Obituary: Brian Barr, journalist and film-maker

Journalist and film-maker Brian Barr died on October 29 after a long illness.
Journalist and film-maker Brian Barr died on October 29 after a long illness.

Brian Barr, who has died aged 70, was a familiar sight to anyone who took part in the events organised by the Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Scheme between 2008 and 2012.

Brian, who passed away on Tuesday, October 29 after a long battle with illness, was a journalist and film-maker whose work was driven by an urgent need to make sense of the world and to communicate it to a wide audience.

While most Bute residents might have known him best from his work with Discover Bute - for whom he made a series of films documenting the work of the lottery-funded project - away from the island he was best known for his high-profile investigative television programmes, including the series ‘Secret Society’, which led to the BBC’s Scottish headquarters being raided.

Brian’s work for the BBC and Channel Four throughout the eighties and nineties took him to some of the world’s most troubled places, including Algeria during the country’s civil war, the West Bank and post-Glasnost Soviet Union. But when he was back in Scotland he was always happiest walking and climbing in the Highlands.

He was born in Paisley in 1942; his father was musical director for the Glasgow Corporation and he inherited his love of music, playing the oboe throughout his school years at Paisley Grammar and Glasgow High. The high point of his oboe career came when he gave a televised performance of Holst’s Oboe Concerto with the BBC Scottish Orchestra.

At Glasgow University he completed degrees in both law and philosophy, but realised he didn’t want to be a lawyer or a philosopher. He used to say the turning point came when his philosophy professor marked one of his essays with the comment: “Mr Barr, I’m inclined to give this work a Gamma for content but an Alpha for style. Have you ever considered journalism?”

Brian’s chosen career began in the early seventies where he was the chief (and, he joked, “only”) rugby sub-editor at the Sunday Post. He graduated to being leader writer at the Glasgow Herald before taking the editor’s job at the Glasgow News: a labour of love, written and printed at home and distributed round pubs and restaurants on a Friday night.

In 1975, he joined BBC Scotland as a television reporter on the weekly current affairs programme, Current Account. One of his programmes told the tumultuous story of the short-lived Scottish Daily News, which he turned into a book with the journalist Ron McKay.

It was while producing a chat show at BBC Scotland, ‘Three’s Company’, that he met investigative journalist Duncan Campbell. They embarked on a series called ‘Secret Society’ which would lead to the so-called ‘Zircon Affair’, one of the most controversial periods in the BBC’s history.

The programme, which was made in 1986, revealed that £500 million of unauthorized military spending on the so-called Zircon spy satellite had been concealed from Parliament. The revelation led to Special Branch raiding the BBC’s offices in Queen Margaret Drive and seizing filmed material and master tapes. The government obtained an injunction preventing transmission of the programme but underground screenings were held across the country.

The affair put huge pressure both on the journalists and the BBC, and ultimately contributed to the resignation of the corporation’s director general, Alasdair Milne, in January 1987.

Three months later four episodes of the series were screened, but the Zircon film wasn’t shown until September 1988. During this whole period Brian said he was most proud of a headline in the Paisley Daily Express, which, he said, ran: ‘Ex-Paisley Choirboy in Spy Scandal’.

He left BBC Scotland soon after and worked in Manchester and London, producing programmes such as Panorama, Assignment and Brass Tacks for the BBC and Undercover Britain for Channel Four.

He told great stories of the people and places that he encountered in this period: talking Gaelic to the Israeli President’s security guards; eating cormorant with a crofter; having a gun trained on him as he tried to interview Yasser Arafat; constantly being arrested by, among others, the Israeli defence force, the Algerian police and the US military police in Bedfordshire. The more commotion a story caused the more convinced he was by its worth.

In semi-retirement he split his time between homes on Bute and in London. He never stopped working, co-writing a book with his brother Donald about the River Spey, making a series of short films for the Discover Bute project and creating an oral history of the island, as well as writing a short series of profile pieces for The Buteman on some of the island’s weel-kent faces.

During his medical treatment in London, he was always grateful to get back to Bute, where he loved the landscape and felt a deep sense of belonging to the community.

He is survived by his wife, Pat; his son, Colin, from his first marriage to Jean; and two grand-children, Laurie and Stevie.