Tributes pour in for ‘Gentle Giant of Journalism’ Chris Johnson – known as ‘Mr Liverpool’ during his Mercury Press Agency heyday

Posted on 4 July 2020
By Angela and Andy Johnson
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The journalism community is mourning the untimely death of former agency owner, news editor and local television entrepreneur Chris Johnson.

Tributes have flooded in for the ‘gentle giant’ of journalism and a formidable teacher of rising talent, who sadly passed away on Thursday (June, 25), aged 68, just three months after being diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus.

Chris began his career as a 16-year-old photographer on The Catholic Pictorial newspaper, working alongside Colin Myler as a young reporter, before landing a job as reporter at Mercury Press Agency.

He worked his way up to ownership of the Liverpool news agency, which was at the forefront of covering news on Merseyside and supplying words and pictures to the national press.

Chris, known fondly by his colleagues as ‘CJ’ or ‘Captain’, will be remembered for nurturing the skills of scores of young reporters and photographers, with his own inimitable ‘no-nonsense’ approach.

He earned a reputation as an unflappable force of nature, never switching off from the news and always on the end of a phone to listen and advise the many friends he made over his 50-year career.

Former Sunday, Daily Mirror and New York Daily News Editor Colin Myler said: “Chris loved life, but life loved him more. We started our careers at the Catholic Pictorial in Liverpool in the same week. He was a junior photographer and I a junior reporter, we were both 16. Chris was a remarkable talent.

“He went on to own Mercury Press, one of the leading news agencies in the UK. He nurtured and mentored a stable of brilliant young journalists and photographers.

“Chris was an extraordinary kind and generous man who enriched and changed people’s lives for the better. His voice, his leadership and his presence is a huge loss to journalism and, particularly, to his beloved city of Liverpool.”

Chris’ first boss at The Catholic Pictorial, George Moran, said: “Chris was a rare talent. He exuded such confidence. I never taught him a thing.

“But I’m proud that I was able to spot a level of ambition he could never fulfil at “The Pic”. When Chris was looking for a new job, Mercury Press, the natural next step, already had too many photographers. So I advised him to apply as a reporter, which proved to be the making of him.

“Chris was a trusted friend to many and a loving father figure to everybody he took under his wing.”

Born in Atherton, Lancashire, in 1952, Chris got his first camera, aged 8, from his parents Theresa and Henry, and had an innate understanding of the importance of capturing the essence of a story in a single image.

A career highlight was working as press agent for Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger. Chris himself affirmed his pride in being Denise’s friend, supporting her pursuit of justice for James for the last 25 years. Chris was honoured to become Chairman and a Trustee of the James Bulger Memorial Trust.

Chris maintained a close relationship between Denise and the media as the lives of her son’s killers continued to make headlines. He continued in the role as her press adviser until he fell ill in March this year. Despite his diagnosis, dedicated Chris declared himself as ‘semi-retired’ and determined to get back into the working world.

Upon learning of Chris’ tragic passing, Denise said: “Chris has been a tower of strength. He always took the stress and pain off my shoulders. Chris had a vibrant, unquenchable energy and capacity for compassion.

“I always called him a gentle giant as he was 6ft 3in and although he had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, he truly had infinite patience and understanding for how to guide me gently through each challenge in our fight for James.”

Chris Johnson himself recently recounted the proudest moment of his career: “There were many times I felt immensely privileged to have been able to say I made a difference with my words.

“One story that truly stands out, was a letter I received from a lady, who had read my article about an incident of sub-standard care at a local hospital, which had led to the death of a premature baby and deeply moved by it, decided not to have an abortion herself.

“In the letter, the lady thanked me for writing the story; ‘Do not be in any doubt, you made a difference. That child may have died, but I read your story and it made me change my mind and I didn’t go ahead with the termination that I was thinking of at the time.’

“She was grateful for the son she had. It’s communication that holds the power. Words can and do make a difference in people’s lives – the young man walking this Earth is living proof.

“The important thing to remember is that you should be doing the job for the reason of passing on, throughout the human race, a lesson worth living.

“If it’s just you sitting on your high horse pontificating, it’s useless, if it’s passing on a message, something worthwhile, then it makes all the difference.”

For five decades Chris dedicated his life to discovering, covering and shaping news on Merseyside. Acquiring the nickname, ‘Mr Liverpool’ for his services to national newspapers and beyond.

Former colleague at Mercury Press and editor of The European and Daily Mail Charles Garside said: “What an accomplished man Chris was. A photographer, journalist, agency boss, TV entrepreneur and always ‘Mr Liverpool’ to me.

“The 25th June was an incredible night for Liverpool… Chris Johnson joined the Celestial Heralds. A life well lived and a legacy for all he left behind. Rest in Peace, Mr Liverpool.”

“Mr Liverpool” also dedicated his time to numerous organisations that supported regional press workers across Merseyside and the UK as a whole. Chris was a key member and Organiser of the Liverpool Press Club, working to revitalise and encourage fresh membership – including that of its youngest recruit, his 2-year-old grandson Luther. ‘Start ’em young,’ he used to say and Chris was determined to ensure the Liverpool Press Club would continue to provide a community and network for all in the Merseyside media for many years to come.

It was Chris Johnson’s firm belief that nurturing and supporting agencies nationwide, who were ‘the lifeblood’ of the national press, was of utmost importance. During his tenure at Mercury Press, Chris was a leading member of the National Association of Press Agencies (NAPA), serving as not only an active member for 20 years ,but spending five years as Chairman and a further four as NAPA Secretary.

Always generous with his time, Chris could be called upon to fight the corner of a freelancer or agency in need of help at a moment’s notice. He received two Lifetime Achievement Awards from both NAPA and the Liverpool Press Club in recognition of his many years of service to journalism.

Chris Johnson proved to be a master of reinvention, after more than 40 years at Mercury Press Agency, Chris set his sights on becoming an accomplished broadcast journalist and TV Producer when he co-founded Bay TV Liverpool in 2014. Chris was elected Chair of the Local TV Network in March 2015 and served three terms of office.

In Autumn 2016 Bay TV merged with Made Television, Chris stepped down as Station Manager at Made in Liverpool, late in 2017, and went on to found Next Chapter Media and VideOdyssey Studios at Toxteth TV with his son Andrew in March 2018.

After a valiant fight against cancer, Chris Johnson passed away peacefully surrounded by his loving family. Amongst the many words shared in the final days of his life, Chris left this parting thought, “How’s this for an idea? Even though I’ll be gone, have fun.”

Chris leaves behind his children Andrew and Angela, who are both journalists and is survived by three grandsons, Elliott, Hunter and Luther. Close family will attend his funeral, with a memorial planned for a date later in the year. Any well wishers looking to send flowers are being invited to donate to his favourite charity – Just Giving – Chris Johnson for the James Bulger Memorial Trust