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In defence of Peter Preston’s handling of the Sarah Tisdall case

·2-min read

In your print-edition supplement (We were there: The 200 moments that made the Guardian, 9 May), you say of Peter Preston’s decision to hand back the document that would send Sarah Tisdall to prison, that he did this “to the dismay of both staff and readers”. I was there, and I think that’s misleading, and somewhat unjust to Peter. Before he did so, he held an open meeting where he asked the paper’s journalists about his predicament.

He had originally thought that failure to comply with the court ruling would land him in prison, which he could have accepted, but was then advised that a more likely outcome would be a fine on the Guardian which would increase so long as refusal persisted, imperilling its financial future. He would also be making a convenient exception to the Guardian’s general insistence that the law ought to be obeyed. Though later there were several present at that meeting who said they had spoken out against the return of the document, I remember only one who unconditionally did so. The mood of the meeting was troubled but sympathetic rather than outraged.

Later that day he returned it, came back distraught, and wrote to the Scott Trust saying he must resign. The trust would not accept that. Later still, there was some kind of party in a pub down the road. Peter was most reluctant to go, feeling the mood might be hostile and that his appearance would spoil the occasion.

The opposite happened and he came back heartened at the end of what was probably the worst day of his nearly 20 years’ editorship. I kept a note of what was said and by whom at the morning meeting but needless to say, 38 years on, I cannot now find it.
David McKie
Deputy editor, the Guardian, 1975-84

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