NUJ tribute to Katharine Whitehorn

  • 25 Jan 2021

Katharine Whitehorm was egalitarian to the bone, a great columnist and an inspiring trade unionist.

The NUJ has paid tribute to Katharine Whitehorn, who died earlier this month.

During the course of a brilliant writing career Katharine created of a new kind of personal column writing – witty, intimate and opinionated. She was also a committed NUJ member who believed that the union was particularly important for self-employed journalists.

She was a freelance for her entire career and wrote of the support the NUJ had given her and her husband, writer Gavin Lyal. During the course of their careers, they had between them worked for some half a dozen papers that went bust.

"It's when a (title is) in trouble that you really know why you joined (the NUJ): there's someone there to fight your corner, get some sort of pay-off, maybe soften the blow," she wrote in the My NUJ column.

Despite her celebrity, she attended branch meetings, without ceremony. She wrote, for example, of having represented the NUJ at a woman's TUC conference: "at a seaside town" and of attending the NUJ women's conference in London. She went, not as a star speaker, but a delegate. Later she talked about the ideas raised there and about the role of women in the media in a BBC radio 4 Points of View programme.

Barbara Gunnell, former NUJ president, said:

"Whitehorn was egalitarian to the bone, a great columnist and an inspiring trade unionist. She was also a delight to work beside. I worked with her at The Observer in the days of Donald Trelford's editorship. Whitehorn became the first woman to have a column. I was the subeditor who dealt with the page that included her piece, she was a dream.
"She would come in on a Saturday with a draft and then write straight to page, (this was in the early days of direct input when most columnists relied on a sub or secretary to do it for them.)
"She was the antithesis of the grand columnist. One day I messed up her column widths. She said she had a strange feeling she was having to write much more than usual. I gave a cursory glance and said 'No, no, keep going.' When I saw my error and confessed, she breezily went back to the column and with no fuss or drama cut it back. Not a word of complaint. She was always considerate and kind to all staff, and more likely to seek out the editorial secretary than the editor for a tea break."

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

"Katharine Whitehorn influenced generations of journalists and was a powerful force for good. The sadness we feel at her death is tempered by the enduring inspiration of her example – not to mention the gratitude felt by those of us who were sustained through our lean years by following instructions from Cooking In A Bedsitter."

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