Peter Willis, the former editor of the Daily Mirror and founder of the newspaper’s Pride of Britain awards, has died suddenly aged 54.
He had been at the newspaper group for 23 年, rising up from the world of celebrity reporting to become one of the Mirror’s main executives, with stints as editor of the daily tabloid and its Sunday sister titles.
Fellow journalists paid tribute to his eye for a story but said he was most proud of his role with the Pride of Britain awards, which reward ordinary Britons who have made a difference to society or shown outstanding bravery. Colleagues said he was known for his ability to convince celebrities, prime ministers and members of the royal family to attend the events.
The Good Morning Britain host Susanna Reid described Willis as a “lovely, kind man”, who presided over the award ceremony with “positive energy, thoughtfulness and consideration”. Alison Phillips, the current Mirror editor, said he “warm, kind, funny and an incredible journalist”.
Piers Morgan, his former boss, described Willis as a “Daily Mirror legend who created and ran the wonderful Pride of Britain awards for 20 years”, adding “he was a brilliant journalist, a loving husband and father, and a loyal, decent, kind and caring friend”.
Colleagues describe a man who was always pushing his journalists to bring in better stories and would then sit with them trying to improve their work.
Writing in the Daily Mirror, Ros Wynne-Jones described Willis as “relentless in pursuit of a story and glittering company on a night out”. She said there had been an “outpouring of love for a man who never understood how loved he was”, with staff at the Mirror offered grief counselling after his death was announced.
Willis was famous among his colleagues for his showbiz tales that one colleague said would “have your doubled over with rib-breaking laughter”.
One of his favourite was about how he spent an evening with Prince at the singer’s Minneapolis headquarters, which he later recounted as one of the strangest evenings of his life. After the pair discussed Prince’s decision to make his new album available as a free CD distributed with copies of the Daily Mirror because “the internet’s completely over”, they attempted an impromptu jam.
Willis later recounted: “Just two minutes into the Beatles classic, Come Together, when I thought I was really getting into my stride, I become aware he was staring over at me in disbelief and wincing.”
Prince urged him to stop playing and told him: “Have you ever seen The Apprentice on TV? Cos you’re fired!”
Willis reflected that “there can’t be many people who have been hired and fired by Prince, all in the space of two minutes”.
He is survived by his wife, Nicky, and their two children.