Posted: March 29th, 2018
Mirrorman Ernie Burrington died on Friday, March 23, aged 91. He is pictured here with his wife Nancy
By ROY GREENSLADE, The Guardian
My former colleague and mentor, Ernie Burrington, began his lengthy journalistic career at 16 when he joined his hometown newspaper, the Oldham Chronicle.
He eventually rose, via the sub-editorial route – with spells on the Daily Herald, the Sun and Daily Mirror – to be editor of The People for four years in the 1980s, and then managing director of Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), before a short and uncomfortable stint as the company’s deputy chairman during Robert Maxwell’s ownership.
After the tycoon’s death, Ernie was forced to resign when it emerged that he had been pressured by him to sign a cheque moving money from MGN to one of Maxwell’s private companies. He was exonerated in subsequent police inquiries and, after a brief period running a consultancy, he spent three years as a senior executive with the U.S. magazine publisher, Atlantic Media.
I first met Ernie in 1969 when I was appointed deputy chief sub-editor of The Sun and he was night editor. Recognising that I was hopelessly inexperienced and out of my depth, he offered me nightly advice, showing a kindness rarely in evidence in the dog-eat-dog culture of national newspapers. This friendship was cemented in late night, and early morning, drinking sessions at the Press Club.
Ernie, who had a wicked sense of humour and a love of mischief, was given to delivering jokes while leaning over your shoulder close to your ear, as if disclosing some dark secret. Onlookers thought he was plotting, a misreading of the habit but one that Ernie never sought to deny.
When I became editor of the Daily Mirror in 1990 and quickly found myself fighting with Maxwell, Ernie played diplomat to defuse a series of tense confrontations. “Up to you,” he’d usually say, “but I think you should retreat.”
According to Ernie’s grandson Tom, he liked to entertain his family with stories of Maxwell’s erratic behaviour. As with so many people who worked for the publisher, Ernie was fired on several occasions and, a day or so later, would receive a call from Maxwell saying: “Where the hell have you been? Get back to the office now.”
Born in Oldham, Ernie was the son of Harold, a labourer and security guard, and Laura, a mill worker, and went to Chadderton grammar school (now North Chadderton school). He chose journalism – with a three-year break for army service – like so many working-class boys, after discovering a talent for writing.
He and his wife, Nancy (nee Crossley), who married in 1950, had two children. Peter, also a journalist, died in 2008. Ernie is survived by Nancy, their daughter, Jill, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
His family would love to share any stories and memories you have of him. You can get in touch by clicking the Contact Us button and leaving a message.
The funeral of Ernest Burrington will take place on Thursday, April 19 at 11.30am at St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, City of London, followed by refreshments at the Punch Pub, Fleet Street. Donations to Dementia UK (https://www.dementiauk.org/), no flowers, please.
From BRIAN BASS:
Ernie Joined the Mirror from the old Sun, choosing not to work for Murdoch. He was a Cudlipp appointment.
At the time that caused a lot of worried faces on the Mirror night-desk, crammed with us ambitious young Turks. But within days, we were all entranced by this quixotic, full-of-fun man who never stopped smiling, who clearly was not after our jobs. He had greater ambitions.
I learned quickly, too, that he was the fastest and smartest headline writer I have ever worked with. For about five years, Ernie and I sat side by side on the night desk at the Mirror, and part of our job was to write many of the paper’s main headlines – especially for the front page.
I would scratch and bang my head to find three or four suitable alternatives, while at my side, machine-gun Ernie had produced 20. It was impossible to keep up with him.
His most famous headline, however, was produced at home one morning, while he was shaving. His wife Nancy called from downstairs to say Bob Maxwell was on the phone.
With his face largely covered in foam, Ernie heard Maxwell’s famous booming voice saying: “Ernie, we have a million pound winner. What do you think tomorrow’s main headline should be?”
Within seconds – and possibly in desperation – Ernie replied: “Whoopee!”
