With a sharp eye for a story, Randall advocated for press freedom and inspired many students with his books
David Randall, who has died aged 70, was one of Britain’s top journalists, a reporter who had risen through the ranks to become assistant editor of The Observer and the chief news writer for The Independent on Sunday.
Randall was an investigative journalist with a sharp eye for a story, who in his later career helped many students with an indispensable handbook on the reporter’s work. A fierce advocate for the freedom and power of the press, he had once said: “The alternative to professional journalism is relying on what those in authority, whether it’s public authority or large companies, choose to tell you. You cannot have a democracy without vigorous professional journalism.”
He remained at his best in investigative campaigning reports, such as HS2 – the hidden cost to Britain’s wildlife, co-written with Jonathan Owen in 2013, which revealed that 350 unique habitats and 50 ancient woods were being endangered by the proposed development of the high-speed train line.
David Randall was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, in 1951. He was educated at a local grammar school, then went up to Cambridge, studying economics at Clare College.
His first experience in journalism came while at Cambridge, contributing to the undergraduate newspaper, Varsity, at the request of its then editor, Jeremy Paxman. Randall later recalled, in a piece about Paxman, “Back in 1972, as editor of Varsity, the university newspaper, he recruited a staff of misfits, freaks, and weirdos, among whom I numbered. My task was the humour column. I wrote and delivered it…”
Randall joined The Croydon Advertiser in 1974 as a trainee reporter, rising rapidly to become its editor just six years later. At the time the Advertiser had the highest circulation of any British local weekly newspaper and a team of 21 reporters based in the area, including two dedicated to investigative work.
He left in 1981 to join The Observer, working initially as the paper’s deputy sports editor and working his way up to assistant editor. On leaving The Observer in 1993, he had spent time with the Disasters Emergency Committee, running an appeal for survivors of the genocide in Rwanda and raising more than £30m.
At The Independent on Sunday he had been the newspaper’s home editor, chief news writer and commentator, until his retirement in 2013. John Mullin, the former editor at The Independent on Sunday, said in tribute: “He was a brilliant journalist and a fabulous colleague. There isn’t a newspaper in the world which wouldn’t be better if he were working for it. A true one-off.”
Randall had published a number of books on his profession and a memoir. The Universal Journalist, first published in 1996, was inspired by his experience of teaching journalism for the British Council in Africa and for the EU in Russia and Central Asia. Now in its sixth edition, the book remains a key text for students of the subject and is available in five languages and was once described as, “easily the best introduction to being a reporter”.
In The Great Reporters (2005), Randall profiles 13 figures – nine Americans and four Britons – whom he considered to be some of the best journalists who had ever lived. Among the many entertaining anecdotes is the story of Floyd Gibbons, who booked himself on to a ship that was likely to be torpedoed, so that he could report on the event first-hand. Gibbons survived the attack on the RMS Laconia to write a graphic account of the sinking.
Asked about his own charmed career in journalism, Randall replied: “I’ve been terribly privileged. I was a newspaper journalist for 40 years and I never had a boring two minutes in all that time… and they paid me for it!”
Randall had been working at his home in Croydon on a new edition of the book Suburbia: A Far From Ordinary Place, his recollections of growing up in the suburbs in the Fifties and Sixties, when he died of a suspected heart attack.
His son Simon Randall said: “We all worried he wouldn’t cope well with retirement as work had been so frantic but he took the most enjoyment out of it. He was loving his retirement and he and my mum were making big plans for what to do next.”
He is survived by his wife Pam and their four sons.
David Randall, journalist, born April 1951, died 17 July 2021