Obituary: Paul McKee

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The Independent Culture
SOPHISTICATED COMPUTER wizardry, crystal clear graphics and slick, professional presentation are now taken for granted whenever television concerns itself with the complex analysis of election voting trends and patterns. But it took the lateral thinking and mathematical mind of Paul McKee to bring them to the screen and make them a welcome and widely viewed aspect of today's television schedule.

Bob Mackenzie can lay claim to paternity of the "Swingometer", but McKee was the undisputed father of modern-day election presentation with its refinements of instantaneous analysis and the perpetually self-correcting "virtual House of Commons". The methods he pioneered are now commonplace to television analysis of voting patterns and trends all over the world.

Born and brought up in Bradford, where he went to school at St Bede's Grammar, he went on to Imperial College, London, and graduated in Mathematics. He was quick to plunge into the fast-developing computing scene with English Electric where he made rapid progress to become general manager of computing services.

His interest was diverted to television in the 1960s when he was one of a team of computer people enlisted to help ITN. Television then had a major problem dealing speedily with the torrents of statistical election information pouring in from its increasingly powerful computers. Frantic production teams, knee-deep in print-out paper, could barely keep pace with the information, let alone make it intelligible to viewers and sustain their interest into the early hours. But from 1964 onwards, with Peter Snow in front of the camera and David Nicholas behind the scenes, McKee's stunning new graphics opened up a new world of viewer-friendly psephology.

Playing a part akin to James Bond's "Q", McKee's growing expertise and constant input made him increasingly indispensable and, in 1974, he joined ITN permanently as right-hand man to David Nicholas, where he was to anticipate many of the major industry changes waiting in the wings.

He continued to work on elections and made his greatest breakthrough in taming the feverish flow of information on election night itself, hitting upon a way to transfer the fluctuating facts and figures on to the screen in an instant. In de Bono fashion, he looked laterally and discovered a computer system used in, of all places, knitwear design that would lend itself to the problem at hand. Together with ITN engineers, McKee ingeniously found the way to convert this system into a method of making electoral analysis, trends and forecasts immediately accessible to the viewer. And all of this from a man who never in his lifetime possessed a personal computer.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s McKee played a pivotal role at ITN, adapting to the new technologies. He oversaw ITN's election analysis and opinion polls, and continuously honed its news service's computer graphics. His techniques gained international admiration. When the North American network NBC adapted them in the 1970s they rechristened the technology "the ITN".

Such innovations sparked a new breed of camera-friendly statistical analyst. The likes of Alastair Burnet, Peter Sissons and Peter Snow were now able to blend their skilful journalistic presentation with McKee's applied technology. The television role for dusty academics on election night began to diminish and audiences responded accordingly.

During this period, he also found time to produce a number of invaluable briefing books on elections, budgets and referendums and helped negotiate ITN's first contract to supply news to Channel 4.

In 1986 Paul Fox, then Managing Director at Yorkshire Television, persuaded McKee to come to Leeds to help the company get to grips with the fearsome changes in technology and working practices facing ITV. In this role, McKee's warmth and inspirational qualities won friendship and admiration, particularly for the way in which he calmly and resolutely dealt with the appalling union problems at YTV and within the industry as a whole. His compassionate approach won the minds and laid the mental backcloth for the changes that were to come.

No matter how hard the going, he would still find time to pop into the newsroom to lend a hand - especially when election night loomed. He enjoyed his work, but particularly enjoyed encouraging those around him at Yorkshire to make the most of their abilities.

Respite from the industrial battlefield came from sailing, and especially at the racecourse. By happy coincidence, his enthusiasm for turf if not surf was shared by almost the entire YTV senior management team. Staff soon learned it was pointless troubling them for decisions on St Leger day or during Ebor week.

Paul McKee's particular passion was steeplechasing; indeed his horse Little Polveir was a Scottish National winner in 1987. Two years later it romped home in the Grand National too; as luck would have it, only days after McKee had sold it. Needless to say, his characteristic deep reserves of good-humour and resilience stood up to the merciless banter and good-natured leg-pulling which followed.

From Yorkshire, he continued to develop his wide interests in computing and media, and advised the Government on the conduct of referendums. He marketed his experience across the world advising on news related programmes. In the course of this, he developed special attachments to the media interests of India, South Africa and, scarcely surprising in view of his solid Irish Catholic stock, Ireland.

The advent of leukaemia led to a long battle which progressively began to take its toll. But McKee was indefatigable. Spotted at a funeral service for an industry colleague at the end of last year, a somewhat pale and gaunt McKee recounted with relish his forthcoming projects - among them, the Irish referendum, and a couple of months in steamy Bombay analysing the Indian election. All were duly to receive his undivided and untiring attention.

Paul McKee was more than a friend: he was an inspiration and an anchor, writes Peter Snow.

He invented the election night graphics which gave me a new career. I was an ITN journalist: he was the cyber-king - inspired by a knitting programme he saw on a computer to create a quite new way of illustrating how people vote.

We formed a lasting friendship in the winter months of 1973 - hunched over a computer, racing to produce displays that would describe the outcome of Ted Heath's snap election of February 1974. I never believed I was going to be able to sit in a studio and forecast the result of every seat in the country on a computerised map after only a handful of results. But Paul made it happen: I remember our studio guests gaping at the screen in disbelief, and Paul rubbing his hands together with delight.

He did it by persuading all of us that anything was possible if we set our minds to it. He had an infectious obsession with figures and with the detail of electoral geography. But what captivated me was his intellectual enthusiasm and the cool judgement with which he directed his team.

But to me and my family - he was godfather to our son, Daniel - he was the friend we always wished we had with us in a jam. We shared a love of the sea: we never left harbour without seeing if Paul was free to join us. He had a knack of taking the anxiety out of sailing - whatever the weather.

Most of all he was a friend whose advice was always right. He was the frst person I'd ring when I had a really difficult decision to make: good judgement is a precious asset and Paul McKee had it in plenty. Life will be a lot less sure without him.

Paul Rochford McKee, television executive and psephologist; born Bradford 27 March 1939; staff, English Electric Company, 1960-74; Programme Development Executive, Independent Television News 1974-77, deputy chief executive 1977-86; deputy managing director, Yorkshire Television 1986-89; died Thirsk, North Yorkshire 9 November 1998.