logoWaldo Maguire OBE 1920 - 2005


Broadcaster who became the first Ulsterman to hold the post of BBC Controller, Northern Ireland.

From Bletchley Park to Belfast via Alexandra Palace and New Zealand, Waldo Maguire's was a remarkable career in broadcast journalism. Maguire played his part in the Second World War, but he was never in greater danger than when he was working in the land of his birth as BBC Controller, Northern Ireland. His many years of broadcast journalism equipped him with the knowledge and experience to provide objective coverage during some of the darker periods of sectarian mayhem.

This very quality ensured that he was reviled and threatened by extremists on both sides and criticised by politicians of all parties. On the surface he took these attacks philosophically, but he was privately distraught at his beloved country's descent into the maelstrom. The tensions of this most exposed of BBC editorial positions led eventually to the stroke which ended his career with the corporation.

Benjamin Waldo Maguire was born in 1920. His father, also Benjamin, was an official in the Post Office. The young Maguire showed early signs of being at ease with both words and numbers. He went from his local school, Portadown College, to Trinity College, Dublin, where he took a first-class degree in philosophy, with mathematics as a sideline. He played chess, caught fish and talked (he was later to give angling and conversation as his two main recreations). He also eased his financial constraints with freelance journalism. Coming from a bombed and blacked-out Northern Ireland, he found it bizarre to be living in a city with all the lights on, where German representatives were freely circulating.

As soon as he had graduated in 1942 he joined up, and was instantly earmarked for secret work at Bletchley Park. His particular mental disciplines, allied to his, by now, high-standard chess, made him a natural for code breaking. He worked for a time alongside Harry Golombek. It was at Bletchley that he met and married Lilian Martin, who was recruited because of her skill with crosswords, but it was not for decades that they could reveal what had been happening there during those war years.

Demobilised in 1945, Maguire was invited to join the BBC Latin American Service: languages came easily to him. He transferred to Radio News the next year, worked his way up the ranks, moved to Alexandra Palace, the home of television news, in 1955, and was made editor, TV news, in 1962. This was a period of great technical and managerial bustle, with the balance of power in the corporation steadily shifting as the newer medium attracted the mass audience. Among other big events for which he was responsible was the news coverage of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

Maguire was a hands-on editor, a workaholic, witty, gregarious, attractively eccentric: his ancient Opel car was rumoured to have been rescued from a tip, and he rejoiced in the dismay of unwary passengers when they discovered that there were no floorboards in the rear compartment. In 1965, already earmarked for further promotion, he was seconded to the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation as Controller, News and Current Affairs, at a time when NZBC felt the need to invigorate its rather staid programmes with an infusion of BBC blood. There was some staff and public resentment at this imposition, but Maguire's friendly and breezy approach, allied to his indisputable experience, soon disarmed critics, and the secondment was a major success.

On return to the UK in 1966 his appointment as Controller, Northern Ireland, was confirmed. He was the first Ulsterman to hold this position, and he brought to it a depth of perception which was to stand him, and the BBC, in good stead as the political situation deteriorated. He politely distanced himself from the Stormont establishment, a policy running in parallel with the development of more inclusive programming within the Province. He was firmly supported by the Director-General. And while it may be argued that this eventually led to repeated criticism from both sides, it was infinitely more constructive in a divided society, and indeed more in line with the BBC charter, than the more limited approach which he had inherited. By the time debate had developed into demonstration and civil rights marches into violence, Maguire's staff were poised to respond in an utterly professional way.

As a journalist he rode the whirlwind with panache. As an Ulsterman he was deeply distressed. He was never a bitter man: perhaps the nearest he came to expressing despair was in response to a question about his religion. 'I'm a Christian,' he replied, 'and therefore I find it very difficult to go to church in Northern Ireland.' Maguire had the trust of the BBC board and an effective veto on the programme activities of London-based producers, though he was never unwise enough to use the word. Even the most independent- minded came to value his guidance through the Northern Ireland labyrinth. One distinguished foreign correspondent described him in his memoirs as 'a wily old Ulsterman' and few would have demurred.

His leadership in Belfast was vigorous and idiosyncratic. He sometimes exasperated his colleagues by moving unpredictably from logic to hunch, but he had not been a code breaker for nothing, and his hunches were usually right. 'We'd follow him anywhere, if only out of curiosity,' a devoted member of his staff said. At one meeting Maguire stated: 'If you take these three factors and really boil them down, you'll find they come to five.' A gale of laughter swept the table; an unrepentant controller accepted the mathematical fallacy, but argued with wit and erudition that it was a perfectly valid philosophical concept.

To visitors he would declare: 'Don't worry about security. We've got the Orangemen on the door, and they won't let anyone in, and if they do we have the IRA in the control room and they'll never let anyone touch our equipment.' It was not true but it illuminated the truth. Waldo Maguire did not know how to be dull. After six years in the job his experience was unrivalled and the strain was not apparent to the casual observer. But the treadmill of constant, finely balanced editorial judgment, the savage sectarian attacks, concern for the wellbeing of his family and keenly felt responsibility for those of his staff who were exposed almost daily to extreme danger created an unreasonable burden. One day in 1972 he took time off to go fishing, his great solitary solace. He did not return. The alarm bells rang: had he been kidnapped by the IRA? Hours later he was found, half in and half out of the water, having suffered a stroke.

For the next three years, with the devoted support of his wife, he fought to recover. His appointment as OBE in 1973 was a boost to his morale, though many of those who knew him best felt it was an inadequate recognition of his services. The following year he retired gracefully from the BBC, but by 1975 he felt well enough to accept another stint with NZBC as head of information programmes, which greatly pleased him. He retired fully in 1976, to the South of England, where he continued to indulge in his fishing, rejoiced in his family, and grew prize fuchsias. His wife died in 1998, and the following year he suffered a second stroke, which left him sadly impaired. But he remained essentially the same man: kind, friendly, funny. His four sons survive him.

Waldo Maguire, OBE, BBC Controller, Northern Ireland, 1966-72, was born on May 31, 1920. He died on November 23, 2005, aged 85.