Remembering Howard Preece
Oxford-educated and incredibly sharp, Howard Preece for a time dominated economics journalism in South Africa. The former editor of the Rand Daily Mail’s finance section won the economics section of the Sanlam Awards for Financial Journalism often, and the overall award four times, starting in 1975.
He was editor of the finance section and the Business Day supplement to the paper until the Rand Daily Mail closed in 1985. Howard was disappointed not to be made the editor of Business Day, the new daily paper rising out of the ashes of the Mail, when the supplement became a separate and new daily newspaper. He left to take up a position on Finance Week, then still a young and feisty competitor to the Financial Mail.
For many years, the RDM was his professional home. He wrote superbly, meeting deadlines and producing copy that was clean and so concise it was difficult to cut.
His insight into the economy was deep. He was one of a few economics journalists in South Africa who’d actually read JM Keynes’ General Theory rather than read about Keynes. Fused with a strong journalistic instinct for detecting bullshit, this also made him a valuable colleague at Finance Week. At editorial meetings Howard could sum up economic issues in a sentence.
Howard had an eye for detail, finding news behind the spin. He pointed out once, when journalists were excited by the big percentage increase in mineworker pay the Chamber of Mines announced, that in absolute terms it amounted to what would be perhaps a couple of hundred rand in today’s money. It was he who noted that disinvestment would harm the apartheid regime more than sanctions, and that foreign investment had actually started to trickle out after the Sharpeville massacre, becoming a flood after PW Botha’s Rubicon speech debacle.
Unlike some economists, he did not make the mistake of thinking of economics as a science separate from politics. It was he who explained to me that Trevor Manuel derived his longevity in the job not from his financial knowledge but his political power in the Mbeki cabinet, and that technical expertise was not the important qualification for the job.
He brought to South Africa from Fleet Street some shrewd insights about journalism itself, especially the urgent need to be out of the office and in the markets where the stories were. To illustrate how unwise it was for officials to ignore the media, he told me once with glee how journalists exploited the policy of Reserve Bank governor Bob de Jongh never to speak to the media under any circumstances. They would, he said, write what they liked about bank policy direction without fear of contradiction.
He gained a profound knowledge of the South African economic and political landscape, but despite spending the better part of his life here, and becoming immersed in South African journalism, Howard somehow retained a certain quintessential Englishness.
Howard never said what it was that drove him to desert Fleet Street and come to South Africa. He would have returned, too, except that the one visit he made to the UK in the 1980s failed to yield employment. He was too old, and had been away too long, he discovered.
Back in South Africa, he tried to make the leap to the corporate sector, briefly working at Standard Bank. He was not suited – literally. This was the man remembered for appearing at a Rand Daily Mail banquet in tuxedo and takkies. On one occasion, Howard went to work at the bank wearing a red sweater, scandalizing the management. I can’t remember if they sent him home to change or not.
Hilary Joffe, who joined the bank some years later, said the story of Howard arriving in a red jersey was still being told at the bank. For journalists, it was one of those legends that serve as a lesson to reporters contemplating leaving for better-paid jobs elsewhere in business that they will find it difficult to adjust to corporate culture.
No ascetic, Howard had a passion for sport, having played rugby at university, and he enjoyed fast cars, speaking nostalgically about the MG sports care he once owned, and noting that its performance was worse than a modern Toyota, in typical fashion using this to illustrate the problems of taking quality improvements into account in calculating inflation. Behind the wheel, he was frightening to passengers and other drivers, and legend has it that fellow staff members fought not to accompany him on a drive to a corporate function.
Such foibles endeared him to us, and it is hard to think of economics journalism in South Africa without his brand of keen skepticism and acerbic humour. On cleaning out his office when the Rand Daily Mail closed, Howard came across a batch of letters praising his journalism. He threw them in the bin with relish, telling me that the only letters journalists should value were those complaining about their stories. The more complaints, the more you knew you were doing your job, he said.
Once I encountered Howard as part of a team covering the annual Budget speech when he had a brief stint at the Independent group after Finance Week changed management and once again Howard had to look for new employment. I asked him what his role was. “I’m supposed to be some sort of grey eminence dispensing advice,” he said. “In practice I’m just shoveling shit with everyone else.”