Tom Margerison: Journalist widely acclaimed for his work in popularising science who went on to fall foul of Rupert Murdoch
His LWT consortium was hailed as ‘the greatest concentration of talent seen in British television’
Saturday 01 March 2014
Tom Margerison’s pre-eminent talent was the ability to explain complex scientific principles to non-expert readers and viewers. But it was in another role, that of a television executive, that he made front-page news himself, as one of the first British victims of Rupert Murdoch‘s aggressive management style.
Born in Finchley, north London, in 1923, he had a peripatetic education because his father, a tax inspector, was posted during his childhood to different parts of the country. He obtained a PhD in physics at Sheffield University but quickly decided that he did not want to spend his life in industry or education, the conventional careers for a man with his qualifications. Instead, he was attracted to scientific journalism. He believed there was a market for a journal devoted to research in industry and he persuaded Butterworths, the medical and legal publisher, to produce it. It was called simply Research, and Margerison edited it from 1951 to 1956.
While doing so he became convinced of the need for a different magazine, to bridge the gap between science and the general public. He envisaged a weekly explaining new discoveries in a way that lay readers could understand and providing a forum for the exchange of ideas, like the weekly political journals. From that notion New Scientist was born in 1956, and Margerison served as its scientific editor and columnist for nearly five years. The magazine quickly made its mark and thrives to this day.
He was also making a name on television, again as a populariser of science. His skill was to convey to viewers his own innate curiosity and fascination with the subject, arousing their interest as well. He appeared frequently on the BBC’s widely watched early-evening Tonight programme, hosted by Cliff Michelmore and produced by Donald Baverstock and Alasdair Milne (who would both later attain senior positions in the industry). He was also an occasional contributor to the children’s programme, Blue Peter, explaining basic scientific principles.
The early 1960s saw an explosion of interest in science and technology. Postwar austerity banished, the nation looked to a space-age future of boundless possibilities. In 1963 Harold Wilson, just before becaming Prime Minister, caught the mood when he spoke of the white heat of the technological revolution.
It was this mood that had persuaded Denis Hamilton, editor of the Sunday Times, that his paper needed a first-rate science correspondent, and he appointed Margerison in 1960. He stayed in the job for only two years, but they were productive ones. He wrote about the early years of manned space travel, the development of nuclear energy and the then very real threat of atomic warfare. Such was his reputation and status that he was invited to the Queen’s banquet in Buckingham Palace in honour of the Russian Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
In 1962 he was promoted to deputy editor of the paper’s colour magazine and in 1964 the Thomson group, which owned the Sunday Times, made him managing director of Thomson Technical Developments, where he guided the company’s entry into the rapidly developing field of producing newspapers by computer. He played an important role in the computerisation of two of Thomson’s evening papers, in Reading and Hemel Hempstead. In 1966 he co-founded Computer Technology Ltd, operating in the same field.
He was finding the executive suite rather more congenial than the editorial floor. When, in 1967, the Independent Television Authority opened the bidding on new regional franchises for commercial television, he felt that his experience of both, combined with his record as a presenter, qualified him to take part in a consortium of businessmen and media high-flyers – David Frost prominent among them – to bid for the weekend franchise for London.
Margerison and Clive Irving, a former colleague on the Sunday Times, were largely responsible for writing the prospectus on which the franchise was awarded. It laid stress on current affairs and arts programming, in contrast to the traditional ITV weekend fare of variety and comedy. In the face of stiff competition, the proposal caught the eye of the ITA, who described those involved as “perhaps the greatest concentration of talent in one company ever seen in British television”.
But not long after LWT began broadcasting in August 1968 it became apparent that this high-minded formula was misconceived. Audiences drifted away, as did advertisers, and the company ran into financial trouble. After a year the chief executive, Michael Peacock, was ousted, and other senior people left with him. Against Peacock’s parting advice Margerison, his deputy, was appointed to replace him. Still the company’s fortunes did not improve, and more resignations followed.
By early 1970 a fresh injection of capital was needed. In May, Margerison met Murdoch at a TV awards ceremony. “I hear you’re interested in coming into television,” he remarked. “Why not look at London Weekend?”
At that early stage of his ascent to the status of international media mogul, Murdoch did not have to be asked twice. The ambitious young Australian had entered the restricted ranks of British newspaper ownership two years earlier by “rescuing” the News of the World and quickly ejecting the former proprietors from what they had expected to be a partnership. Then he had bought The Sun from the Mirror Group at a bargain-basement price.
Margerison was aware of Murdoch’s shark-like reputation but he thought he was capable of manipulating events to his own and the company’s advantage. He had a taste for making mischief, for stirring things up. As an acquaintance pointed out at the time, “He enjoys the politics involved as much as the administrative challenge. And he thought he could control Murdoch.” He was not the first, nor would he be the last, to make that misjudgment.
Murdoch bought a modest seven per cent share in London Weekend from Arnold Weinstock, head of General Electric, who had become disenchanted with what he saw as the chronic incompetence of the TV company‘s management. At first the Australian wooed Margerison, inviting him to his home and on trips overseas. He assured him that, as a non-executive director, he would not seek to intervene in managerial or programming decisions. Margerison passed on this assurance to the ITA, who were beginning to worry that Murdoch’s influence could breach their rule that newspaper proprietors should not control TV companies.
Then Margerison discovered that Murdoch was having secret meetings with programme controllers with a view to making radical changes in the London Weekend schedule. The two men had an acrimonious showdown and Margerison, who saw that his assurances to the ITA were being undermined, felt compelled to resign. John Freeman, former editor of the New Statesman and Ambassador to Washington, was brought in as chairman and eventually the company became profitable, although not before Murdoch had been forced by the ITA to relinquish any executive role.
Margerison’s career never fully recovered from that setback. After his dismissal he became chairman of Computer Technology, which won a Queen’s Award for Industry. But he still hankered to get back into television and joined consortia bidding for the ITV franchises for the south of England and the North-east. Both bids failed.
He spoke of writing a book about the television industry but it did not materialise. His only appearance between hard covers was in the 1960s, as a co-editor of two volumes of a series called “The Explosion of Science”. In 1984 he became director of the Nuclear Electricity Information Group, lobbying for the acceptance and expansion of nuclear power, and later acted as a consultant for the British Nuclear Forum. In 1950 he married Pamela Tilbrook. They had two sons, but by 1980 the marriage had broken down and he lived for the rest of his life with Marjorie Wallace, a former journalist and now chief executive of SANE, the mental health charity. They had one daughter. His last years were clouded by Parkinson’s disease.
Thomas Alan Margerison, author, journalist and broadcaster: born London 13 November 1923; married 1950 Pamela Tilbrook (died 2009; two sons), partner to Marjorie Wallace (one daughter); died 25 February 2014.
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