John Thompson obituary

Other lives: Journalist and innovator across the media

My father-in-law, John Thompson, who has died aged 88, was a journalist, editor, broadcaster and publisher: his career was the embodiment of late 20th-century media in all their variety. A man who never lost his reporter’s curiosity, he was often at the forefront of the latest developments, whether as one of the first newsreaders on ITV, creator of commercial local radio or early editor of the Observer colour magazine. His enthusiasm for innovative ideas was in contrast to his inclination to treat new technology with suspicion. The fax he just about tolerated; the internet he completely ignored.

Son of Lilian (nee Sutton) and John Thompson, he was born in Bangor, County Down, where his father was a tax inspector. The family moved to south London when John was eight and he was educated at St Paul’s school, where he rose to be head boy, before reading history at Pembroke College, Oxford. He was all set to join the Foreign Office until his asthma ruled that out. Given his subtle wit and his considered, even elusive, manner of speaking, he would have made a great ambassador.

Following early forays into industry and advertising, a chance encounter with an old friend led him to try his hand at journalism. He was soon spotted by Lord Beaverbrook and in 1957 sent to New York to write a column for the Daily Express. Such was the swiftness of the posting that he had less than a week to marry Sally Waterhouse, a BBC producer, and take her with him. There he and Sally hung out with jazz musicians, had dinner with Sam Goldwyn, and were invited round to Ogden Nash’s place for dinner: his wife cooked steak and kidney pie, to make them feel at home.

Back in London, in 1962 he joined the Observer, first as news editor and then, from 1966 until 1970, as magazine editor; he put the Who on the front cover and took on an unknown young cookery writer, Jane Grigson. At the Independent Broadcasting Authority he was director of radio, 1973-87, in charge of creating commercial local radio in the UK. That the likes of LBC, Capital and Radio Clyde are still around today is credit to his achievement.

In retirement in Wiltshire, he threw himself wholeheartedly into country life, sitting on the parish council and devoting himself to the garden. But he retained his appetite for the new: there would always be people to meet, operas to see, countries to visit. And when his daughter married a journalist, he delighted in the opportunity to keep up with what was going on in his old trade. “Tell me,” he would ask, “what are they saying in the coffee-houses?”

He is survived by Sally, their children, Piers, Barnaby and Eliza, and six grandchildren.

Valentine Low

The GuardianTramp

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