Edward Mortimer, foreign affairs journalist who became Kofi Annan’s speechwriter at the UN – obituary
Edward Mortimer, who died at the age of 77, had several high-profile careers, as an academic, author, journalist and UN official, where, as director of communications, he was the speechwriter for Kofi Annan from 1998 to 2006, and had a great influence on the leadership style of the UN Secretary-General.
He was born on December 22, 1942 in Burford, Oxfordshire, the family home. He was the son of Robert Mortimer, who served as Bishop of Exeter for almost a quarter of a century. There were four children, the youngest of whom, Kate (1946-2008), was as formidably intelligent as her brother – three of them, including the eldest, Mark, graduated from Oxford Firsts. Friends remember the Latin jokes and Greek epithets on cornflakes at the Episcopal Palace.
After Summerfield Preparatory School in Oxford, he went to Eton as an academic and then to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1962, where he graduated in 1965 with a first commendation in history, winning an All Souls scholarship. This year’s prize until 1972. He was fluent in French, having spent a year before university volunteering in Senegal, teaching English in a high school.
To Balliol, said his friend Lord Patten of Barnes (Chris Patten), “he was the brightest of us, and not just an intellectual, but a good person.” In the summer of 1965, the two (and another pair of Balliol) received Coolidge Atlantic Crossing Awards, also known as the Pathfinder Fellowships, endowed by Balliol graduate Bill Coolidge, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, which consisted of in a generous amount of cash and American Express and Hertz credit cards.
They stayed with alumni of Balliol, including Coolidge, and intended to drive around America, although Mortimer left for Salt Lake City to enter the All Souls’ Prize Fellowship competition.
In France, as a junior reporter at the Paris office of The Times, Mortimer covered the events of May 1968, publishing copies not only on the student uprising but also on the declining years of President de Gaulle. He succeeded in drawing from the experience a learned and very readable book, La France et les Africains, 1944-60: une histoire politique (Faber & Faber, 1969).
The Times editor-in-chief recruited Mortimer to its team of editors in 1973 as a specialist in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern affairs, in which he was increasingly interested. This showed in his next book, Faith and Power: The Politics of Islam (1982), mainly on the Islamic revolution in Iran, but also on the politics of the Arab world, in which he brought scholarship, clarity and common sense to these Questions.
In 1984 he published a book on the rise of the French Communist Party, when the phenomena of Eurocommunism in Italy and Gorbachev’s perestroika had drawn his critical attention and detached his sympathy.
Sir Geoffrey Owen, editor of the Financial Times, was looking for a chief foreign affairs expert, and in 1987 he appealed to Mortimer, whose appointment, Owen said, “brought authority and experience [that] dramatically improved our game in international business.
He stayed with the FT for 11 years, writing a signed column as well as many leaders. Particularly noteworthy was his series on the “fault lines” of European borders, where the historic break-up of the Roman Empire left factions and national minorities with unresolved disagreements and grievances.