In celebration of David Gardner

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The following address was delivered by Martin Wolf at the Service of Thanksgiving and Celebration for the life of David Gardner at St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, London on December 1 2022.

A great journalist does not just have a beautiful way with words, a determination to get the story, a devotion to wooing sources, a dedication to the truth, an understanding of human beings and a powerful and subtle intellect. A great journalist needs to have something over and above these talents: moral passion.

Our treasured colleague, David Gardner, had all these qualities. But he was endowed with the last to a quite exceptional degree. Decent himself, he demanded decency in others. Truthful himself, he demanded truthfulness in others.

David believed in the rights of human beings to make their own choices in a free and democratic society. He did not accept that in some parts of the world this was, for some reason, impossible. He excoriated the tyrants of the Middle East, blaming them for the emergence of politicised religion. Yet he also excoriated the crass interference of outside powers and gross misbehaviour of Israel.

We who worked with him, as well as his many readers, treasured and admired him above all for this burning integrity. He spoke truth to power, even when the powerful were his friends, even when the powerful was his boss.

Moral courage is the virtue I most admire. He had it in exceptional abundance. David was a beacon of righteousness, without self-righteousness.

Where did these qualities come from? I do not know. Maybe, it was from the Jesuit priests who taught him at Stonyhurst. Jimmy Burns, a contemporary at the school and a former colleague, states that “The Jesuits taught us a sense of human solidarity and an openness to the world.” If so, they certainly instilled these qualities in David for life.

What can one say of David the journalist?

I asked Lionel Barber, under whom David served in Brussels in the early 1990s and under whom David became chief leader writer in 2006, what stands out for him.

Lionel responded by referring first to David’s period as correspondent on the Common Agricultural Policy, which was going through radical reform at the time. “Nobody”, says Lionel, “knew the intricacies of the CAP — especially milk quotas — better than David. Nobody, bar the legendary RTE reporter, Tommy Gorman, was, closer to the Irish commissioners. He wined, dined and lunched ferociously. Yet, somehow, he could still write three stories before 6.30pm deadline.” This is indeed David the journalist, perfectly captured.

Perhaps his best known journalistic contemporary in Brussels was Boris Johnson, already making a name for himself as a man who made things up. Boris is an anti-David.

Appalled by the prospect of his becoming prime minister in 2016, David wrote an open letter to him. This went unpublished because Boris was forced to withdraw by Michael Gove. In it, David expressed his burning rage over the lies that achieved victory in the referendum, writing.

 “It was hardly a game to play the outrageously mendacious card that the UK risked being swamped by Turks. This from a self-described ‘one-man melting pot’ proudly claiming descent from French, German and Jewish stock, and an Ottoman Turk minister, Ali Kemal Bey, as a great-grandfather; from a former mayor of London who proudly advertised this global city as the ultimate cosmopolis.”

For the FT, the time when David showed the combination of knowledge with moral courage we needed was during the Iraq war.

According to Lionel:

“It was a battle between David and Gerry Baker, then our man in Washington DC. David’s mission was accomplished within weeks of the end of the war when he was proved right. The difference between them: he knew his Middle East history, knew Iraq, understood balance of power politics in the Gulf and knew the importance of the Ba’athist party in holding things together in multi-ethnic Iraq. Finally, David was never afraid of holding a principled minority position.”

Indeed, David was never afraid of that. By battling so hard for what he believed, he put the FT on the right side of this important piece of history. He also put himself on the opposite side to that of an old friend, Tony Blair, whom he had known at Oxford. For David, arguing for what was true and right was far bigger than such ties.

What of David the man? In his superlative obituary, Quentin Peel remarked of David the man: “His colleagues remember a man who was kind and generous, as well as waspish and witty, a great mentor for young journalists, and quite capable of consuming alarming quantities of Spanish red Rioja before returning to the office to compose a passionate, perfectly written editorial.” All this is wonderfully true.

It is clear to us all that David was a devoted husband and father. In these capacities, he will inevitably be most missed of all.

For those of us who are journalists, David’s life and work reminds that done brilliantly and with integrity ours is a high and noble calling.

David the journalist reflected David the man. We remember his warmth and wit. We point to his wonderful writing. We respect his devotion to doing the job well. But, above all, we respect him for his moral courage, his belief that we should stand up for truth, freedom and decency. In his passing, he leaves an example of what it means to be a great journalist. Yet he also leaves a hole nobody else is ever likely to fill quite as he did.

Source: Financial Times

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