Edward Mortimer, scholar, journalist and United Nations official, 1943-2021
Edward Mortimer, at the age of 77, served as chief diplomatic commentator for the Financial Times from 1987 to 1998, and chief speechwriter for former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan from 1998 to 2006, and Distinguished researcher at All Souls College, Oxford.
As a journalist, writer, scholar, and international civil servant, Mortimer has successfully combined different professions and linked them together on the same theme: he is passionate about defending human rights and protecting minorities, resolving conflicts and promoting Understanding between countries and communities.
He is a political activist and has been a candidate for the European Parliament and a Liberal Democrat for the Oxford County Council. He is also a devout Christian, even though he never put his religious beliefs on his sleeves.
Mortimer’s father, Robert, is the Bishop of Exeter, and he grew up in a family with high intellectuals. A young visitor remembers the quotations of Latin literature all over the breakfast table in the bishop’s palace. He could have easily become a full-time scholar. He was a top historian at Balliol College, Oxford University, received a congratulatory first-class degree, and then won the All Souls Award.
“The first impression people have of Edward is how smart he is,” said Lord Chris Patten, his contemporary and lifelong friend. “That’s true. He is the smartest of our generation. But he is much more than that. He is a kind, decent, likable, generous person, and has a wise view of almost everything.”
He also has a strong curiosity. Volunteer in Senegal for a year before university, which allowed him to speak fluent French and was fascinated by the dust and dust of the real world, including all issues of decolonization. He left academia and became a reporter.
His first job was as a junior reporter at the Paris branch of The Times, reporting on the dramatic events of the Paris student uprising in May 1968. After submitting a report on the years of rioting students and the decline of President de Gaulle, he retained contact with All Souls and took the time to write an erudite but very readable book on France and Africa.
In 1973, he was persuaded by William Rees-Mogg to join the lead writer of The Times in London, often referred to as the “Cardinal College”, where his academic background was appropriate.
Over the next ten years, he wrote a seminal book on Islamic politics, Faith and power, Centered on the Islamic Revolution in Iran, but also included the Arab world. His writing combines erudition and experience, a strict focus on history, and the reporter’s ability to articulate stories that many readers consider opaque.
It also attracted the attention of the Financial Times, whose editor Sir Jeffrey Owen is looking for a chief foreign commentator. In 1987, Mortimer moved to the Financial Times. “He brings authority and experience [which] Greatly enhance our competitiveness in the field of international affairs,” Sir Jeffrey said.
His tall stature and white hair, gentle humor and generous willingness to listen to any debate, and determination to pay attention to human rights and conflicts; these proofs are the supplement to the paper’s natural focus on global finance and economics. One of his great projects was to draw a series of features on the “fault lines” of the European borders, where the ancient borders of the Roman Empire left unresolved frictions between minorities.
In 1984, he wrote another book on the rise of the French Communist Party, when Mikhail Gorbachev was initiating reforms in the Soviet Union, and he was fascinated by the rise of European communism in Italy.
After 11 years of working in the British “Financial Times”, he was persuaded to start a new career at the United Nations-as a speech writer for Annan.
Mark Malloch-Brown, who became Annan’s chief of staff, expressed doubts about this appointment. He expressed doubts that “this very smart and intelligent reporter, Friends of All Souls, will be a good partner. [for Annan]”.
He was wrong. “This is a marriage made in heaven,” he said today. Mortimer managed to adapt his prose—always a model of clarity—to the apparent informality and African vernacular of the quietly speaking Secretary-General.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who was the head of UN peacekeeping operations in those years, said that he brought more than keen wisdom to the UN. “I think he has made a great contribution to Kofi Annan’s unique leadership style: he has an ability to outrage rarely seen in the United Nations, but his deep sense of morality is never domineering or arrogant. He is a righteous man. A humble man full of enthusiasm, Kofi Annan’s speech reflects this.”
After leaving the United Nations, Mortimer became the senior vice president and chief project officer of the Salzburg Global Symposium, bringing his passion for defending human rights and ethnic minorities to the conference circuit.
He is also the rapporteur and lead author of the European Commission’s report on “Freedom and Diversity”, focusing on how to integrate immigrant communities into wealthy countries in Europe and North America. The lessons he learned about the importance of citizenship to promote integration and the need to respect religious beliefs in particular are still very important today.
He returned to his beloved academic life, All Souls, where he still does not shy away from controversy. In a sermon at the University Church in 2016, he dared to resolve the topic of “the historical heritage of disputes in public places”. In the case of All Souls, this means focusing on the college wealth inherited from Christopher Codrington, who was a very prosperous slave owner. He dared to suggest that the college consider how to make some form of compensation.
Mortimer is remembered in all his different incarnations as a humane, tolerant, and most importantly generous. He is always curious to listen to the opinions of others and is happy to be a mentor to young journalists. He is funny and a good imitator.
He is not boring at all. His wife Elizabeth (Wiz), daughters Francis and Phoebe, sons Horatio and Matthew, and seven grandchildren will miss him very much.