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Jay, Sir Peter (1937- )

Presenter, Journalist, Executive

Main image of Jay, Sir Peter (1937- )

Economic pundit and sometime diplomat Peter Jay has had a 'sinuous' (his word) career path, spanning print and broadcast media, including a notoriously short spell as chief executive of pioneering breakfast broadcaster TV-am. He started his professional television life in the early 1970s on current affairs programmes, at the same time carving himself a niche as a public intellectual. In his latter television incarnation, as economics editor under then BBC director general - and his former collaborator - John Birt, Jay was best known as all-round finance expert on The Money Programme (BBC, 1966-).

The son of senior Labour Politicians, he expected to follow a conventional career in the Treasury after completing Whitehall entrance exams following officer service in the Royal Navy. But at a New Year's Eve party broadcaster John Morgan quizzed the young civil servant about a possible career move to journalism; the following day the then Times editor-in-chief, William Rees-Mogg, invited him to become the paper's first ever economics editor on a re-vamped editorial board. Jay was one of a new breed of reporters defined more by policy expertise than day-to-day reportage, and helped introduce the monetarist theories of Chicago academic Milton Friedman to the British public.

In 1972 he turned his hand to television, becoming a presenter on LWT's Weekend World (ITV, 1972-88) and later fronting his own show, The Jay Interview (ITV, 1975-76). By the mid-70s he was arguing for an overhaul of familiar television news formats in favour of an in-depth style similar to his own brand of expert analytical journalism. In a series of articles for The Times, Jay and his LWT colleague John Birt explained why broadcast journalists should free themselves from the print newsroom's production line mentality and the aesthetic priorities of documentary filmmaking. From 1977 to 1979 he served as Britain's Ambassador to the US - an appointment cynically (and unfairly) attributed by some to nepotism, since his then father-in-law was the Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan. But subsequently Jay had a chance to put his broadcasting ideas into effect, when his company, TV-am, won the franchise for an early morning slot in 1982. His high profile resignation - just months after TV-am went on air - came amid a furore over low ratings and his decision, despite calls from company backers, not to sack his presenter-shareholders, Anna Ford and Angela Rippon.

The apparent failure of Jay's much-heralded 'mission to explain' at TV-am did not deter him from returning to television; in 1990 he accepted the post of BBC economics editor, from which he retired in 2001. Before leaving the BBC he wrote and presented Road to Riches (BBC, 2000), an ambitious 6-part series in which he examined world economic progress through historical, psychological and socio-economic contexts.

Sonia Mullet

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