John Crawley

BBC 'complaints' editor
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The Independent Online

John Cecil Crawley, journalist: born London 29 June 1909; MBE 1944, CBE 1972; staff, BBC 1945-75, Foreign Correspondent, New York 1959-63, Foreign News Editor 1963-67, Editor of News and Current Affairs 1967-71, Chief Assistant to the Director-General 1971-75; chairman of trustees, Visnews 1976-86; married 1933 Constance Griffiths (died 1998; two daughters); died London 22 February 2006.

On 23 September 1955, a grieving nation of radio listeners read of the heroic death of Grace Archer dashing into a blazing stable to rescue a horse. This soap operatic news story caused far more press comment - and far more leading articles - than there were about the formal opening of Independent Television the evening before. Mary Crozier wrote in The Manchester Guardian,

She dwelt unseen amid the Light,
Among the Archer clan,
And breathed her last the very night
That ITV began . . .
She was well loved, and millions know
That Grace has ceased to be.
Now she is in her grave, but oh,
She's scooped the ITV.

The man behind this piece of inter-media gamesmanship was John Crawley, at that time in charge of BBC publicity. Others had devised the idea, but it was Crawley who arranged to invite all the radio correspondents to an afternoon pre-hearing of the Archers episode, to hold them there long enough to prevent a leak to the evening papers and to ensure that they had something compulsive to write about while their television colleagues were attending the ITV banquet in Guildhall.

Crawley thoroughly understood the needs of journalists and the craft of journalism. Before the Second World War he had worked for a dozen years for various papers and news agencies. He had spent a term at a German school and spoke the language well. During the war, he had been interrogating prisoners of war and on being demobilised in November 1945 he joined the BBC's German Service as a sub-editor.

The German staff translator who was handling a story about a small engagement in Palestine when British troops had fired 10 rounds wrote it as "Zehn Salven" - 10 salvoes. He then sought to convince Crawley that this was the correct term for rounds. Crawley said: "A round is not 10 people firing. It's one individual firing. A round is a bullet." And to clinch the matter he tapped his shoulder and said: "Look, I finished the war as a lieutenant-colonel. I know what a round is. Try to get it right."

By slow stages, Crawley moved from Bush House to the publicity department in Broadcasting House, and from there to New York as the BBC's United Nations Correspondent, in succession to Bernard Moore. He sent lively accounts of the proceedings. One was when Nikita Khrushchev interrupted Harold Macmillan's address by rushing into the aisle, brandishing his fist and shouting imprecations. Macmillan, elegant in a lavender-coloured waistcoat, nonchalantly said: "Mr President, I should like those remarks translated."

Crawley was due to transfer to Paris as BBC correspondent when the Editor of News and Current Affairs, Donald Edwards, suddenly suggested that he should become the Foreign News Editor in charge of all correspondents. He quickly established news bureaux in Moscow, Tel Aviv and Tokyo and four years later moved up into the hot seat just vacated by Edwards.

The Editor of News and Current Affairs could be described as the Head of the Complaints Department. Crawley said to me once: "We weren't vulnerable to pressure, but we were subject to pressure." And he went on to point out that the pressure mainly came, and always does, from the party in office, because the party in opposition was usually pleased at the opening up of awkward things.

After another four years, Crawley became Chief Assistant to the Director-General, Charles Curran, a post which was even more subject to pressure, especially over the 1971 documentary film Yesterday's Men which was about Harold Wilson and his shadow cabinet a year after they had gone into opposition. The title was taken from the Labour Party's description of the Conservatives in the 1970 election campaign and a pop group had been commissioned to provide satirical music. Yesterday's Men resulted in the biggest and most furious row that a television programme in the English language had hitherto provoked.

During filming in Wilson's room in the House of Commons, there had been a flare-up when the former prime minister took violent exception to a question posed by David Dimbleby about the money he had received for the publication of his memoirs. The camera was still rolling. John Crawley subsequently gave an undertaking to Joe Haines, Wilson's press adviser, that the row which had been filmed would not be shown. There was a further disagreement as to whether this promise also covered Dimbleby's question, which Crawley was certain it did not.

A note made by Crawley shortly afterwards summarised his personal assessment of the episode:

"The Yesterday's Men affair did the BBC great harm. It was not true that the shadow cabinet were cheated by the way that the interviews were cut, but it was a cheat as a programme because they would never have agreed to take part if they had known that the title and the commissioned song were going to give the programme the flavour of malice that ruined it. "

As Editor of News and Current Affairs, Crawley had been one of the BBC directors of Visnews, the international newsfilm agency then owned also by Reuters and the national broadcasters of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and now known as Reuters Television. Shortly after his retirement from Broadcasting House in 1975 he became the chairman of the trustees of Visnews, succeeding the outstanding Lord of Appeal Viscount Radcliffe, and handing over 10 years later to the former Governor-General of Australia and Provost of Oriel College Sir Zelman Cowen.

Leonard Miall

* Leonard Miall died 24 February 2005