Barnetson, William Denholm, Baron Barnetson 1917-1981, newspaper proprietor and television chairman, was born in Edinburgh 21 March 1917, the eldest child in the family of three sons and one daughter of William Barnetson, estate agent, of London and Edinburgh, and his wife, Ella Grigor, daughter of Dr Moir, medical practitioner, of Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh. He was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and at Edinburgh University. Study there was interrupted by the nineteen-year-old Barnetson's decision to become a free-lance war correspondent in the Spanish civil war. From Spain he returned to university and then in the space of one week in July 1940 he married Joan Fairley, daughter of William Fairley Davidson, publican, of Edinburgh, and Agustina Bjarnarson of Iceland; took his MA degree; and began service in the army.
Throughout World War II he served in Anti-Aircraft Command reaching the rank of major. As the war came to an end he was seconded for special duty on the reorganization of West German newspaper and book publishing in the British zone. He was responsible for helping to launch Die Welt and for choosing as a suitable person to be its subsequent publisher, an ambitious young German—Axel Springer, who was to become one of West Germany's most influential newspaper proprietors. Returning to Edinburgh, he joined the Edinburgh Evening News and from 1948 to 1961 was successively leader writer, editor, and general manager—combining these duties with extra-mural lecturing at the university, and speaking and debating on radio and television.
It was Barnetson's habit to go into his office early each morning to thump out his leaders, articles, and speeches on his own typewriter—a habit he never forsook. On one such occasion, there walked into the deserted office a passenger, fresh from the night sleeper from King's Cross, who announced himself as Harley Drayton [qv.]. This was the financier who already ruled a formidable commercial empire and was about to expand his interests in the field of publishing. In Barnetson, Drayton recognized a man of integrity, a working journalist capable of moving into the management of a newspaper empire. A famous partnership had been born.
In 1962 Barnetson was made a director of United Newspapers. In the next four years he drew up a strategic plan for the morning, evening, and weekly provincial papers United already owned in Preston, Leeds, Doncaster, Northampton, and elsewhere. On Drayton's death in 1966, Barnetson succeeded him as chairman and, within three years, doubled the size of United by the acquisition of Yorkshire Post Newspapers, as well as acquiring Punch magazine. He recognized the value to his companies of good contacts with the professional and commercial worlds, and in the 1970s the Bill Barnetson lunches at the Savoy, attended by royalty, archbishops, cabinet ministers, diplomats, financiers, academics, and fellow newspapermen, became an established part of the London social scene.
Meanwhile, his interests and his directorships continued to grow. From 1976 he was deputy chairman of British Electric Traction; he sat on the boards of Hill Samuel, Trusthouse Forte, Argus Press, and the Press Association. From 1973 he was a member of The Times Trust; when Atlantic Richfield acquired the Observer in 1976 he became chairman, and from 1979 he was chairman of Thames Television. At one time, reference books listed forty-two organizations with which he was associated.
One of his outstanding contributions to the newspaper world was achieved in the years 1968-79 when he was chairman of Reuters. During this time the agency's turnover rose from £6 million to £73 million and the foundations were laid for Reuters's technological development from a simple news agency into the world-wide business and economic information service that caters for almost every financial market in the world. Reuters brought out to the full the visionary, the shrewd manager, and the leader, in Barnetson.
Amid all this activity, he found time to spend weekends with his wife and family of one son and three daughters, at their home Broom in Crowborough, East Sussex, where he could enjoy his books and his gardening. But there were increasing demands on his energies: the Open University, Press Council, English National Opera, Queen's Silver Jubilee Appeal, and St Bride's church in Fleet Street, received his personal support and encouragement. And through it all, the thumping of the typewriter keys and the puffing at a king-size briar pipe, went on. Ceaseless activity seemed to suit him. For a somewhat bulky Scot he was surprisingly light of step and this lent a pronounced sense of cheerful urgency to his movements. His working philosophy in dealing with all his many interests was simple: I leave the man on the spot to get on with the job. But he must know that I am available here all the time.
Barnetson was knighted in 1972 and made a life peer in 1975. He died in Westminster Hospital 12 March 1981.
The Times and Daily Telegraph, 13 March 1981
Guy Schofield, The Men that Carry the News, 1975
Contributor: Edward Pickering