Obituary: Norman Macrae, journalist

Norman Macrae, journalist. Born: 23 September, 1923, in Königsberg, East Prussia. Died: 11 June, 2010, London.

NORMAN Macrae was widely respected as a journalist, but it was his almost uncanny ability to accurately predict economic and social change that led many to regard him as an intellectual colossus.

Norman Macrae was born in Knigsberg, now known as Kaliningrad, in 1923. His father served as the British consul in Moscow between 1936 and 1938. Macrae was educated at Mill Hill School, London, but spent his summers within the heavy walls of the diplomatic compound in Moscow. At that time, Stalin still had a firm grip on the Soviet Union and Macrae was more than aware that embassy staff "disappeared".

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Macrae was called up during the Second World War. He described his role as an RAF navigator as a "public-sector one, with public-sector productivity, as a teenager supposed to throw bombs about as an RAF navigator, creating a slum in the heart of the continent. By the time I got there, the Russians were coming in from the other side.

"All the politicians, including (Winston] Churchill and (Theodore] Roosevelt, told us these were fine, liberating democrats. And, of course, I knew from those school summer holidays so briefly before that those were astonishing lies."

Following the war, Macrae enrolled at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to read economics. Although he enjoyed his studies, he was less a fan of the "sub- polytechnic Marxism", which is how he described the air of intellectualism that filled the halls of the university.

He graduated with a first and began postgraduate research before quitting in 1949 when the Economist came calling, offering the princely sum of 8 a week for a six-month contract. It proved to be a wise decision, as he remained with the publication for 39 years.

As it turns out, 1949 was a year of significant change for Macrae, as he also married Janet, with whom he would have a daughter Gillian, and a son Christopher.

Macrae had an intellectual curiosity which the Economist allowed him to explore, and this led to many of his most remarkable predictions of national and international significance. In 1962, Macrae wrote a piece headlined Consider Japan, at a time when many in the western world had forgotten the country existed.

Japanese pride had been rocked by its Second World War defeat with the 1945 atomic attacks and as a country it had effectively gone in to hiding. Macrae saw something more, however, and predicted that Japan would become the world's greatest manufacturer.

This was considered such an absurd concept that one reader contacted Macrae's editor advising him to provide the clearly malfunctioning journalist with a sun hat to keep his brain from being fried further.

It was in 1962 also that he spectacularly quit the Economist in protest against the magazine's editorial on the Cuban missile crisis, which he saw as poor in judgment and lacking in realism.

He was back at his desk within a matter of hours, how-ever, having made his point.

Macrae's prophetic abilities continued: he forecast the 1975 oil-price crash despite having increased fourfold just two years previously; he foresaw the global obsession with privatisation and in 1983 he wrote that the Berlin Wall would fall at Christmas 1989, which wasn't a bad estimate.

Meanwhile, his knowledge of the USSR and economics led to many articles on the inaccuracy of the CIA's analysis of the Russian economy, of which Macrae was eventually proved to be correct; and in 1984 he co-wrote a book with his son Chris, The 2024 Report: a future history of the next 40 years, in which he wrote about a new technological phenomenon that would link people and organisations worldwide using personal computers.

He was, of course, talking about the advent of the internet and the effects it would have on the world.

He went further however, predicting of accessing this web: "It will be miniaturised so that your personal access instrument can be carried in your buttonhole, but there will be these cheap terminals everywhere."

It was also in this book that he expressed his concern with mankind's productivity levels and the strain it puts the planet under, claiming that the decade 2005 -15 would be the period in which human impact on the planet would reach irreversible levels. We have yet to ascertain whether that prediction is an accurate one.

Despite this remarkable soothsaying talent, and his reputation for being one of the towering intellectual's of his generation, Macrae remained anonymous to the general public. The magazine he worked for from 1949 to 1988 stated: "You could blame the Economist's tradition of anonymity; you could blame the extraordinary modesty of the man himself who, if you tried to take his photo, would duck down and giggle, convinced that no-one could possibly be interested in him."

As an editor, Macrae regularly spent the night in the office, running over proofs and taking responsibility for work while others gained the recognition for the success of the magazine. He was overlooked for the editor-in-chief job on several occasions, largely because it was felt he lacked the required man-management skills. However, he was deputy chief editor by the time he left the magazine.

He held some controversial opinions, such as the notion that homosexuality was caused by an aversion to the smell of one's mother. An editorial on the subject was jettisoned by colleagues.

A popular figure around the offices at the Economist, Macrae was regarded fondly for his inability to iron clothing, clean his shoes or wear matching socks. Despite his passion for technology, he was singularly incapable of working the office fax machine, and that irony was not lost on his fellow journalists.

Following his retirement from the magazine, Macrae wrote the biography of John von Neumann, a mathematician who was regarded as the pioneer of the computer and computer networking. He was also employed by Andrew Neil, the then editor of the Sunday Times as a columnist, and wrote the Heresy Column for Fortune magazine.

He was appointed a CBE in 1988 and Order of the Rising Sun, with Gold Rays (a Japanese national decoration) in the same year. Macrae's wife predeceased him, as did their daughter. He is survived by his son.