Obituary: David Graham

Leonard Miall
Tuesday 17 August 1999 23:02 BST

DAVID GRAHAM was instigator of the famous "King and Country" pacifist debate at the Oxford Union and a leading multilingual broadcaster in the BBC's External Services.

He reacted vigorously against an orthodox Anglo-Indian upbringing. His father, Sir Lancelot Graham, in the Indian Civil Service, became the first Governor of Sind, long after Sir Charles Napier had coined his "Peccavi" joke. The young David went to Rugby and then to Germany, where he learnt the language thoroughly, and became fascinated by the death struggles of the Weimar Republic. From there he went up to Balliol to read Greats and to take an active part in Union debates.

Early in 1933 Graham, by then the Librarian of the Union, suggested a controversial motion to the President, Frank Hardie, "That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country". It was debated on 9 February, proposed by C.E.M. Joad with Graham as his supporter, and opposed by Quintin Hogg, a former President. The motion was approved by 275 votes to 173. There was no particular fuss at the time but three days later, following an outraged comment in The Daily Telegraph, a group of college hearties, with some Fascist support, invaded the Union and tore from the minute book the page recording the debate. Graham was able to reconstruct the original version from his memory.

Graham stood twice for the Presidency of the Union but was defeated, first by Anthony Greenwood, then by Michael Foot. After some years spent travelling and schoolmastering, he joined the BBC's staff reserve in 1938 and was assigned to the Home Talks department. A year later, on 23 August 1939, Molotov and Ribbentrop signed their Non-Aggression Pact, making war inevitable.

Graham was at a loose end and he kindly volunteered to help Maurice Latey and me. We were desperately overworked running the small German News Talks section. Graham and Latey then prepared a brilliant feature using recordings to debunk the official statements of the Nazis and the Communists. We showed it to Gerry (later Sir George) Young, the man in the Foreign Office News Department whom we regularly consulted. Young thought it splendid, but our boss in the BBC, J.B. (later Sir Beresford) Clark, considered it wrong to pillory foreign statesmen with whom we were not at war. So it was shelved.

War was declared on 3 September. I had for some days had a script locked in my desk, a message to the German people from the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, to be broadcast in the event of a declaration of war. It had already been translated into German, and carefully checked. So that was obviously to be our news talk for this night. I went through Chamberlain's message with the announcer and Graham, Latey and I went out to dinner.

As an act of bravado, we chose Schmidt's German Restaurant in Charlotte Street. We figured that the Nazi sympathisers who regularly dined there would have been picked up by the police, and that anyway this war wasn't going to be like the last one, when it was considered unpatriotic to own a dachshund or to listen to German music.

When we returned to Broadcasting House there was all hell to pay. What did we mean by all three going out to dinner, leaving no one in charge of the German News Talks? It transpired that with the outbreak of war a new secret organisation, Electra House, had come into being, to take charge of propaganda to Germany. One of its members was Gerry Young, seconded from the Foreign Office, and he was demanding that Graham and Latey's feature programme, which had been turned down by J.B. Clark, should be broadcast in preference to the message from the Prime Minister. Nobody knew where to find it. We felt we were lucky not to be sent to the Tower.

Graham became a regular member of the German News Talks Department, which soon moved to new headquarters in Bush House. As Robert Graham (David during the war was thought to be too Jewish), he gave highly personal and idiosyncratic talks under the title Meine Meinung.

There was considerable tension between the BBC's German Service and Electra House, based at the Duke of Bedford's country house in Woburn. It was suggested that relations might be improved if the two were to meet informally, over a cricket match. And so Graham and I, neither of us great cricketers, happened to become founder members of the Bushmen, a cricket club in the summer, in the winter a dining club which discusses broadcasting issues. We had a couple of matches at Woburn, at one of which Graham played for the Electra House team, who were a man short. He claimed to have dismissed Hugh Carleton Greene.

In the post-war Germany of Allied occupation and the emerging Cold War, Graham's reporting and commentary could get him into trouble with all sides. He was fearless in his denunciation of Stalinism, but he could be equally hard on misbehaviour by the West. He discovered that the widow of the 4711 Echt Kolnischer Wasser empire was being bullied by the authorities in the British occupation zone. They wanted her to disclose the secret formula for Eau de Cologne to benefit the British cosmetic industry. Graham exposed them in the New Statesman, to the annoyance of the Foreign Office.

At the end of the war Graham married Rosemary Harris, who had been teaching in India. They had a daughter and two sons, one of whom is now the Secretary of the BBC. Graham himself was sent by the BBC back to India in 1947 to cover "the peaceful and orderly transfer of power". He and the poet Louis MacNeice, then a features producer, soon realised that their assignment was being overtaken by the disintegration of British India into communal violence on a massive scale. Instead of features, Graham filed relentlessly graphic accounts of the massacres.

In Bush House Graham moved to become, first, the Russian Programme Organiser, and then Assistant Head of the East European Service. He also spent a period with the Arabic Service before later returning to serve his old colleague Maurice Latey as a Central Research Organiser. By then I had been sent to Washington, and had lost direct contact with this offbeat, cantankerous, brilliant character.

Leonard Miall

David Maurice Graham, broadcaster: born Bombay 16 August 1911; staff, BBC External Services 1939-71; married 1945 Rosemary Harris (died 1988; two sons, one daughter); died London 12 August 1999.

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