Edward Mortimer, who died at the age of 77, was the Financial Times’ chief foreign affairs commentator from 1987 to 1998, speech editor Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general from 1998 to 2006, and distinguished fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.
Journalist, author, scholar and international civil servant, Mortimer managed to combine an extraordinary variety of careers, with a cohesive theme that bound them all: he had a passion for defending human rights and protecting minorities, resolving conflicts and the promotion of better understanding between countries and communities.
He was a political activist who had previously run as a candidate for the European Parliament and as a Liberal Democrat for Oxfordshire County Council. He was also a committed Christian, although he never wore his religion on his sleeve.
Mortimer’s father, Robert, was Bishop of Exeter, and he grew up in a highly intellectual family. A young visitor remembers quotes from Latin literature spread over the breakfast table in the Episcopal Palace. He could easily have become a full-time scholar, having been one of the top scholars in history at Balliol College, Oxford, winning a first-class congratulatory diploma, followed by the scholarship award to All Souls.
“The first thing people think of Edward is how smart he was,” said Lord Chris Patten, a longtime and contemporary friend. ” It was true. He was by far the smartest of our generation. But he was much more than that. He was a good, decent, sympathetic, generous guy, with sane views on almost everything.
He was also intensely curious. A year volunteering in Senegal before college gave him a mastery of French and a fascination with the dirt and dust of the real world, including all the issues of decolonization. He left academia and became a journalist.
His first job was as a junior reporter at the Paris office of the Times newspaper, covering the dramatic events of the May 1968 student revolt in Paris. He kept his connection to All Souls and found the time to write a scholarly but eminently readable book on France and Africa after filing reports on student riots and President Charles de Gaulle’s years of decline.
In 1973, he was persuaded by William Rees-Mogg to join the leading writers of The Times in London, commonly known as the “College of Cardinals”, where his university education suited him well.
Over the next decade he wrote a seminal book on the politics of Islam, Faith and Power, centered on the Islamic revolution in Iran but also encompassing the Arab world. His writing combined scholarship and experience, a rigorous attention to story with a journalist’s ability to illuminate a story that many readers find opaque.
It also caught the attention of the FT, whose editor-in-chief Sir Geoffrey Owen was looking for a foreign chief commentator. In 1987 Mortimer joined the FT. “He brought authority and experience [which] dramatically improved our game in international affairs, ”said Owen.
His tall figure and gray hair, gentle humor and generous willingness to listen to any argument combined with a determination to pay attention to human rights and conflicts; these turned out to be an addition to the document’s natural emphasis on global finance and economics. One of his major projects was a series of reports on the “fault lines” of European borders, where the ancient borders of the Roman Empire had left unresolved friction between national minorities.
After writing another book on the rise of the French Communist Party in 1984, he was fascinated by the rise of Eurocommunism in Italy, just as Mikhail Gorbachev was launching perestroika in the Soviet Union.
After 11 years at FT, he was persuaded to start a new career at the UN, as Annan’s speechwriter.
Mark Malloch-Brown, who became Annan’s chief of staff, was skeptical of the appointment. He expressed doubts that “this very intellectual and cerebral journalist, a member of All Souls, would be a good match. [for Annan]”.
He was wrong. “It was a wedding made in heaven,” he said. Mortimer has managed to adapt his prose – always a model of clarity – to the seemingly informal and African vernacular of the secretary general in a low voice.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno, head of UN peacekeeping at the time, said he brought more than keen intelligence to the UN. “I think he contributed a lot to Kofi Annan’s unique style of leadership: he had a capacity for indignation, which is rare in the UN, but his deep sense of ethics was never authoritarian nor condescending. He was a modest man with a passion for ideas, and Kofi Annan’s speeches reflected that.
After leaving the UN, Mortimer became Senior Vice President and Program Director of the Salzburg World Seminar, bringing his passion for human and minority rights advocacy to the conference circuit.
He was also rapporteur and lead author of a report on “freedom and diversity” for the Council of Europe, focusing on issues of the integration of immigrant communities in the rich countries of Europe and America. North. The lessons he learned about the importance of citizenship in promoting integration and the need to treat religious beliefs with special respect remain extremely relevant today.
He returned to All Souls, the great love of his university life, where he still did not hesitate to argue. In a sermon in the college chapel in 2016, he dared to broach the subject of “contested historical legacies in the public space”. In the case of All Souls, that meant focusing on the academic wealth inherited from Christopher Codrington, a hugely successful slave owner. He dared to suggest that the college consider some form of reparation.
Mortimer is remembered in all his different incarnations as a human, tolerant and above all generous man. He was always curious to listen to others and delighted to mentor young journalists. He was funny and a great imitator.
It was anything but dry and dull. He will be sadly missed by his wife Elizabeth (Wiz), daughters Frances and Phoebe, sons Horatio and Matthew and seven grandchildren.