LONDON — William Rees-Mogg, the former longtime editor of The Times of London and one of Britain’s most respected, if mercurial, conservative voices, who rose to the defense of President Richard M. Nixon as well as the Rolling Stones, died Dec. 29. He was 84.
The cause was esophageal cancer, his family said. In a statement, Prime Minister David Cameron called him ‘‘a Fleet Street legend.’’
Mr. Rees-Mogg was 38 when he was named editor of The Times in 1967, making him the youngest ever to hold the job. He was perhaps the last in that post to reasonably aspire to the formidable influence in Britain’s ruling circles that his predecessors at The Times had wielded for almost 200 years.
When Mr. Rees-Mogg took over the editorship, the paper’s circulation and profitability had slipped sharply in the face of stiff competition from The Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet, and The Daily Mail, a tabloid, both competing for the same, mostly conservative readers as The Times.
Under the Canadian press baron Roy Thomson, who bought the paper in 1967, Mr. Rees-Mogg worked to restore The Times’ fortunes and editorial authority, and to shed its fusty image. Innovations included a women’s page, a business section and bylines for the paper’s hitherto anonymous reporters and commentators, as well as expanded sports and arts coverage.
But when the innovations failed to reverse the declines, he presided over a return to some of the old ways at the paper. This was the state of affairs when Thomson’s son Kenneth R. Thomson decided to sell The Times and its sister paper, The Sunday Times, to Rupert Murdoch in 1981.
At the time, Murdoch was moving News International, his British subsidiary, into a dominant position in Britain’s newspaper market.
In character and temperament, Murdoch and Mr. Rees-Mogg were poles apart. Murdoch, an Australian regarded by many in Britain’s upper classes as a colonial upstart, harbored a deep hostility toward the country’s ruling establishment, of which Mr. Rees-Mogg was a proud member. Mr. Rees-Mogg resigned shortly after the takeover and was soon replaced by Harold Evans, whose own tenure was ended after barely a year amid policy differences with Murdoch.
As a writer of editorials and columns, Mr. Rees-Mogg was as elegant in his prose as he was courteous in manner and conservative in attire, holding fast to pinstripe suits in the office as his colleagues shifted to shirt sleeves, even jeans.
One younger staff member said Mr. Rees-Mogg was the only man he could imagine wearing double-breasted pajamas. Mr. Rees-Mogg shunned typewriters and computers, writing his articles and books in longhand. He found little that was offensive in being called a fogy, or being satirized, as he was in journals like Private Eye and in the play ‘‘Pravda,’’ by Howard Brenton and David Hare, where his alter ego was the unforgettably named Elliot Fruit-Norton.
He expressed his passion in his columns. He defended Nixon during the Watergate scandal (he later called it ‘‘a hysterical overreaction”) and argued for years for a return to the gold standard. In 1976 he entered a dispute between the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, against his more right-wing foreign secretary, George Brown, a man known for excessive drinking. ‘‘Lord George Brown is a better man drunk than the prime minister is sober,’’ Mr. Rees-Mogg wrote.
He incensed some Times readers in 1967 with a lead editorial in which he attacked the severity of jail sentences imposed on the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger (three months) and Keith Richards (one year) for drug offenses.
‘‘If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism, then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity,’’ Mr. Rees-Mogg wrote, under the headline ‘‘Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?’’
The jail terms were soon quashed on appeal.
Mr. Rees-Mogg leaves his wife, the former Gillian Shakespeare Morris; two sons, Thomas and Jacob; and three daughters, Emma, Charlotte and Annunziata. Jacob was elected to Parliament as a Conservative in 2010.