deputy until he was appointed associate editor of The News of the World, The Sun’s sister paper, in 1972 and later that year became editor of The Sun.

Three years later, Shrimsley was appointed editor of The News of the World where he remained for five years, an unusually long spell at that time. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade Murdoch to change the paper from its broadsheet format to a tabloid, but this did occur four years later, by which time Shrimsley had accepted an offer from Lord Rothermere, chairman of Associated Newspapers, to become launch editor of The Mail on Sunday.

Surrounded by a stellar cast of writers, including Jilly Cooper and Michael Parkinson, Christopher Fildes (city editor), and Patrick Collins (chief sports writer), Shrimsley spent two years planning the paper’s launch.

However, its 1982 debut, during the Falklands War, was a disaster and was criticised in many quarters. Shrimsley was fired after just ten issues.

He subsequently spent the last 13 years of his career with the Daily Express, first as assistant editor to friend Lamb, who had left The Sun in 1981, and then as associate editor to Nicholas Lloyd whom he had recruited to The Sun.

Retiring in 1996, Shrimsley served as vice-chairman of the Press Council and a member of the D-Notice Committee, which advises editors on news stories that compromise national security. He also wrote leaders for Press Gazette and did consultancy work including advising Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party.

Shrimsley wrote three novels, The Candidates (1968), Lion Rampant (1984) and The Silly Season (2003), a satirical novel featuring, as its anti-hero, Jack Stack, a tabloid editor whose Machiavellian cynicism (“if the bugger won’t die in time for the edition, bung his obit in anyway and call it a tribute”) was said by some to have been inspired by the later Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, with a touch of Piers Morgan.

He married, in 1952, Norma Porter, who died in 2009. Their daughter Amanda survives him.