Ronald Allison obituary (91 yo)

Jan 26, 1932 - Jul 26, 2022


7 months ago · Politicians · 94

Journalist who as the Queen’s press secretary revamped the royal family’s old-fashioned approach to the media

When in the early 1970s the monarchy decided that an image revamp was required, the man it turned to for help was Ronald Allison, who became the Queen’s press secretary. Allison, who has died aged 90, was at the time what the BBC still quaintly described as its court correspondent, and what less reverent observers called Gold Microphone in Waiting. But he was at least a working journalist, rather than the retired naval officers or old Etonian courtiers of yore.

Royal press officers were not completely new. The first had been appointed in 1918 and Allison would be the seventh, though the monarchy had done without one for most of the 30s and through the second world war.

But the institution and its inhabitants were appearing increasingly fusty and hidebound, not helped by the 21-year reign of Cmdr Richard Colville, known as the Abominable No Man, who did not see it as his duty to communicate information to the media and customarily left his office in mid-afternoon to return to a home unfurnished with a telephone. Colville, the son of an admiral, was famous for telling a Canadian journalist who had the impertinence to ask him a question: “I am not what you North Americans would call a public relations officer.”

By the time he retired in 1968, loyal crowds were beginning to decline in numbers at public events and the Queen’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, along with the Duke of Edinburgh, decided that a new style was needed. Allison, clean-cut, televisual and experienced in the ways of the trade, was part of a more professionalised approach. Awestruck, the BBC reported Allison’s appointment by pointing out that the new press secretary lived in a three-bedroomed semi in Twickenham. Allison himself saw no reason to move into a palace-provided apartment and continued to commute to work every day.

The son of Dorothy (nee Doyle) and Percy Allison, he had been brought up on the south coast and was educated at Weymouth grammar school and then Taunton’s school in Southampton, before becoming a district reporter on the Hampshire Chronicle for five years.

He joined the BBC as a reporter in 1957, going freelance for a period before rejoining the corporation and becoming a specialist correspondent. As a sports reporter he covered the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and also went on royal tours for four years. In the BBC’s then style, Allison was courteous and never irreverent. He had already published an illustrated booklet about the Queen and had interviewed the Duke for a programme about industrial innovation, so was not an unknown quantity to the palace, even if some members of the household were suspicious of the appointment of an outsider who was also a journalist. So was ITV at seeing a BBC rival being chosen.

“During my time as press secretary I retained my professional integrity and I never knowingly told a lie. If somebody had a scoop I wouldn’t spoil it. I didn’t say: if you have got it I’ll release it to everybody,” he told the royal biographer Ben Pimlott.

In fact, because he knew both palace and press, Allison was both a straightforward and a trusted source, willing to answer even impertinent questions. He answered not only for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh but also their offspring, including Prince Charles, whose marital intentions were already becoming a source of media obsession. “Every working day of my five years at the palace there was a question of who [he] would marry,” Allison told Pimlott. The nearest he came to a steer to the media was when speculation that Charles would marry Princess Marie-Astrid of Luxembourg was at its height and he issued a statement saying that there was no truth in reports of an imminent announcement: a neat tactic.

In retrospect, the period was a halcyon time for the royals, clear of scandal and with a still compliant and non-intrusive media. Allison’s first task was to help organise coverage of the supposedly fairytale wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, and his last before leaving the palace five years later was the Queen’s silver jubilee celebrations, during which she toured every one of her 16 realms deploying the innovation of walkabouts to greet the crowds.

Unlike his predecessors, Allison saw the job as a career move, not a vocation, and in 1978 he left – made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order – to return to his old interest in sport. He presented a half-hour weekly Thames Television programme on winter sports for five years and was also the channel’s controller of sport and outside broadcasts. Later he went freelance, setting up his own media companies and he was also a director of corporate affairs for Bafta, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, in the 90s.

His service to the royals included a series of books, including Charles, Prince of Our Time, in 1978, The Royal Encyclopaedia, co-authored with Sarah Riddell, in 1991, and The Queen: 50 Years – a Celebration in 2001. He was also ITN’s consultant on the royal family from 1991.

He married twice, first in 1956 to Maureen Macdonald and, after her death in 1992, the following year to Jennifer Loy Weider, a New Yorker whom he met on a cruise while recovering from a heart bypass operation.

There were two daughters from his first marriage and a son from the second.

Ronald William Paul Allison, press secretary, born 26 January 1932; died 26 July 2022

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Funeral date

Jan 01 2022, 12:00