Obituary: Walter Greenwood, journalist & authority in media law

Born: 17 August, 1926, in Yorkshire. Died: 29 September, 2013, in Newcastle, aged 87

Walter Greenwood. Picture: Contributed

Many of today’s leading journalists were tutored by Walter Greenwood – a man with a detailed understanding of the legal complexities of the profession and a comprehensive knowledge of, in particular, libel and defamation. Greenwood’s agile mind and keen eye for detail gave his pupils a thorough grounding in all aspects of the legal pitfalls they might encounter in their professional lives.

Greenwood was a born enthusiast and imparted his love of journalism with joy and commitment. He made himself available when they assumed posts of responsibility – one editor recalls ringing Greenwood with a tricky problem while he was in a supermarket. “No worries,” Greenwood joyfully replied. “I can push the trolley with the other hand.”

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His advice was invariably wise and level-headed and he maintained an encyclopaedic knowledge of media law all his life. Greenwood was a widely recognised, respected and admired figure by all his former pupils. He remembered all their names and also had an extensive appreciation of fine wines.

Greenwood’s mind was alert and incisive. A doctor was assessing how a stroke had affected his faculties and asked Greenwood to recite a sentence of more than 30 words.

“I gave him the briefest of introductions to the law of defamation,” Greenwood recalled with a broad smile.

Walter Sharpe Greenwood was born in Dewsbury and attended the Wheelwright Grammar School. He left at 16 to join the Dewsbury Reporter and two years later tried to join the RAF on the outbreak of war. Instead, Greenwood became a Bevin Boy and spent the war down the mines in Yorkshire. He then returned to being a journalist and by the late 1940s was deputy editor of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette.

In 1969 he joined Thomson Regional Newspapers as an assistant editor (training) and, with John Brownlee, launched the group’s influential training programme centred at Cardiff and Newcastle.

It was Greenwood’s ability to train potential journalists for which he is most fondly remembered, not least by the Aberdeen-born Education Secretary Michael Gove, who recalled that being taught by Greenwood was like being taught football by Bill Shankly or playwriting by Alan Bennett: “He was a master. He combined total professionalism with great good humour and a restless curiosity.”

Greenwood insisted that students always put the reader first and that facts were presented fairly and arguments were concise and succinct. Articles, Greenwood argued, should be crisp, enthusiastic and accurate and should serve the truth.

Leading Scottish journalists who were taught by Greenwood include broadcasters Sally Magnusson; the former chief political correspondent of The Scotsman, James Naughtie and Andrew Marr.

For 35 years Greenwood headed the law board of the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). The council taught standards of legal competence which guided the careers of many journalists. Greenwood made the complexities of newspaper law come alive – his lectures reflected not only his broad and comprehensive knowledge but a grand dash of infectious good humour. Greenwood co-edited McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists for nearly 30 years. First produced in 1979, McNae’s quickly became an authoritative reference legal manual and an indispensable reference book for newsdesks over legal matters, libel and the restrictions in courtroom reporting.

Greenwood joined the NCTJ’s North-east regional committee and in the 1970s chaired its media law board. Such was the esteem held for him throughout academic journalism that he returned to the chair for a second term from 2004 to 2006.

He was also a consultant to the publication, Media Lawyer, when it was launched and continued when it was bought by the Press
Association. In 2011 Greenwood praised the new edition of Scots Law for Journalists as “authoritative and yet highly readable”.

The new edition required substantial changes as a result of new legislation and Greenwood wrote that it explained “the Scottish legal system and procedure in detail and yet catered very efficiently for the experienced journalist as well as the student and the lawyer”.

“The book,” Greenwood concluded, “explains lucidly the more straightforward restrictions that do apply in Scotland.”

In the 2010 British Press Awards, Greenwood was the first recipient of the Journalists’ Charity Award which not only recognised his outstanding contribution to the profession but also the charity work he had done over many years.

Andrew Marr paid special tribute to Greenwood. “Walter was not just an inspired and inspiring teacher but a completely committed and enthusiastic newspaperman of the old school.

“I am only one of many hundreds of journalists today who owe him a huge debt and remember him with great fondness.”

Walter Greenwood, a courteous man of much charm, married, in 1953, Doreen Troughton, who survives him. There were no children.