We were at a summer party thrown by the editor of The Times to celebrate the knighthood just awarded in 2004 to one of his illustrious predecessors: Harry Evans. Tessa Jowell, a formidable builder of alliances herself, was impressed by the guest of honour.

Sir Harold was then into his late seventies and had lived in America for twenty years. He positioned himself on the upper level in the north London garden. “Do you see what he’s doing?” Tessa observed. First the step made up for his shortness of stature. Then as each arrival went up with their congratulations “Hello, what are you doing now?”, he asked. They had no alternative but to fill him in. “I’m Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture.” To which he had an ingratiating reply “Of course I know that Tessa, I meant what are you really up to?”

This social vignette was a classic journalistic craft. Sir Harold elicited the information he needed and left his interlocutor honoured to be telling him. Speaking softly in his northern accent he took charge of every encounter.