Glaswegian civil servant famed for his press conferences during the Falklands War

Born: March 29, 1936;

Died: March 28, 2019

IAN McDonald, who has died aged 82, became known as the Voice of the Falklands War. At press conferences he read – in ponderous detail and at funereal speed – the news of the day. There was never a flicker of emotion – whether the news was good or bad – and impertinent journalists who tried to find out more were greeted with a curt, "I will not answer any questions afterwards."

McDonald was very much the civil servant. With his black hair neatly combed, heavy black glasses and very formal attire he became a figure of fun, but was (vitally) trusted by the public. Because his voice was so monotonous and dull and there were no gimmicks, he gained the total trust of the viewers.

Significantly John Nott, then Secretary of State for Defence, described McDonald as extremely dull and boring but brilliant at what he did.

Ian McDonald was born in Langside in Glasgow, the son of a fish merchant. He attended Glasgow High School (1946-53) and then read law at Glasgow University. After postgraduate studies in Greek and Italian he did national service in Cyprus as an interpreter. He then returned to Glasgow and worked with a firm of solicitors and as a teacher in Pakistan.

He took up a post at the Ministry of Defence in London and fulfilled various functions within the organisation rising to the post of deputy chief of public relations. Prior to the Falklands conflict, he managed the PR regarding the UK's adoption of the Trident missile system.

In 1982 he was called in by Sir Frank Cooper, the permanent under-secretary, and was told that Argentina had just invaded the Falklands and the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was assembling a huge taskforce to retake the islands. McDonald was put in charge of the daily briefings. “I was terrified,” he later recalled.

There were, indeed, some terrifying incidents. