Obituary: Lt-Gen Sir Ian Jacob
Monday 26 April 1993
IAN JACOB was a much underrated Director-General of the BBC. He was overshadowed, metaphorically as well as physically, by those two titans Sir John Reith and Sir Hugh Greene. Yet Jacob successfully piloted the BBC through waters more turbulent than Reith or Greene ever encountered.
Jacob served as a professional soldier in India, the fourth in line in his family to do so. His father, Field Marshal Sir Claud Jacob, was Commander-in-Chief there. Ian had had the traditional training for a Sapper officer: Wellington, the RMA Woolwich, service on the Northwest Frontier and then two years at King's College, Cambridge, reading mechanical sciences. He was hard-working, good at games, extremely intelligent and well-endowed with common sense.
His career had the conventional progression of a regular officer between the wars until shortly after the Munich crisis when he was promoted from the Canal Brigade in Egypt to the staff of the Committee of Imperial Defence. In the Second World War he became Assistant Military Secretary to the War Cabinet, working closely with the Minister of Defence, Winston Churchill.
The prime minister both liked and respected Jacob, and made a point of including him on wartime visits to confer with Roosevelt or Stalin. By the end of the war he had become a major-general and was about to receive a knighthood. His experience at the very nerve-centre of the war gave him an invaluable insight into world affairs. At the same time it put an end to his professional career as a soldier. 'I knew I could look for no promotion,' he told me, 'because I had not commanded troops in the field in wartime.' General Jacob had to look for a civilian job.
By VE Day the BBC's European Service had reached the zenith of its reputation. From a shaky start it had grown into the largest and most trusted foreign-language radio operation in the world. The temporary staff of continental broadcasters and politicians, British journalists, dons, actors and linguists of all kinds assembled at Bush House was a remarkable aggregation of talent.
Yet by the end of 1945 Bush House was disintegrating. European statesmen and broadcasters returned to liberated homelands. Newspapers reclaimed their journalists, and universities their dons. Some of us were sent abroad as the first of the BBC's own corps of foreign correspondents established by the new Director-General, William Haley. Others were recruited into the United Nations radio department.
Few relished the idea of a peacetime career in foreign-language broadcasting. Moreover the European Service needed a new Controller to replace Ivone Kirkpatrick, who had been transferred to the Control Commission for Germany.
The BBC were looking for the right quality of leadership to arrest the seepage from Bush House, and to restore its flagging morale. They also sought someone with sufficient authority in Whitehall to stave off further cuts in the grant-in-aid which funded broadcasting abroad. In Ian Jacob they found the ideal man.
Jacob's grounding in military leadership, together with a recognition that he needed to learn quickly how broadcasting worked, soon solved the first problem. The new European Controller made himself visible and approachable, regularly going to newsrooms and studios to watch the polyglot operation in action. 'The first time I heard Existentialism explained,' a colleague told me, 'was when I heard Jacob discussing it with Barbara Ward as they walked along the corridor in Bush House.'
Jacob rejected the notion that items of news should be suppressed because they were 'inconvenient from a short- term political standpoint' - a view that various governments were later to press on occasion, and most flagrantly over Suez. Nor, despite his Whitehall background, did he expect his senior staff meekly to accept governmental direction. When they visited the Foreign Office, he declared, 'they should seek to learn all they can, they should listen to the views expressed, but they should not act on guidance directly from Foreign Office officials without testing it by our long-term standards, referring as may be to me.'
Jacob was so outstanding in the European Service that in 1947 he was put in charge of all overseas broadcasting, with a seat on the Board of Management, and a strong voice in the overall direction of the BBC. He continued to give valued advice to the Ministry of Defence, particularly over the official histories of the war. However the even tenor of his civilian career was interrupted by Churchill's return to 10 Downing Street in October 1951. At first the prime minister again claimed the Defence portfolio for himself and persuaded the BBC to give Jacob a year's leave of absence to become his Chief Staff Officer, before setting off for a visit to Washington and Ottawa.
Churchill promptly found that running Defence in peacetime was much less fun than in wartime, and when he returned from the New World it was with the announcement that Earl Alexander of Tunis, the retiring Governor-General of Canada, would take over the Ministry of Defence. Jacob's enthusiasm was muted. He had a strong opinion, he said, 'that soldiers, however eminent, make very bad ministers'. He found it a frustrating time.
In June 1952 Sir William Haley announced his intention of leaving the BBC to become Editor of the Times, following the Conservative government's decision to introduce commercial television. At a routine meeting the next day Churchill asked Jacob who would succeed Haley. 'I don't know, but I suppose I have some claims to the job,' Jacob replied. He had indeed. Although he had only been concerned with external broadcasting, he was widely admired; and, unlike some of the other contenders, he had no enemies within the BBC. The governors appointed him Director-General in October 1952.
