Edward Mortimer, academic, journalist and UN official, 1943-2021

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Edward Mortimer, who has died aged 77, was chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times from 1987-1998, chief speech writer for Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general, from 1998-2006, and a distinguished fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

As a journalist, author, academic and international civil servant, Mortimer managed to combine an extraordinary variety of careers, with a consistent theme that linked them all: he had a passion for the defence of human rights and the protection of minorities, the resolution of conflicts and the promotion of greater understanding between countries and communities.

He was a political activist who once stood 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. One youthful visitor remembers quotations from Latin literature being bandied across the breakfast table in the bishop’s palace. He could easily have become a full-time academic, having been a top history scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, winning a congratulatory first-class degree, followed by the prize fellowship at All Souls.

“The first thing people think about Edward is how clever he was,” says Lord Chris Patten, an immediate contemporary and life-long friend. “That was true. He was much the cleverest of our generation. But he was much more than that. He was a good, decent, likeable, generous guy with sensible views on almost everything.”

He was also intensely curious. A year spent on voluntary service in Senegal before university gave him fluency in French and a fascination with the dirt and dust of the real world, including all the problems of decolonisation. He jumped ship from academia and became a journalist.

His first job was as junior reporter in the Times newspaper’s Paris bureau, covering the dramatic events of the May 1968 student revolt in Paris. He kept his link to All Souls and found time to write a learned but eminently readable book on France and Africa after filing reports on rioting students, and the declining years of President Charles de Gaulle.

In 1973 he was persuaded by William Rees-Mogg to join the Times leader writers in London, known generally as the “college of cardinals”, where his academic background was a natural fit.

Over the ensuing decade he wrote a seminal book on the politics of Islam, Faith and Power, centred on the Islamic revolution in Iran but also embracing the Arab world. His writing combined erudition and experience, a rigorous attention to history with a reporter’s ability to illuminate a story many readers find opaque.

It also caught the attention of the Financial Times, where the editor, Sir Geoffrey Owen, was looking for a chief foreign commentator. In 1987, Mortimer moved to the FT. “He brought an authority and experience [which] tremendously raised our game in the international affairs area,” Sir Geoffrey says.

His tall figure and mop of grey hair, gentle humour and generous willingness to listen to any argument combined with a determination to pay attention to human rights and conflict; these proved an addition to the paper’s natural focus on global finance and economics. One of his great projects was a series of features on the “faultlines” of European borders, where the ancient frontiers of the Roman empire had left unresolved friction between national minorities.

Having written 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 the FT, he was persuaded to start a new career at the United Nations — as speech writer to Annan.

Mark Malloch-Brown, who became chief of staff to Annan, was dubious about the appointment. He expressed doubt that “this very intellectual, cerebral journalist, a fellow of All Souls, would be a good match [for Annan]”.

He was wrong. “It was a marriage made in heaven,” he says today. Mortimer managed to adapt his prose — always a model of clarity — to the apparent informality and African vernacular of the quietly spoken secretary-general.

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, head of UN peacekeeping in those years, says he brought more than a sharp intellect to the UN. “I think he contributed a lot to the unique style of Kofi Annan’s leadership: he had a capacity for indignation, which is rare at the UN, but his deep sense of ethics was never overbearing nor patronising. He was a modest man with a passion for ideas, and the speeches of Kofi Annan reflected that.”

After he left the UN, Mortimer became senior vice-president and chief programme officer for the Salzburg Global Seminar, bringing his passion for the defence of human rights and minorities to the conference circuit.

He was also rapporteur and principal author of a report on “freedom and diversity” for the Council of Europe, focused on the questions of how to integrate immigrant communities into the wealthy nations of Europe and North America. The lessons he drew on the importance of citizenship to promote integration, and the need to treat religious beliefs with special respect, remain acutely relevant today.

He returned to All Souls, the great love of his academic life, where he still did not shy from controversy. In a sermon in the college chapel in 2016, he dared to tackle the subject of “contested historical legacies in public spaces”. In the case of All Souls that meant focusing on the college wealth inherited from Christopher Codrington, a hugely prosperous slave owner. He dared to suggest the college should consider how to make some form of reparation.

Mortimer is remembered in all his different incarnations as a humane, tolerant and above all generous man. He was always curious to listen to others, and delighted to be a mentor to young journalists. He was funny and a great mimic.

He was anything but dry and dull. He will be sorely missed by his wife Elizabeth (Wiz), daughters Frances and Phoebe, sons Horatio and Matthew, and seven grandchildren.

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