Obituary:Jack Regan

Tam Dalyell
Thursday 30 March 1995 23:02

For a politician with a message on a particular issue, as opposed to a politician with a need to be noticed by constituents and others, radio is more productive than television.

Thus it fell to Jack Regan to be the pivotal figure in conveying the pros and cons, the nuances and subtle uncertainties of the devolution argument in Scotland, culminating in the 1979 referendum, to a UK broadcasting audience. In 1978 the BBC had appointed him as their first ever Scottish correspondent - the task matched his gifts. As his contemporary John Milne of BBC Scotland aptly puts it: "Jack's gift was his ability to take his listeners into his confidence to share the news and not declaim it." Regan was a craftsman of the spoken word who took enormous trouble with the presentation and inflections of voice which make the difference between listenable-to radio and gobbledygook which passes one by.

Jack Regan was born in Edinburgh in 1942 of a devout Catholic family and went to school at Scotus Academy in Corstorphine, associated at that time with the strict discipline of the Jesuits. According to himself he was something of a troublemaking rebel who did not fulfil expectations. At 16, he left to become a copy boy on the Scotsman. It was his great good fortune that the then editor was Alastair Dunnett, not only a considerable editor but a nurturer of Scottish talent wherever he found it. The copy boy, a likely lad o'pairts, was given his chance as a sub-editor very young. Dunnett told him to improve his exam results and encouraged his wish to go to Edinburgh University. Regan did the Scottish four years' honours degree in history. Later in life he would recommend young men and women to earn their living for three or four years before contemplating university.

He married Katie Thewlis, who was to provide him with a secure and happy family life. On the advice of the late Professor Denys Hay, the distinguished historian of the Middle Ages, Regan went abroad and got a post with the Daily Nation in Nairobi. Chance is everything in life and an unexpected death provided him with the opportunity of contributing to the Economist on post-Mau-Mau Kenyan affairs. This brought him to the attention of the BBC, who welcomed him back to Scotland.

Jocularly - self-deprecating jocularity was Regan's whimsical, wry style - he would tell us that having been a foreign correspondent was an ideal foundation for explaining Scotland, as a poorly comprehended country, to the larger foreign, i.e. English, audience in the UK network. He had that elusive spontaneous humour which is the hallmark of some really successful wireless artists such as the late Brian Redhead.

In another respect Regan was like Redhead: they both had an interest in the history of political ideas and philosophical thought. Regan told me that in his opinion one of the pinnacles of radio achievement was Brian Redhead's series on the Christian thinkers, dealing with Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, William of Occam and Marsilio of Padua. Regan's own series on Scottish philosophers such as Duns Scotus and David Hume gave great pleasure to many of us and was highly regarded by the pundits of such matters. I feel deprived that the book which Regan promised to write on the history of Scottish thought and thinkers will never be published. His presentational skills would have brought the medieval and Enlightenment thinkers to life.

James Adam, general manager of the Scotsman, assessed Regan as a man who set his own pattern of life - and pattern of reporting. He would go to the ends of the earth to get a story or share an unusual experience. In the icy January of 1979 James Sillars MP were participating in a series of 18 yes/no public debates up and down Scotland during the devolution referendum. Somehow the Mallaig train struggled to Fort William with Sillars, one local passenger rather the worse for wear, the guard, the engine-driver and myself. The roads, we thought, were impassable. Yet who should appear in the packed hall of Fort William personages other than Jack "the microphone", anticipating verbal fisticuffs. "How on earth did you get here?" I asked. "Well," said Regan, "it was a bit hazardous." Sillars asked, "Why did you not come when our travelling Punch and Judy show was in Lanarkshire?" Regan rebuked him. It was interesting to have the atmosphere of Fort William on the UK BBC airwaves rather than a commonplace meeting in the Central Belt. It was worth risking life and limb to improve his output or, as Regan would have put it, do his journalistic duty.

Regan was gutsy and courageous. After he suffered a heart attack in January surgeons at the Royal Infirmary of Glasgow fitted a replacement heart valve. Regan told his friend Colin Blane who now occupies the position that he himself adorned and who had followed him to East Africa that he would have to wear an acoustic vest to muffle the ticking when he was close to his microphone.

Tam Dalyell

Jack Regan, journalist: born Edinburgh 10 January 1942; head of news and current affairs BBC Radio Scotland 1987-92; married 1965 Katrina Thewlis (two sons, three daughters); died Glasgow 28 March 1995.

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