Obituary: Frank Barber

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The Independent Culture
FRANK BARBER was a newspaperman through and through, yet he earned his niche in history in BBC Radio. He never quite fitted in with the stereotypes of a radio career. Self-educated, rough-tongued, he was always different from his smooth Oxbridge colleagues. But he left an indelible mark, some might say a scar.

Barber was born in Leeds in 1917 and remained an archetypal Yorkshireman, rugged in appearance, more than forthright in speech. He left school before he was 15 to work miserably in a solicitor's office. But he knew he wanted to be a journalist; he wanted it with a romantic longing for the great Front Page adventure.

The adventure began in the time-honoured way with the local press, The Leeds Weekly Citizen, then the Yorkshire Evening Post. But, as Keith Waterhouse confided to him years later, "Like you, I couldn't wait to get away." Away to Fleet Street, to London and the world.

An opening came with the old News Chronicle, a respectable national daily, old-fashioned and liberal. Barber began as a sub-editor but continually voiced his need to get out to where the action was. So he went to report war in Cyprus, war in the Congo, unending horror in the Soviet Union. The trip to the Soviet Union was seminal in his political thinking. Communism became anathema. Though all his life Barber was a man of the left, he was contemptuous of any soft, highbrow fellow travelling.

It all seemed to be going Barber's way when the News Chronicle suddenly collapsed. He was 40 with three small children; the moment was traumatic. The BBC's External Services stepped in with offers of freelance work and later a post in its African department. Not Front Page dreams, but steady and safe.

Then in 1965, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. This was almost everything short of war. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office approached the BBC to set up a special unit to relay programmes to the rebellious colony. The BBC grudgingly agreed; propaganda it insisted was something it had never done before and did not want to do now.

At first facilities were only meanly supplied. But with pugnacious Barber in charge the Rhodesia unit grew to considerable importance. Rhodesia was in the forefront of news; it dominated politics; it split the Conservative Party. The House of Lords broke the Salisbury Convention in its efforts to help Smith and damage Harold Wilson. The Rhodesia unit made impact in Rhodesia by the encouragement it gave to black listeners but also to the embattled Governor and white liberals like Garfield Todd.

Its interviews found their way on to the British Home Services and impinged on domestic debate. Barber's team became the recipients of hate mail. Barber was delighted: "We're getting through, we're getting through," he would chortle. He spread his net wide. Prime ministers and foreign secretaries were not enough. Famous writers and philosophers must be roped in too to fight the white supremacists. Barber said, "We must have Laurens van der Post to broadcast for us." It took weeks to lure that shy, fastidious, somewhat ambivalent man into the studio. Barber rushed to greet him. Five minutes later van der Post strode out, refusing ever to speak to the unit again.

Indeed Barber's weakness was insensitivity towards other people's foibles. It was not always easy to know that beneath that rough exterior beat a heart of gold, kind and soft.

His last period at the BBC was as head of current affairs talks, the political and news centre of overseas broadcasting. He had a remarkable team of experts to draw upon but their very expertise, their donnish - indeed prima-donnish - rather than journalistic approach to news made for many bruising exchanges.

Barber's innate kindliness was shown in his eagerness to help young aspirants. He started a new copytasting service for trainees which helped many on to journalistic careers: Anne Perkins, Michael Cockerill, Michael Brunson could all claim to have been discovered by Barber.

One of Barber's most remarkable achievements was the fine newspaper career he forged side by side with his work at the BBC. On Saturdays he would slip mysteriously into his office and out again on his way, it was discovered, first to the Observer and later to the Sunday Times. This was strictly against BBC rules but whether authority was ignorant or chose to turn a blind eye was never known. He spent 17 years sneaking off to the Sunday Times as a splash sub-editor handling the main front-page news, working side by side with both Harry Evans and Andrew Neil. It was not until he was pushing 70 that it was thought he might retire.

He never stopped writing. There was a novel, of course; the title he chose was "Man on the Spot", set in Zimbabwe with Boy's Own newspaper adventure all over it. The publishers changed the name to The Last White Man (1981). It was perhaps elegiac.

Barber was perhaps the last of the old "clear all wires" newspaper men. Tough as they come, printer's ink in their veins, giving way to modern media but never giving up. He was tremendously and rightly proud of his sons, two of whom are distinguished journalists - the East European correspondent and news editor of the Financial Times respectively. Barber and news are never far apart.

Frank Barber, journalist; born Leeds 28 March 1917; married 1944 Joan Nolan (three sons); died London 27 June 1999.