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Godfrey Hodgson

A memorial service, delayed by COVID, was held on 9 March 2023 at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street for the late Godfrey Hodgson, distinguished British journalist and historian who led the Reuters Foundation Fellowship Programme at Oxford from 1992 to 2001. He died on 27 January 2021.


Adam Boulton, British broadcaster and lifelong friend of Godfrey, delivered the main tribute (below) to a packed congregation largely comprised of British and international journalists, including former Reuters Fellows, some of whom had travelled from abroad for the event.



Godfrey Hodgson address by Adam Boulton


Good morning.


We are here in St Bride’s, the journalists’ church, because Godfrey Hodgson was a ground-breaking journalist, working on The Times, The Observer, The Sunday Times, The New Statesman and The Independent in that golden age for Fleet Street, just outside here, of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. He and other talented young men and women recognised the potential of the Mainstream Media and went on to create it. 


I’ve known Godfrey for 50 years. He inspired me and so many others. I was immediately struck by his kindness and generous hospitality as well as how much of a modern man of the sixties generation he was. He resolutely treated his four children tenderly as equals - Pierre and Francis, my school mates, and Jessica and Laura, then small girls running around the garden in Chastleton, to the alarm of their two cats Ethel and Abigail, named after the wives of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.


Godfrey was fortunate - and so were we all who knew them - in his two remarkable and charming wives, Alice Vidal and Hilary Lamb. He was less fortunate in his childhood. Sent early to board at prep school as his mother’s health declined. He was struck by osteomyelitis, the bone disease. In an unpublished memoir he writes at length of how he bowled for the Winchester first eleven, though unable to straighten his right arm. 


Godfrey was a member and then editor of the legendary Sunday Times Insight team exposing scandals such as Thalidomide and the financial fraudster Bernie Cornfeld. He was an investigative journalist years before Watergate. He liked to say that there were really only two news stories in this line of work: “We name the guilty men” and “Arrow points to defective part”.


“Insight” is a perfect word, le mot juste, for what Godfrey gave copiously to his readers and viewers. He was ferociously intelligent - a repeat scholarship winner: to Winchester College, to Magdalen, Oxford - graduating, naturally, with a first class degree, back when there weren’t a lot of them around - and then to the University of Pennsylvania.  


Until I met him, I had no idea that journalism could be a satisfactory pursuit for someone of his talents - and in a sense it wasn’t. He also distinguished himself as an historian, as an author of some 15 books, as an academic and as a mentor to many.


Godfrey had the reporter’s knack of being in the right place at the right time. Though intensely English - he particularly loved Oxfordshire and Yorkshire - he also loved and studied America - and Europe. 


His father and grandfather introduced him to the notion that languages such as Norwegian and Flemish were there for the learning. That classical Greek and Latin were essential elements of civilisation and that even modest people from the North should travel to Spain or France to master the idiom as much as catch the sun. Then there was his continuing attachment to the Vidal clan. His first book was published in French in Paris by Editions Julliard.


That first work though, Carpetbaggers and Ku Klux Klan, was about the US. 


The transforming inspiration of Godfrey’s life and work happened during spring break from Penn in 1956. He and a friend went to an Easter Service in Montgomery, Alabama, and the pastor came back for lunch with Godfrey’s hosts afterwards. The pastor was Martin Luther King Junior. King was 27 years old. Godfrey was 22 and star struck. He went back for more talk with King before leaving town. 


Godfrey’s immediate insight was that it was impossible to understand the history and future history of the US without appreciating the sociology of the South and the legacy of slavery. That is commonplace now after Nixon, Trump and Black Lives Matter but not many spotted this essential truth, or MLK, a decade before the Selma march - especially not the privileged white opinion formers basking in the glory of the American Century who he would soon find himself among in Washington.  


In the way of the newspaper trade, Godfrey and his friend and colleague and source of amusement, John Shirley, wrote reciprocal obituaries of each other for The Guardian - John rightly described Godfrey as “among the most perceptive and industrious observers of his generation, particularly in the field of American society and politics.”


David Astor sent him back to the United States for The Observer in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement. He heard MLK’s “I have dream” speech in person at the Lincoln Memorial. He got to know the Kennedys, as well, and covered the assassinations of all of them. He heard the shots which killed Bobby Kennedy in a hotel kitchen in California.


His newspaper reporting in America led to two major and incisive books. An American Melodrama, co-authored with his Sunday Times colleagues Bruce Page and Lewis Chester, a book-of-the-month club selection, about the tumultuous and violent 1968 Presidential campaign. Twelve years before he became president that book took Ronald Reagan seriously.


Somehow Godfrey also managed to report from the Prague Spring and “les evenements” in Paris that epoch-defining year. 


In 1976 he published his magnum opus America in Our Time: From World War II to Nixon. It has been continuously in print ever since. In it he identified what he dubbed “the liberal consensus” between the political leaders of that period. He also spotted the demographic migration from South to North which was changing politics, matched by the stirrings of the  populist right. He pursued these trends in later books such as The Myth of American Exceptionalism and The Liberal Consensus Reconsidered. 


Godfrey left The Sunday Times after the lockout which led to Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of Thomson Newspapers. He had met Murdoch earlier, who had sounded him out to be the editor of The Sun, unsurprisingly their meeting came to nothing. By now he was out of sympathy with the paper and both amused and angered when the new editor of the colour magazine spiked a continuation of his highly regarded profile series of the likes of President Giscard D’Estaing and David Owen - with the scrawled message: “Sorry. No long, No serious, No foreign”. 


A parallel career in Television beckoned as a globe trotting reporter for This Week and as presenter of LWT’s London Programme and Channel 4 News. Then he returned to print at The New Statesman and as Foreign Editor of The Independent, and as a long-serving columnist for The Boston Globe. 


As the son of a headmaster, pedagogy came naturally to him. He loved the company of young people and arguing with them, especially in a pub. The intellectual pull of Academe took him to Harvard, Yale and Stanford where he was a visiting lecturer and tutor. 


He set up home in his beloved Oxford and even wrote a book Sweet Evenlode, about a local river valley. Here he was at the Rothermere American Institute and the Director of the Reuters Foundation at Oxford University for a decade, acting as a mentor to dozens of fledgling journalists from around the world. He and Sir David Butler co-hosted the celebrated Friday afternoon talks by visiting political luminaries at Nuffield College and, later, became neighbours at Richie Court.


Godfrey was co-founder with Ben Bradlee and Felicity Bryan back in 1980 of the Laurence Stern fellowship at the Washington Post for young British journalists, many of whom have gone on to stellar careers - now the Bryan-Stern Fellowship. In memory of another friend and journalist he raised funds for the Anthony Sampson chair in investigative journalism at City University.


Godfrey could be pretty forthright, he left no doubt that he deplored my working for Murdoch for so long. And after we’d had a long lunch we had together, on Rupert’s expenses, he complained to Pierre that I drank too much. But he gave me the best, truly life-changing advice and I never left his company without fresh ideas - Yes of course Trump was a New Yorker elected in and by the South.


In the weeks before he died Godfrey read Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas, in the original languages and discussed them down the line with Pierre. To the end he combined erudition and curiosity, writing, teaching and encouraging others. 


So many of those mentioned here are no longer with us, including his closest friends and intellectual sparring partners, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Harry Macpherson, Bruce Page and Michael Sissons.  


We, who knew the man, and, so many more who knew him through his work, celebrate - apologies for my weak pun - that we lived in Godfrey’s time. ■