Hugh Whittow, former editor of the Daily Express, started his career in journalism at the Western Telegraph in 1968. Now retired, he spoke to reporter David Lynch about his 50 years in journalism, from the early days to the most recent campaign for Brexit.

WHEN Hugh Whittow was 17 years old, he was told journalism was not for him and he should focus on the family butchery business instead.

Now 67, and retired as editor of the Daily Express, he’s proud to have spearheaded the tabloid’s campaign for a referendum on leaving the European Union – with considerable success.

Growing up, he had no idea what he wanted to do, but a conversation with Western Telegraph editor Herbert Thomas at a careers fair was the start of a long and successful move into journalism.

“He asked me about my school work, and to tell you the truth it wasn’t all that good. He said I should concentrate on the family butchery business.”

But 12 months later, the comments at the careers fair long-forgotten, his news editor at the Telegraph told him he was bound for Fleet Street.

“From the moment I went to work it was all I ever wanted to do,” said Hugh.

The stories he brought in to the Telegraph office often stood out thanks to his good contacts throughout Haverfordwest.

But Hugh also had a knack for being a lucky reporter: “I was in the ambulance station one day having a chat with the controller and while I was standing there talking to him he got the call that the Cleddau bridge had collapsed,” he said.

“I rang the office and they thought I was a hero. It was a major local scoop.”

Western Telegraph:

There were also chances to have fun while on the job, and Hugh remembers winning an egg and spoon race at Mynachlogddu, while he was supposed to be covering the local sheepdog trials.

But after selling a court story to the News of the World for £50, wider horizons beckoned to Hugh.

After a brief stint on the Western Daily Press in Bristol and a year at the South Wales Echo in Cardiff, he moved to London at the age of 22 to work initially at the London Evening News, but later at many of Fleet Street’s major titles.

Hugh’s first big story in Fleet Street was Lord Lucan’s disappearance, which happened only weeks after he started with the London Evening News.

After another move he met his wife Lesley while working at the Daily Star. She was the editor’s secretary.

The “scariest job” he ever took was a visit to Libya without a visa during the USA’s bombing campaign in 1986.

“My brother told me the only way to get into Libya without a visa was to go through Malta.

“I got locked away for 48 hours and nobody knew where I was. Lesley didn’t know where I was, the paper didn’t know where I was.

“They kept on telling me I would be held there indefinitely. They kept playing music all night, they wouldn’t let me sleep and only fed me bread and water. Then in the middle of the night on the spur of the moment they threw me on a plane and said, ‘Don’t come back’.”

Six months later he was asked to return to Libya by the editor of the Sun, Kelvin Mackenzie, but had difficulty finding a plane that could fly him there.

“I was in Antigua looking after Ian Botham at the time, but I didn’t manage to find one.

“The reason I looked after him (Botham) is because he was a columnist on the Sun.

“He had it off with Miss Barbados and I was sent out to do his side of the story,” said Hugh.

Hugh’s career has also led him to rub shoulders with celebrities, prime ministers and royals.

A conversation with the Duchess of Cornwall once led to an invite to the Prince of Wales’ Carmarthenshire home, Llwynywermod.

“I said to her, I bet my small house in Pembrokeshire is smaller than your small house in Carmarthenshire,” said Hugh.

He was surprised a few months later when an invite arrived from St James’ Palace.

Western Telegraph:

It comes as no surprise that the former Express editor voted to leave in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and is in no doubt the paper had a huge influence on the Brexit vote.

“The Daily Express played a huge part in the referendum vote simply because the paper has an older readership and they all wanted to come out,” said Hugh.

“The readers wanted the referendum and I was quite happy to go along with that. I met David Cameron several times.”

He remembers the prime minster asking him to “back off” after announcing the referendum as a manifesto commitment.

“I said what’s the point in backing off? Now that I have got the referendum I want to win the referendum.”

But according to Hugh, the Express might not have continued its campaign for Brexit if David Cameron’s 2015-16 negotiations with the EU had been more successful.

“The sad thing is, when David Cameron went to Brussels at the start and came back with nothing, had they had the foresight and intelligence to give him something… he would have carried on being prime minister.”

With news of companies moving their headquarters to the continent or further afield, and warnings of economic stagnation, does he still think Brexit will be worth it?

“I do think it is going to be worth it. I think there are always going to be scare stories.

“I think for all the people coming out with scare stories there are an equal number of people saying we can stand on our own two feet.

“But I do think going forward the most important thing is we are in control but we do have a good relationship with the EU. It’s pointless having enemies.”

After his long career in the news, Hugh has retired to Ascot, Berkshire, where he lives with Lesley.

They often return to Pembrokeshire, where he maintains lifelong friends and enjoys walking his dog at Newgale.

Through his career he said he has relied on his “Pembrokeshire common sense” and a sense of fair play.