Harold Jackson, who has died aged 88, was one of the few journalists to have served the Guardian under four editors – AP Wadsworth, Alastair Hetherington, Peter Preston and Alan Rusbridger – although in his case only just four. Shortly after Rusbridger became editor in 1995, Jackson – Harry, as he was always known – sent a note round on the editorial computer system, which he had played a major part in building, saying simply: “Goodbye.”
However, he insisted that the abruptness of this gesture, after 45 years on the paper, had nothing to do with the new editor, whom he admired. Rather, it was wanderlust. For a good part of his career he had travelled the world. He was one of those who carried into the office his passport and toothbrush ready to be dispatched at a moment’s notice to the latest hotspot. As chief foreign correspondent (1966-72) he had been the Guardian’s “fireman”, a term redolent of the old Fleet Street in which his career had started.
His destinations included Biafra; the Middle East during the six-day war in 1967, Vietnam in 1968, Northern Ireland in 1969 (one of many visits), Lebanon and then Cairo for President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s tumultuous funeral and in 1970; the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. It became a long list.
In 1973 he succeeded Preston as features editor when the latter became production editor. Two years later, when the editorship of the Guardian came up, Jackson was one of those to put himself forward. It was Preston who got the job, and he asked Jackson to continue in features, which he did for another three years.
The Guardian moved in 1975 from its first London home, in Gray’s Inn Road, to Farringdon Road, and there the two would end their careers on more or less the same day two decades later. Theirs was a prickly relationship. During Jackson’s tenure in features he and Preston had “fought like mad,” Jackson said: he described his own approach as “up-market” and Preston’s as comparatively not.
In the end, Preston recognised Jackson’s restlessness, and indeed his value, asking him, “What would you most like to do?” Shortly afterwards Jackson was appointed Washington correspondent (1979-85), sharing a tiny office with Alex Brummer, who was later to become city editor.
They acquired a reputation for quick, accurate and well-informed reporting. Each transmitted about 3,000 words a day on the then primitive, and slow, system that Jackson had contrived, with Ian Wright, the managing editor, coordinating it in London. Jackson would later shock him by demanding $1,000 for a Tandy portable computer.
It still came as a surprise when, in Jackson’s version, Wright rang to tell him the Guardian had appointed a chief systems editor. “Who is it?” Jackson asked. “You,” came the answer, “return to base immediately.”
Although it would be a year or two before the title was confirmed, from 1986 he was indeed de facto systems editor, and a very energetic one. The next three years were passed selecting, tailoring and overseeing the installation of computerised technology in the Guardian’s headquarters, anxiously watched over by the cost-conscious Wright.
The task involved ripping up the floors and lowering the ceilings to accommodate the miles of wiring required, trailing cables up the stairs from one landing to another. Fire regulations forbade drilling through the floors of a building that had started life as a carpet warehouse.
As one department after another was moved to facilitate the operation, the Guardian bade a last goodbye to hot-metal printing. One of Jackson’s great contributions was to insist that the new technology remained firmly in editorial hands.
His next job involved the introduction of computerised graphics to the pages of the still largely broadsheet, largely black-and-white and sometimes smudgy Guardian. Increasingly graphics became vital in extending and elucidating the paper’s coverage.
But increasingly, Jackson felt he was not doing the job he had entered journalism to do. At the age of 63 he wanted to get back on the road, envying the activity of others who had been able to extend their careers in that way. When he realised this was not going to happen, he decided the moment had come to resign.
The paper that he left was vastly different from the one he had joined in 1950. Few of the rising generation who would define the Guardian’s role in the new digital world knew anything of the hinterland of the shortish, energetic figure who marched briskly and somehow impatiently about his business in the Farringdon Road building.
Born in London, Harry was the son of Joy (nee Hobson), the Communist party’s political press officer, and Geoffrey Jackson, a clerk with the Thames water company. Both were ardent and active communists. Harry, though never a propagandist, grew up in an atmosphere of intellectual rigour and inquiry. He was, and remained, a man of principle.
In 1943, at the age of 10, he was evacuated from his home and school in London and sent to a school in the country chosen by his mother. It had been founded in Germany by Anna Essinger, a Jew, who had fled nazism in 1933 and brought her entire organisation to Otterden, near Faversham in Kent, as the New Herrlingen and later Bunce Court school. During the war it had to move again, to Wem in Shropshire, which is where Jackson joined it.
Essinger by design took non-German and non-Jewish pupils, and Jackson fitted both categories. His time there, quickly learning colloquial German and feeling the prejudice directed at both German and Jewish schoolmates, the parents of some of whom had disappeared into the concentration camps, had a strongly formative influence on him. Speaking of that time tested his emotions for the rest of his life.
Jackson had begun his newspaper career in 1950 as a messenger in the office that the Guardian then had in Fleet Street, an outpost of its headquarters in Manchester. At 18, he declared himself a conscientious objector when called for national service and was jailed for several months, spending some of the time in Wormwood Scrubs prison.
The editor of the Guardian at the time, the remarkable Wadsworth, was unfazed either by this, or by Jackson’s lack of a university degree, and perhaps saw his potential, soon putting him on the editorial staff, an appointment that he more than justified.
He started by training as a home news subeditor in Manchester, and as a deputy news editor (1962-66) was much involved in moving the paper’s headquarters from Manchester to London. His reporting from Northern Ireland at the end of the decade was recognised in what were then the British Newspaper Awards. Whether travelling abroad or as features editor, he was concerned to highlight what was happening in developing countries.
After leaving the staff, he wrote radio previews. He maintained his interest in the US, and his obituaries of leading American politicians continued to appear.
Harry had two sons, Andrew and Christopher, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. In 1978 he married Kit (Christine) Harding, whom he met when she was working at the Guardian as an events organiser. She died in 2020, and he is survived by his sons and two half-sisters: Denise, from his father’s second marriage, and Josephine, from his mother’s.