At the time of the Iranian embassy siege in 1980, when six armed men campaigning for Arab sovereignty in southern Iran stormed the building, two members of John Exelby’s BBC news team were inside applying for visas. One was Chris Cramer, who would go on to become managing director of CNN, and the other was Simeon “Sim” Harris, a sound recordist. After two days Cramer was released because of (an exaggerated) sickness and Harris escaped across the parapet of a first-floor balcony in front of the world’s cameras as the SAS abseiled in. As their news editor, Exelby had been required to be at a building next door in case he was needed to negotiate their release.
John Exelby had joined the BBC newsroom in 1971 and spent 15 years assigning reporters to stories and gathering reports from around the world. He was managing the newsroom when Brian Hanrahan famously described the Harrier bombing mission against Argentine forces during the Falklands conflict in 1982: “I’m not allowed to say [due to reporting restrictions imposed by the MoD] how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back.” Exelby was also in charge during Michael Buerk’s 1984 broadcast of a “biblical famine” in Ethiopia, a report that remains a watershed in crisis reporting.
In the mid-1980s John Exelby, known to colleagues as “Ex”, tired of gathering news and switched to overseeing its output. He became editor of summaries — the résumé at the top of every hour was Exelby’s idea — then editor of the lunchtime news, weekend news and lastly breakfast news. His final role in the 1990s was as managing editor of World Service TV News, the news arm of the BBC World Service.
A man of biting wit, John Exelby could go a little far in his acerbity. As one of his team commented: “John was a master of the put-down when it was necessary to put any reporter into line.” He may have gone farther up the career ladder had he spent more time kowtowing to his superiors. Instead, he channelled his energies into identifying and nurturing new talent, which included John Craven, Martin Bell, Nick Pollard (of the Pollard inquiry into the Jimmy Savile affair) and Jill Dando when she was a reporter in Plymouth.
Born in Gravesend, Kent, in 1941 to Herbert and Helen (neé Hyde), both teachers, John Exelby went to Nottingham High School where he shared a passion for jazz with — and was the fives partner of — Ken Clarke, the future chancellor. Developing an interest in politics alongside journalism, he read politics and economics at Durham University and became president of the union and editor of Palatinate, the student newspaper.
Under the editorship of Harold Evans, who had also been at Durham and edited the Palatinate and who went on to edit The Times and The Sunday Times, john Exelby was given the post of industrial correspondent of The Northern Echo, based in Darlington. When Evans left the regional newspaper he asked Exelby to go with him, but Exelby had his eye on a broadcasting route and went to work for BBC Look North, the regional TV news service. Aged only 24, he was soon made editor.
A year earlier Exelby had married Judith Hann, who had been at Durham with him. When asked where they had met, John Exelby would recount that he walked out of a cupboard at a party. “I live for kicks,” he had answered when Hann asked him what he was doing. Two weeks after asking out the zoology undergraduate he proposed and would continue to ask her until eventually giving up — at which point Hann says she asked him. Following John Exelby as editor (and the first female editor) of Palatinate, Hann went on to work for 20 years as a presenter for Tomorrow’s World, a BBC programme on developments in science and technology.
The couple lived in Ealing, west London, for 23 years and had two sons: Jake, who works in marketing and as a horse-racing journalist, and Dan, a TV producer.
In the 1990s John Exelby took early retirement from the BBC and moved to Eastleach, a village in the Cotswolds, while keeping a flat near Trafalgar Square in central London. He worked as a freelance media consultant and media trainer for the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy for sciences.
In 1994 he was pleased to receive an invitation to work at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and help with the coverage of South Africa’s first multiracial general election. Exelby was also entrusted with showing the SABC how to transition into an organisation that reflected the demographics of the country. After the election John Exelby met the new president, Nelson Mandela, and shook his hand, proclaiming, “I will never wash my hand again,” to which Mandela drily responded: “And neither will I, John.”
John Exelby was a committed Christian and churchgoer and in retirement trained as a lay reader, preaching and participating in his local parish of Eastleach ( where he was much loved ). His faith would help to sustain him through his pancreatic cancer.
A keen cricketer, he was a member of Marylebone Cricket Club, and in his youth captained Nottinghamshire Schools’ cricket team. He also supported Brentford FC. He liked to travel, particularly in India, which he and his wife visited more than any other country. He could often be found joining in a game of street cricket with the local children.
Taken from The Times