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Obituary: Lord McGregor of Durris

Oliver Ross McGregor, social scientist: born Durris, Kincardineshire 25 August 1921; Assistant Lecturer and Lecturer in Economic History, Hull University 1945-47; Lecturer, Bedford College, London University 1947- 60; Simon Senior Research Fellow, Manchester University 1959-60; Reader, London University1960-64; Professor of Social Institutions, London University 1964-85; Head of Department of Sociology, Bedford College, London University 1964-77; Fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford 1972-75; Chairman, Royal Commission on Press 1975-77; created Baron McGregor of Durris 1978; Chairman, Advertising Standards Authority 1980-90; Chairman, Press Complaints Commission 1991- 94; married 1944 Nell Weate (three sons); died London 10 November 1997.

Oliver McGregor was one of the last exemplary figures in that great tradition of post-war British social scientists who followed the vocations of scholarship and public service with equal ease and distinction.

The son of a Scottish tenant farmer, he enlisted as a gunner at the start of the Second World War before being seconded to the War Office and the Ministry of Agriculture. After demobilisation he graduated with first- class honours in Economic History from the London School of Economics and taught briefly at Hull before his appointment to a lectureship at Bedford College in 1947.

"Mac" McGregor went on to serve at Bedford College as Reader in Social Institutions from 1960 to 1964, and as Professor from 1964 to 1985, retiring shortly after Bedford was incorporated with Royal Holloway College. As Head of Department between 1964 and 1977 he recruited and led a cadre of outstanding scholars, particularly in the fields of socio-legal studies and medical sociology. In addition he was as an outstanding, able and authoritative Chairman of the Board of Studies and the Board of Examiners in Social Policy and Administration.

McGregor was a man of prodigious intellectual energy and enthusiasm. In addition to his engagements in London University during the 1970s he was elected to a Fellowship of Wolfson College, and served as Director of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies in Oxford University, where he initiated a series of major inter-collegiate research projects involving London, Bristol and the Oxford Centre.

In his first major work, Divorce in England (1957), he undertook a critical analysis of the findings of the Morton Commission, and set out a number of cogent and radical proposals for the reform of the divorce laws. His next major, co-authored work, Separated Spouses (1970), was the first nationally representative survey of the jurisdiction of magistrates' courts over matrimony and the illegitimate child. Its findings and recommendations made a significant contribution to the debate about family law and its subsequent reform.

As a member of the Select Committee on One-Parent Families, McGregor played a key role in the sponsoring of research and in drafting the final report (Finer Report, 1974) with the late Sir Morris Finer. Their joint monograph, The History of the Obligation to Maintain, was a masterly historical analysis of the changing relationship between the development of the poor law and family law relating to the treatment of illegitimate children in England during the 19th century.

From the 1970s onwards McGregor wrote numerous articles on issues of social and legal reform including his contributions to such distinguished lecture programmes as the James Seth Memorial, the Maccabaean in Jurisprudence, the Tom Olsen and the Hamlyn series. He combined these academic activities with continuous service as a member of committees on subjects such as the Enforcement of Judgement Debts, Statutory Maintenance Limits and Land Use, and as President of the National Council for One-Parent Families and the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux.

Throughout his long career he sought both to extend the frontiers of scholarship in his fields of enquiry and to apply research findings to central issues of social reform and public service. In this respect he stands as a distinguished, representative figure in a tradition of British "blue-book" social science which has its origins in the great reform movements of 19th-century social policy.

Self-regulation in the fields of advertising and the press were, taken together, the second of McGregor's abiding interests. He was a doughty and indefatigable defender of press freedom. After the death of Sir Morris Finer in 1975 he was appointed Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Press. The Commission's Report of 1977 set out an authoritative statement of the institutional preconditions for freedom of the press, including the reform of the then Press Council. From 1977 onwards, he served as Chairman of Reuter's Founders' Share Company and in 1990 he was appointed as the first Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission.

The Report of the Royal Commission on the Press had emphasised the close institutional and financial connections between newspapers and the advertising industry. McGregor's involvement in the management of advertising followed logically from his commitment to the principles of freedom and self-regulation of the press in commercial activity. During his ten years of outstanding service as Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority from 1980 to 1990 he played a key role in the revision of that industry's codes of practice in protecting the public interest and in dealing with complaints.

By this time his achievements were already recognised in his election to an Honorary Fellowship at the LSE in 1977 and the conferment of an honorary degree by Bristol University in 1986. In 1978 he was created a Labour life peer, and he subsequently served in the House of Lords as an active reforming cross-bencher.

McGregor's three years as Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission were, at times, fraught with controversy. The Commission was rocked by a series of high-profile press revelations about the private lives of the the Prince and Princess of Wales, culminating in the the publication of Andrew Morton's book on Princess Diana. The future of self-regulation was very much in doubt. It is easy now to look back with the benefit of hindsight and point to some tactical errors of judgement on the Commission's part. Nevertheless on the key issues of principle and strategy McGregor got it right. He ensured that the industry wrote, endorsed and gave total support to a code of practice that the Commission administered. He steered the Commission through its hazardous early years and restored the credibility of press self-regulation. The newspaper industry owes him an incalculable debt.

The best epitaph to this remarkable man is that, in his death as in his life, it is impossible to imagine him ever resting in peace or wishing to do so. He had a restless, inquisitive and highly original mind. His command of 19th-century social history and understanding of legal process were memorably impressive. He loved the cut and thrust of academic and political argument. His conversation sparkled with anecdote and wit. His friendship was staunch and his many discreet acts of kindness and consideration will be remembered by all who cared for him.

In his last few years, with the constant and loving support of his wife, Nell, Oliver McGregor stoically battled against encroaching ill-health. Together with their three sons they were a great family partnership.