Fleet Street legend dies in Spain

A former Fleet Street editor and yachtsman has been killed, along with his wife, in a road accident in Spain. Brian Hitchen, CBE, and his wife Nelli were crossing the road near their holiday villa at a town on the Costa Blanca when they were hit by a car. Nelli was killed instantly, her husband aged 77, died later in hospital.

Brian, formerly editor of the Sunday Express and before that the Daily Star, started sailing while working as a newspaperman in America. He transitted the Florida Intra-coastal Waterway in his first escapade aboard a 26ft sloop. He found using the foghorn to get bridges to open so effective for getting attention he later used it in Fleet Street to announce the morning conference.

Later, and back in the UK he bought Outcast, a wooden Hillyard sloop once owned by Sir John Junor, a previous editor of the Sunday Express. His last boat was Scoop, a Westerly Centaur, in which he cruised the South Coast, and raced across to Fecamp, Normandy in the Royal Escape Race, organised by his club the Shoreham-on-Sea-based Sussex Yacht Club.

His own scoops, while working as the youngest reporter, at the time, ever to get a staff job in Fleet Street included breaking the news, while working for the Daily Mirror, that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s son Joshua was a junkie. Later as a news and picture executive on the Daily Express he masterminded the sensational exclusive on fugitive Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs turning up in Brazil.

Headhunted by the American newspaper the grocery-chain-marketed National Enquirer, Brian acquired the exclusive last pictures of Elvis Presley in his open-topped coffin, a scoop which doubled the circulation of the paper overnight to seven million copies: a newspaper record which still stands.

His natural northern charm – he was born in Lancashire and started his working life as a messenger boy aged 15 on the Bury Times, later working with newspaper legend Harry Evans – garnered many contacts in high places. And although he was there to ‘turn over’ the great and the good he managed, after the headlines had died down to become their friends and was feted by, among many others, Baroness Thatcher, General Norman Schwarzkopf and Princess Diana who agreed to present the Daily Star Gold Awards to heroic children.

While working as a cub reporter covering the 1950’s drive for independence in Cyprus for the Manchester Evening News, he was shot through the left kneecap by an EOKA terrorist. It was a lifelong injury which dogged his foredeck capabilities, but which did not put him off sailing.

He leaves a son and daughter.

See Dick Durham’s blog