He gained his first job as a journalist in 1979, working on Caravan magazine, then was pop music correspondent at Today. He has a humorous column in the Sunday Express of London, demonstrating a tendency towards sarcasm. He once said of Cilla Black that she was a "powerful interpreter of Burt Bacharach".
In 1987, Townsend became a freelance reporter, but in 1994 was appointed showbusiness editor of the Mail on Sunday's You magazine, then in 1999 was appointed editor of OK! magazine. During his tenure, he persuaded Anthea Turner and Grant Bovey to pose with chocolate bars in their wedding photos, as part of a promotion.
In 2006, Townsend had a cameo role in the television series Hustle in which he, as editor of the Sunday Express, bought an exposé story from some con men regarding the unscrupulous editor of a rival (fictional) Sunday newspaper.
In 2007, Townsend published The Father I Had, an autobiographical account of his relationship with his father, who had bipolar disorder. This won the Mind Book of the Year Award 2008.
Townsend married Jane O'Gorman in 1989. They have two sons and a daughter.