As journalistic fiascos go, it was one of the most sensational.
In 1983, The Sunday Times of London claimed to have Adolf Hitler’s diaries, scribbled in the Führer’s own hand. A renowned historian had authenticated them.
What it actually had were forgeries. The newspaper’s top editors discovered the truth at the last minute and tried to stop their publication. But the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, dismissed their concerns and ordered that the presses roll, leaving The Sunday Times, one of the world’s great news organizations, with serious egg on its face.
The editor of the paper, the mild-mannered, urbane Frank Giles, took the fall and was fired, bringing a distinguished career to an abrupt and ignominious end. He died on Oct. 30 at 100, The Sunday Times reported.
Mr. Giles had been editor of the paper for just two years when the German magazine Der Stern said it was in possession of Hitler’s diaries and offered the British serialization rights to The Sunday Times.
Mr. Giles called on Hugh Trevor-Roper, the eminent British historian and one of the world’s foremost experts on Hitler, to authenticate the volumes. After examining them in a vault in Zurich, he pronounced them legitimate.
Some at the paper were skeptical and urged further investigation; they remembered when The Sunday Times had almost been taken in years before by fake diaries purported to have been written by Mussolini. But Mr. Giles put his faith in Mr. Trevor-Roper, and according to another editor, once Mr. Trevor-Roper had given his seal of approval, Mr. Murdoch ordered the diaries published without any further inquiry.
The world was bracing for blockbuster revelations. Newsweek magazine, which had bought the American rights, boasted in advance advertisements, “These controversial papers could rewrite the history of the Third Reich from Hitler’s rise to power to his suicide in the ruins of Berlin.”
On Saturday, April 24, 1983, the presses at The Sunday Times began to roll. Unknown to the newspaper’s editors, Mr. Trevor-Roper had started to doubt the diaries’ validity. He said later that he had “misunderstood the nature of their procurement.”
But he did not alert Mr. Giles. Instead, he sent word to Charles Douglas-Home, the editor of The Times of London, the sister paper of The Sunday Times. Mr. Douglas-Home thought Mr. Trevor-Roper was probably mistaken and said nothing to Mr. Giles.
That night, Mr. Giles was in his office with other senior editors celebrating their scoop. They called Mr. Trevor-Roper to share their joy, unaware of his second thoughts.
What ensued was a heart-stopping telephone conversation between Mr. Giles and Mr. Trevor-Roper. According to others in the room, Mr. Giles’s side of the conversation went like this:
“Well, naturally, Hugh, one has doubts. There are no certainties in this life. But these doubts aren’t strong enough to make you do a complete 180-degree turn on that?
“Oh, I see. You are doing a 180-degree turn.”
The editors called Mr. Murdoch with the dire news, but he was said to have dismissed Mr. Trevor-Roper’s concerns with a vulgarity and ordered publication to proceed.
The paper sold well. But the diaries’ unmasking was already in the works. On Monday, Mr. Trevor-Roper made his doubts public, and the whole enterprise quickly unraveled, proven to be a hoax perpetrated by a prolific German forger, Konrad Kujau. Forensics showed that the paper, ink and bindings of the supposed diaries were of recent vintage.
But it didn’t take a scientist to suspect fakery. Hitler would have had a hard time writing the later entries, when his writing arm had been injured. The entries were riddled with factual errors, and some seemed incongruously flip, given the gravity of the circumstances. “That Goebbels, what a pain in the neck,” read one. “Must do something about the way Göring is throwing his weight around.”
The Sunday Times, Der Stern and Newsweek became the butt of jokes. Some critics harassed them as Nazi sympathizers, bent on whitewashing Hitler’s atrocities.
Shortly thereafter, The Sunday Times apologized to its readers, though the apology itself also came in for ridicule. “Serious journalism is a high-risk enterprise,” it began, but critics suggested that this was not an instance of serious journalism, which is better researched and documented.
Mr. Trevor-Roper apologized to Mr. Giles. Mr. Murdoch, by all accounts, apologized to no one and ousted Mr. Giles as editor, giving him the nonjob of editor emeritus to serve out the final two years of his contract.
“I take full responsibility for it,” he said. “It was a major mistake and one I shall have to live with for the rest of my life.”
Frank Thomas Robertson Giles was born on July 31, 1919, in London. His father, also named Frank, an officer in the Royal Engineers, died when Frank was 10. His mother, Elgiva (Ackland-Allen) Giles, took in lodgers to make ends meet. He later won a history scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford.
In 1942, Mr. Giles went to work for the war office, then the foreign office. He served for a time as a private secretary to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, and hoped to become a diplomat himself but failed the examination.
He married Lady Katherine Sackville in 1946, and they had three children. He is survived by his daughter, Belinda, and son, Henry. His wife died in 2010, and another daughter, Sarah, died in 2014.
Mr. Giles joined The Times in 1946 as a subeditor and was soon writing columns. A year later he was posted to Paris as a correspondent, and then to Rome before returning to Paris as chief correspondent in 1953.
In 1960 his friend Ian Fleming, who had created the character James Bond but was still working part-time at The Sunday Times, suggested that Mr. Giles apply for the job of foreign editor. He landed the post and used it as a platform to continue writing, covering, among other things, the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War of 1967.
Mr. Giles had hoped to become editor of The Sunday Times, but his colleague Harold Evans won out, and Mr. Giles became his deputy. The two worked well together for several years. When Mr. Murdoch bought The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981, he moved Mr. Evansover to run The Times and elevated Mr. Giles to run The Sunday Times.
But according to Mr. Evans’s memoir, “Good Times Bad Times” (1983), Mr. Murdoch never liked Mr. Giles. Mr. Murdoch viewed him as an elitist, and they were often in conflict, Mr. Evans wrote. Mr. Murdoch liked exercising his prerogatives as owner, and Mr. Giles valued his editorial independence, though in the matter of the Hitler diaries, he had very little.
After he left The Sunday Times, Mr. Giles turned to writing books. In “The Locust Years” (1994), he wrote about the return to power of Charles de Gaulle. He also wrote a biography of Napoleon and an autobiography, “Sundry Times” (1986).
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