And that headline dominated the Mirror’s front page the next day, announcing that a women from Essex had become an overnight millionaire courtesy of Daily Mirror bingo.
I vividly remember the night a young stone-sub felt what he must have thought was the wrath of God. So as to get the page away on time, this naive youngster placed a five-line nib at the bottom of a column ON PAGE ONE.
Ernie made out he couldn’t believe his eyes. “You put a filler on Page 1? You’ve made bloody history, you,” he shouted. “It’s a first. Never been bloody done before. You’ll go down in the Mirror’s annals.”
Then, turning to me with that cheeky smile, he said: “I bet that idiot will never do that again.”
There was much to remember about Ernie: his early revolutionary days, producing (with Nancy’s help) left-wing pamphlets from a cellar in Manchester; Ernie the comedian, having us in fits with stories told in his broad Manchester accent; Ernie the night editor faced with a dreary list of stories saying: “Come on Basso. Tonight we’ve really got make shit shine,”; and Ernie the supreme journalist helping to produce the world’s biggest-selling newspaper (the Mirror was, then) with confidence and aplomb.
I hope some of it rubbed off on me.
Brian Bass (Daily Mirror 1965-93)
“Some of the best times with my grandfather were going to watch our beloved Manchester United play. My father, Peter, who was also a journalist, was perhaps the strongest United supporter of the three of us. It was through my grandfather’s close friend, Lord Harris, that we often had the chance to watch them play Arsenal at Highbury and of course we were always there when they played at Wembley.
Philip and Pauline Harris were neighbours during my grandfather’s Fleet Street days when he lived at Farnborough Park, Orpington. Lord Harris and my grandfather remained inseparable until the end. My grandfather died at home on March 23 with Nancy, his wife, by his side. Sadly my father died in 2008 so my grandfather leaves a daughter, Jill, and a daughter-in- law, Caroline, my mother. In all, he leaves five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
He was born in December 1926 in Oldham, where he grew up, the son of working class parents. He always wanted to write and his teachers encouraged him. As a schoolboy he would submit stories to the Oldham Chronicle using his father’s name.
His first big story was when a German plane crashed nearby and the pilot and crew hid in a local barn. You can imagine the Editor’s surprise when Burrington was called in to the office. His father came with him and explained that it was his lad not he who was sending the stories.
Suffice to say the Oldham Chronicle took my grandfather onto the staff while still in his teens. He served in the army from 1944 – 1947 and they gave him a job as a sub when he returned.
After that he moved on to the Bristol Evening World eventually moving to Fleet Street on the Daily Herald. He stayed there until it became The Sun in 1970, when he left to join the Daily Mirror as assistant editor. He went on to become deputy editor of the Sunday People in 1971 and finally editor in 1985 – 1988, then again in 1989. He held a number of posts at MGN before being taken on to the board, finally becoming Chairman of Mirror Group before he left during the Maxwell crisis.
He then had a second career at Atlantic Media in Miami for a number of years. Some of our greatest family moments were visits to my grandparents’ home in Florida where his energy for days out, card games at home and adventure activities was endless.
My grandfather’s ability to attract controversy, whether intentional or unintentional, prevailed. One of my earliest childhood memories was when he pulled out of our family’s drive, somehow denting the neighbour’s car without stopping. The neighbour became justifiably irate, forcing me to take cover in the house as the intensity of the man’s frustrations grew.
Then there was the time he teed off on the golf course taking aim at the wrong hole and hitting another player straight in the back. The man, understandably, threatened my grandfather and came close to hitting him with a club.
There were missed flights, crossing busy motorways on foot, falling out of moving train doors.. His life was full of infuriating (and sometimes highly amusing) mishaps and also a famous Fleet Street drinking capacity but Nancy took it on board and his marriage survived. He did eventually, and wisely, become teetotal.
He was a Fleet Street legend, but I personally remember my grandfather as a gentle, fun-loving man full of mischief and ideas. We shall all miss him a great deal.”
Read a sumptuous look back at Fleet Street pubs in All Our Yesterdays
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