At precisely 9am yesterday morning, having filled the coffee pot, I took a deep breath and sat down at my writing desk to begin penning my tribute to Tom Richmond, The Yorkshire Post’s Opinion Editor and Racing Correspondent, though as you will see later on, he was much more than that.
Three deleted intros came and went. Tom was a perfectionist. This, of all the pieces I have ever written, had to be just that. Perfect. But where to begin? I was struggling to know where to start.
9.26am, an email lands: “My dearest James, good morning. I have been meaning to send you these words about Tom: “He was a true friend, though that friendship did not compromise his journalism as a seeker after truth. Tom was a journalist in whom there was no guile. Truth was his benchmark.”
It was signed, simply, Sentamu.
Once the hairs on my neck had flattened, a wry smile ran across my face. Thank you, Tom, I muttered. I was off. Somehow and for whatever reason, Lord Sentamu, the former Archbishop of York, the man who Tom oft-reminded me was third in command to God Almighty, had got me under way. Had he been here today as that email arrived he would have said to me, ‘I’m just trying to be helpful.’
That was one of his many catchphrases which, in truth, he usually trotted out as cover for himself when he knew he was being nosy, meddling in something that was none of his business. Tom was helplessly nosy. Instinctively curious. A born inquisitor.
Tom was all manner of things, but without question, chief among them was that he cared. He cared viscerally about truth and justice. Couple that passion with all of Tom’s characteristics and the recipe for journalistic excellence is a special one.
For Tom could be a grumpy sod. Cantankerous, cynical, skeptical. Brash, abrupt, rude, even. Though, truth be told – Tom wouldn’t have it any other way – that rudeness was reserved principally for fools he deemed promoted above their stations into positions of power beyond their ken. Should their ineptitude impact upon the lives of Yorkshire residents, woe betide those fools.
Tom’s love affair with all things horse racing is synonymous with the man, and the tributes flooding in from those affiliated with the sport are testament to that, but where Tom really hit his straps was when speaking truth to power.
March, 2016: just three months into my editorship. Tom approaches my office with an Op Ed piece submitted by then Prime Minister David Cameron, trumpeting his love for Yorkshire.
He made the mistake of saying to me: “This has arrived from the Prime Minister’s office. It’s your paper, do you want to run it?” I fired back: “It isn’t my paper. Nor is it yours. It is Yorkshire’s paper. We are merely custodians.” He smiled. “You get it already, it seems. Anyway, do you want to run it or not?”
I looked over the press release. As I did so Tom reminded me that the Prime Minister still had not afforded me the courtesy of replying to an open letter sent to him by The Yorkshire Post demanding action following the devastating floods of 2015.
Bearing in mind I am fresh into the role, afforded the rare privilege of leading the most prestigious regional news brand in the country, with the weight of its history and the burden of its reputation now on my shoulders, Tom played a blinder: “If, as you have just said, it is the paper of the people of Yorkshire, it isn’t you the Prime Minister is ignoring. It isn’t me, nor even The Yorkshire Post. It is the people of Yorkshire.”
He’d already spotted what kind of person I was, the type of journalist I was, but, crucially, the editor that I knew – and he had clearly spotted – I wanted to be.
We spiked the press release.
Unbeknown to me, Tom retreated to his desk to take apart the insincere love letter to the county with forensic accuracy, authoring a piece that has set the tone for my editorship ever since, highlighting errors made by Mr Cameron – or one of his lackeys, as Tom said at the time – and sympathetically highlighting other news outlets who had published the formulaic piece.
To this day I do not know if Tom was being sincere or mischievous, for Tom loved to make mischief, but on the day of publication he took advantage of a quiet moment in my office to say: “You know, I’m not sure this title would always have done that. Historically, no matter how disingenuous words sent to The Yorkshire Post by a Conservative Prime Minister, the title may well have run them.”
Tom was, of course, right to remind me of my responsibilities, but in my reply, a mantra that has become a guiding principle for the work undertaken by the whole team during my tenure so far was created: “When I accepted this job, Tom, I did so on the proviso that I would be free of corporate interference, and left alone with the team to produce journalism underpinned by old fashioned decency.”
I hadn’t concocted this next line, it emerged from two like-minded people, Tom and I, forging an early professional relationship, but in words to this effect I said: “From this point onwards, our work will not be influenced by those on the right versus those on the left but by what is right versus what is wrong.” Those were words I’d share with the entire team, because I so believe in them.
In that moment, Tom felt empowered. I could tell. Given permission, almost, to be an authentic guardian for the county; encouraged to take aim at injustice, corruption and ineptitude – regardless of the colour of the political rosette – wherever he discovered it. And for those of us who had ringside seats to the skirmishes he fought on behalf of the people of Yorkshire and the North, what a privilege.
Those who know the man will recognise that for all the bravado, bluster and belligerence he was an insecure person who craved purpose and praise in equal measure. His purpose was clear: to be the best possible journalist he could be.
As for praise, for that I shall defer to a former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who said of Tom: “Tom was one of those very special people who was not just an excellent professional journalist, but totally committed to shining a light in dark corners, to getting to the truth, and to doing so with honesty and integrity.”
“He was one of the nicest, most approachable and decent journalists I have ever come across. My wife and I will miss him deeply. Our thoughts and condolences go to all his family – we remain in shock.”
And so as we say goodbye to a man who walked with ease among kings and queens, be they of a political hue or a sporting one – he was the only journalist in the room to have Sir Alex Ferguson’s personal mobile number – we lose a man who made it a personal priority to fetch groceries for his vulnerable neighbours during the lockdowns of the pandemic, never for a moment losing the common touch.