Jacob's regime at Broadcasting House covered a period of great change. Television licences quadrupled and in 1957 television supplanted radio as the dominant medium. The successful coverage of the Coronation had helped. So had the establishment of good programmes, many still running today on either BBC or ITV.
Though the BBC's early relations with independent television were warily distant, Jacob enlisted the support of the ITA in a fight to remove the iniquitous 'Fourteen Day Rule'. This used to inhibit programmes from discussing any issue due to be debated in Parliament during the next fortnight. The Director-General argued the case with the government. Simultaneously he encouraged those of us in charge of current affairs programmes to make sure that audiences were informed each time the onerous rule had prevented a topical broadcast. The battle was finally won - by a combination of reason and ridicule - in July 1957.
Before then the BBC had survived the worst threat to its independence: the attempt by the Eden government during the Suez crisis to prevent the Overseas Service from reporting newspaper editorials critical of the bombardment of Egypt. Those who expected a loyal lieutenant-general automatically to toe the government line were surprised by Jacob's forthright reaction: 'If the BBC is found for the first time to be suppressing significant items of news its reputation would rapidly vanish, and the harm to the national interest done in that event would enormously outweigh any damage caused by displaying to the world the workings of a free democracy,' he declared.
In the middle of the Suez crisis Jacob had to leave for a Commonwealth broadcasting conference in Australia, where he would initiate the British Commonwealth International Newsfilm Agency, later known as Visnews, and now Reuters Television, to give the world's new television services access to foreign news other than items syndicated from the United States. Earlier he had also played a leading role in founding the European Broadcasting Union, and served as its first president until his retirement.
Shortly before he flew to Australia the Director-General was summoned to the Foreign Office and told that as a punitive gesture the Bush House grant-in-aid would be cut by one million pounds. Jacob and his chairman, Sir Alexander Cadogan, called on RA Butler early the next day, and managed to get the threatened cut reduced by half. At the time Eden was also considering other ways of trying to bring the BBC to heel. However, during Jacob's absence his stance was stoutly maintained by his deputies and after Eden's resignation that particular threat to BBC editorial independence was lifted.
Jacob always took a keen interest in the content of television current affairs programmes. Panorama once sent Woodrow Wyatt to Cyprus to report the insurrection there. The Governor, greatly worried on hearing that Wyatt had interviewed Archbishop Makarios, then one of the insurgent leaders, urgently alerted Whitehall, and Churchill himself asked Jacob to suppress the interview. The Director-General undertook to review it personally and together we watched the film at Lime Grove. Before delivering a soothing reply to one of Wyatt's sharper questions Makarios gave a shifty look sideways. Afterwards Jacob said to me: 'Television gives you a further dimension of truth. If I'd heard that reply on radio or read it in the paper I'd have taken it at its face value. But having seen that shifty look I knew you couldn't trust what he'd said. I'll tell the PM we will transmit the interview.' Churchill sadly said to Jacob that he would never have expected it of him.
On 1 April 1957, when Panorama perpetrated its spaghetti harvest hoax - the BBC's first April Fool joke - I deemed it wise to warn the DG's office beforehand. Unfortunately someone forgot to pass the message on. The next time I saw Sir Ian he said, 'I always used to think that monkey nuts grew on bushes until I went to serve in the Canal Zone and saw them growing on the ground. The moment I saw the spaghetti item on Panorama, I said to my wife, 'I'm sure spaghetti doesn't grow on a bush.' We had to look up three books before we confirmed it.'
I doubt whether either of the Jacobs had ever had to cook spaghetti themselves. Cecil, a lady of great charm, had married Ian in 1924. She was the daughter of another distinguished officer, Surgeon Major-General Sir Francis Treherne. After his death, Treherne's house at Woodbridge, in Suffolk, became the Jacob family home. It was a very happy marriage, which lasted 66 years.
Ian Jacob retired from the BBC at the end of 1960, having carefully groomed Hugh Carleton Greene to be his successor. He had promoted Greene to the Board of Management as Director of News and Current Affairs in preference to Tahu Hole, the New Zealand Editor whose malign administration of the BBC news division was one of the reasons for the early lead of Independent Television News. In later life Jacob was to admit that one of his mistakes at the BBC was not appreciating Hole's deficiencies earlier.
His retirement was by no means the end of Jacob's long public service. In 1963 he was the principal author of the seminal Ismay-Jacob report on the central organisation of defence. This report, whose details are still covered by the 30-year rule, was the blueprint which led to substantial unification changes in the defence establishment, commissioned by Macmillan and Thorneycroft, and implemented by Mountbatten. Jacob himself regarded his role in the defence reorganisation as the most important single act in his career. History may prefer to regard him as the Director-General who brought the BBC into the television age.
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