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Remembering Katharine Whitehorn

AT OUR meeting on 11 January Barbara Gunnell, among other things a past President of the NUJ, remembered Katharine Whitehorn, who died on 8 January.

Katharine Whitehorn speaks

Katharine Whitehorn spoke at the London Freelance Branch meeting for International Women's Day 2010: watch video (QuickTime player required)

"She was really a very very proud London Freelance Branch member," Barbara recalled. "She wrote to the NUJ to say how important it is to freelances such as herself and her husband, the writer Gavin Lyall. Between them they'd worked for half a dozen papers that had gone bust: and that's when you really know the worth of belonging to the NUJ, Katharine had written - with it fighting her corner and working to soften the blow."

Katharine "was 100 per cent freelance, and never had a staff job," Barbara noted, "and she was a staunch trade unionist. She went to meetings without any ceremony and was frightfully proud of her membership."

She was particularly proud of having represented the NUJ at a Women's TUC conference. She attended the NUJ Women's Conference as an ordinary delegate. Then in a Points of View programme on BBC Radio 4 she discussed points raised in that conference about the media.

"Our careers coincided at the Observer under editor Donald Trelford," Barbara remembered: "Katharine was the first woman columnist the Observer ever had and I was the sub who dealt with her pages. She was fabulous to work with."

Katherine "would come in on a Saturday with a draft of her column and write fluently straight on to the page." This was at the beginning of the transition from journalists presenting typewritten copy to typesetters to what was called, with a note of surprise and alarm, "direct input" into publishing software.

"One day I messed up her column widths," Barbara confessed. "I have a strange feeling," Katharine said, "that I'm writing more than I usually do." Barbara "had given her double the space. Now, there were a number of pretty self-important male columnists at that time: I was so relieved I wasn't dealing with one of them. I had wasted hours of her time and there was not a word of complaint."

Katharine "was absolutely one of the best journalists I've ever come across," Barbara concluded, "and she was never grand. What a star she was."