Obituary: Derek Jameson, journalist and radio host

Derek Jameson
Derek Jameson
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Born: 29 November, 1929, in Hackney, London. Died: 12 September, 2012, in Sussex, aged 82.

His voice made Derek Jameson instantly recognisable. He rasped – almost growled – down the microphone in heavy Cockney on a variety of subjects that took his fancy. He presented the Breakfast Show on Radio 2 – opening with the chirpy catchphrase, “Morning, Morning, Jameson here” – and a late night show with his third wife on the same station.

The Breakfast Show proved especially popular and Jameson consolidated the large audience that Ken Bruce had built up when he took over the programme in 1986. As a journalist, Jameson was recognised as a gifted editor who had the knack of building circulation through highlighting imaginative and popular stories. In many ways, Jameson was ahead of his time as on such papers as the Star, the News of the World and the Daily Express. He introduced scantily-clad models, sensational stories and mild gossip stories that other newspapers avoided.

His sheer exuberant personality saw no bounds. Never ashamed to speak his mind, he did get much snide criticism. His abrasive comments led the satirical magazine Private Eye to dub him “Sid Yobbo”.

In 1984 Jameson brought an ill-advised action against the BBC over a sketch in a Radio 4 satirical programme that described him as an “East End boy made bad”: Jameson sued but lost the action. He had to pay costs, but with typical spirit he found another career in broadcasting: with the BBC. “At the age of 55, I picked myself up once again and set out to conquer the airwaves,” he said. Behind his rough-diamond and brash exterior there was a keen mind and a journalistic flair that made him respected by colleagues.

Derek Jameson was born into an impoverished family in London’s East End. In his autobiography, James painted a dire picture of his childhood – spending much time in a hostel for orphans. During the war, he was evacuated to Hertfordshire, but schooling was never a major priority for Jameson. A girl he had been brought up to believe was his sister turned out to be his mother.

In 1944, he started work as an errand boy for Reuters and by 1946 he was a trainee reporter – although his far-left politics earned him the nickname the Red Menace. He served out his national service with the army in Vienna and in 1951 returned to Reuters. He stayed there for ten years before he joined the Sunday Mirror, first as picture editor then promoted to assistant editor in Manchester.

In 1976, he moved south to become managing editor of Mirror Newspapers, but was tempted the following year by the proprietor Victor Matthews to edit the Daily Express whose circulation needed a boost. Matthews had led a consortium that had just bought the paper and needed some original and dynamic ideas to make it more attractive to readers. Jameson hit the Express like a journalistic whirlwind and transformed it into a tabloid, thus increasing circulation by 500,000 readers – a remarkable increase of more than 25 per cent.

He gave readers what they wanted: the competition from television and other mass circulation papers was intense and Jameson, unashamedly (and unapologetically) titillated and intrigued the readers in equal measure. He proved a shrewd newshound who edited a paper that appealed to the middle-of-the-road reader. He knew his readers’ politics were undecided – at best floating – but they enjoyed reading stories about the royals, sport and television personalities. With characteristic bluntness Jameson described his editorial policy as: “Tits, bums, QPR and roll your own fags.”

That was hardly what the managing editor, the very grand Jocelyn Stevens expected – the two had a frosty relationship. The acrimonious stories that echoed down the corridors of their meetings are now part of Fleet Street legend.

In 1978, Matthews launched the Daily Star – the first new national tabloid for 75 years – and Jameson was appointed editor. He introduced newspaper bingo and, in direct competition with the Sun, the Star printed topless models every day: the editorial policy was undeniably down-market. Circulation was over one million a day and after refusing to stay and edit the Star in Manchester, Jameson resigned and was immediately invited by Rupert Murdoch to edit the News of the World, a post he held for three years until 1984. It was a paper that appealed to such a cavalier journo and Jameson relished the challenge. Later that year, however, Jameson launched the financially ruinous suit against R4. The costs (£75,000) proved a drain on his resources and, worse, he was sacked from the News of the World.

The court case proved a watershed in his career. Various influential friends pleaded with the BBC to find him a job and he was commissioned to present a series on BBC2 called Do They Mean Us?, a decidedly patriotic examination of foreign television networks’ British coverage. Though Jameson became a familiar figure on TV, it was his Derek Jameson Show on R2 that proved his most enduring success. His relaxed microphone manner and his guts in resuscitating his career was admired by the public. Certainly, when it became known in 1991 that he was being dropped from the breakfast programme, the BBC was besieged with complaints.

He become a popular presence on many chat shows, where his abrasive opinions at least made for interesting television: Jameson became a spokesperson for many viewers who were seldom heard on the national media: his toothy grin, out-spoken opinions and no-nonsense style often epitomised their views of the changing society.

“I made it in spite of my accent, but because of it,” he correctly said recently. He was not the illiterate, uneducated Cockney his detractors portrayed, but a canny manager of his double career in the media. He rather enjoyed upsetting the hard left or right of society, “I’m totally in tune” he said with a knowing wink, “with the Great British public. The fact is, I am an archetypal man of the people”.

In 2010, along with other media celebrities (Lionel Blair and the cricket umpire Dickie Bird), Jameson turned back the clock to the Seventies and lived in a house with familiar ornaments and furnishings . It was hoped that the environment would revive their younger days – and memories. In The Young Ones, Jameson had some poignant moments: after he had eventually managed to pull on his socks on his own there was applause from the former newsreader Kenneth Kendall and Blair. Typically, Jameson took the programme in good heart and won everyone’s admiration with his broad smile.

Jameson married three times. His first (1966) and second marriage (1978) were dissolved. In 1988, his marriage to Ellen faced some problems. He related with much honesty about her fight against alcoholism in his autobiography, Last of the Hot Metal Men. She, a son and daughter from his first marriage and two sons from his second survive him.

ALASDAIR STEVEN