Obituary: Peter John Steele, journalist

Peter Steele: Journalist whose impeccable manners and quick-thinking won him many an 'exclusive' both at home and abroad
Peter Steele: Journalist whose impeccable manners and quick-thinking won him many an 'exclusive' both at home and abroad
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Born: 8 February, 1942, in London. Died 7 April, 2014, in Cullen, Moray, aged 72

PETER Steele was a true gentleman of journalism. In the cut-throat, dog-eats-dog world of the national newspaper trade (he never described it as a “profession”), Peter combined a mastery of his craft with an unshakeable integrity, generosity of spirit and a ready kindness for which many who worked with him, for him and against him have reason to be grateful.

His natural warmth, impeccable manners and quick wit were the keys that opened doors to countless stories and “exclusives” during a distinguished journalistic and, later business career, spanning more than half a century. They were also qualities that endeared him to fellow journalists the length and breadth of Britain.

Peter, the son of a south London prison officer, left Battersea Grammar School at 17 when he was offered a job as a trainee reporter on a local weekly in Kent. But before he could complete his indentures, the paper went bust.

After a spell as a labourer (when not earning his living with a pen he developed a lifelong passion for hard physical graft and became an accomplished builder and restorer), he got a job as an agency reporter at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, where he became one of the fastest shorthand writers in the business.

It gave him a foothold on Fleet Street and after several years as a court reporter, he was hired by the Daily Mail. When the Mail merged with the Daily Sketch, he was made redundant but was never short of work, juggling shifts between the London Evening Standard and Daily Mirror.

When internment was introduced in Northern Ireland in 1971, Peter – always with an eye on the main chance – offered to cover the Troubles on a freelance basis for the Standard but produced such a flow of scoops and front-page splashes that the paper found it cheaper to offer him a permanent staff job.

One of the highlights of his early career came in 1974 when he was one of the few journalists to get into Cyprus ahead of the Turkish invasion of the former British protectorate. Although the island was officially closed to all incoming flights following the coup d’état by the Greek military junta, Peter persuaded the pilot of an Israeli crop sprayer to fly him into Nicosia on the pretext that the aircraft was running short on fuel and was about to crash. Permission to land was granted.

Not long after his somewhat controversial arrival, he witnessed at first-hand the invasion by hundreds of Turkish paratroopers. Despite the ensuing chaos, danger and difficult communications, he found ingenuous ways of filing a series of remarkable eye-witness despatches for which he won much acclaim back in Fleet Street.

But it was not until the early 1980s that Peter Steele became a familiar and highly respected name among news editors in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee over a period of 30 years.

For family reasons, he agreed to forego the bright lights of Fleet Street for the tranquillity of the Banffshire fishing town of Cullen. Despite the radical change of environment, there was seldom a dull moment and, remarkably, Peter was still occasionally flown to London to carry out news desk shifts on the Sun.

“Steele of Cullen” soon became a name familiar to copytakers and news editors on every national newspaper and broadcaster in Scotland. And it was in Cullen that he met and fell in love with Nancy Cochrane, who became his devoted wife, friend and business partner. By then, Peter had set up the highly-successful Northscot Press Agency in Aberdeen, supplying stories and pictures to an ever-expanding database of national and international customers.

With Nancy’s encouragement, he went on to establish Centre Press in Glasgow and Capital Press in Edinburgh which, as well as giving them the means to build an impressive portfolio of commercial and residential property in all three cities, also became an unofficial training school for scores of young journalists, many of whom today hold senior roles in newspapers and broadcasting.

Peter, unlike many of his newspaper contemporaries, was not often given to reminiscing about journalistic feats although when he did, usually over a glass or two of his beloved rioja, he was always hugely entertaining.

His preference was for looking look ahead rather than back. He was one of the first journalists to discern an imminent, radical and potentially ruinous change of dynamic for the print media industry in the shape of the internet. He was a principal partner in 2dayuk, a coalition of press agencies throughout Britain that began producing an online news and picture service, and which undoubtedly was one of the pioneers of the modern-day and burgeoning digital media sector.

But his first love was always for the printed word and what he referred to as “the coalface of truth and justice”. In his unofficial role as mentor to scores of aspiring young journalists, his maxim was: “I never ask anybody to do something I would not be happy to do myself.” To prove the point, and even at the tail-end of a long and successful career, he could be found poring over the lost and found columns and classified ads in search of a story lead or idea.

In 1997, when Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash in a Paris tunnel, it was a mark of the high regard in which Peter was held that one of the first calls Scottish news editors made was to him asking him to go to Balmoral where princes William and Harry were staying with Prince Charles, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. He and his staff “held the fort” until staff reporters arrived, but many news editors were content to leave that key part of the story entirely in his hands.

Young reporters liked and admired him because he treated them with respect, empathy and equanimity. If one of his charges had reached a dead end on a story or had lost out to a rival, he would invariably tell them not to worry and to go off and buy an ice-cream – Peter’s own distinctive way of telling them to “chill”.

But if he was “chilled” himself, he also loved to thrill – or, as he put it, “scare myself s***less” when he was not hacking away at the journalistic coalface. He had a passion for classic motorcycles and fast cars. He painstakingly restored a vintage Bugatti motorcycle, which he rode at ferocious speeds on quiet summer evenings on the back roads of Cullen. And well into his 60s, he treated himself to a “souped up” Porsche with acceleration akin to an Formula One racing car.

His thrill-seeking also took him to the depths of the ocean as an enthusiastic dry-suit diver, a pursuit that requires a great deal of skill as well as daring. His one dread was heights. So, for a birthday present, given with the same mischievousness of which Peter himself was prone, Nancy bought him a microlite flying course. He loved it, though he later confessed to being terrified.

Somehow, he also found time and energy to re-roof and renovate cottages in Cullen and built a warehouse close to the shore for his construction equipment, sports gear, diving boat and motorbikes. He and Nancy divided their time between a beautifully restored home in the grounds of Cullen House, the ancestral seat of the earls of Seafield, a magnificent flat near Edinburgh Castle, a flat in Aberdeen and a townhouse near Gandia in Spain.

In 2009, Peter was diagnosed with colon cancer. After successful surgery and treatment, he resumed his position at the head of his considerable media operation, which by then had been reincorporated as Hard Edge Media. But two years later, he finally decided to call it a day and sold the business to Bristol-based South West News, one of the country’s leading independent media agencies.

Peter Steele was a rare species in front-line journalism. He had, as his renamed business title suggests, a hard edge to his personality that drove him to meeting the high demands of his trade. At the same time, he never allowed his determination to get the story to compromise his own demands for fairness, civility and respect for his fellow human beings. For all those reasons, he will be sorely missed.

Peter died peacefully at his home in Cullen with Nancy at his side after finally losing his battle to cancer. He is also survived by his son Adam, daughter Andrea and step-daughter Judith.