Roland Gribben, who died on Friday aged 86, was one of the most accomplished business journalists of his generation, a relentlessly hard-working and decent man who was almost universally respected, and occasionally feared, among the industrialists he wrote about for his consummate professionalism and dedication to fair, incisive and accurate reporting.
Baron Simon of Highbury, a former chief executive and chairman of BP as well as a government minister, said: “He had a unique ability to electrify the dullest of company press conferences with a five-barrelled opening question that perfectly anticipated everything anyone else might want to ask. He was one of the most astute reporters of his business generation, who often seemed to know as much about the companies he covered as the people who ran them.”
Equally effusive in his praise is Sir Max Hastings, editor of The Daily Telegraph from 1986 to 1996. “Roly was a supreme professional of extraordinary integrity. Those words may sound banal, until we think how relatively few journalists of any kind, and especially business journalists, merit the same accolade,” he said.
“He was boundlessly painstaking, drily funny, sceptical, immensely informed about British business, sincerely outraged by wrongdoing of any kind. If it was possible to put Roly’s qualities in a bottle and sell them to aspiring media editors, they would represent everything we should look for in the very best of British journalism.”
Charles Moore, who succeeded Sir Max, said Gribben combined professional determination with gentlemanly manners.
“He had the great gifts of lucid explanation and a sense of where the true story lay. Although he took immense pride in his work, he never let ego get in the way. As befitted a man who covered industry, Roly was immensely industrious. His reports could always be trusted, which is really the highest praise.”
In a career spanning more than 60 years, the great bulk of it at The Daily Telegraph, Gribben chronicled many of the great industrial and business stories of the post-war period, from the decline of Britain’s car industry to the rise of the North Sea oil and gas sector.
One of his proudest scoops was the request from a then virtually insolvent British Leyland for a state rescue.
It is a mark of the regard with which Roly, as he was universally known, was held that when Neil Collins was offered the job of City editor of The Daily Telegraph, a position that would make him Roly’s boss, he felt obliged first to seek Roly’s permission. “I could not have taken the job without Roly’s blessing,” Mr Collins recalls.
“Roly was a master of the news story. You could throw almost anything at him and he would always know who to call and what angle to take. In all my 19 years of working with him, I cannot remember a single thing he wrote that was inaccurate or unfair. He could not be faulted by those he wrote about,” Mr Collins added.
In the days before the internet and mobile telephones, Gribben would often attend several press conferences a day, where he would always be the first to ask a question.
This would often contain four or five lines of inquiry, the answers to which would usually reveal the real story beyond the public relations guff, and was therefore a constant source of amazement to his rivals, who would happily report the answers as if it was they who had extracted them.
Gribben’s explanation was that he had to get his questions in first so that he could leave in time to attend a completely different press conference across town. Entirely without arrogance or pomposity, he had no problem sharing his insight and depth of knowledge with the pack.
Sir Howard Davies, a former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry and now chairman of NatWest Group, says that when he was at the CBI there were only two reporters who seriously worried him, and one of them was Roly.
“He would always ask the apparently innocent question, but then follow it up with another that showed he actually knew what he was talking about. Humbly and politely worded, the question would invariably have a sting in the tail,” he said.
The only son of a Northumbrian coal miner who failed his 11-plus, Roly began his Telegraph career in the paper’s Manchester office, where he covered both the extended police investigation of the Moors murders and the subsequent trial. He would remember this experience as the most harrowing of his life.
Soon after, he was transferred to London to help support the paper’s expanded business coverage, which became his life’s work. Almost as all consuming was his passion for cricket.
In later life he became a regular in the “Barmy Army”, following the fortunes of the English cricket team around the world. He would have had harsh words to say about the current tour.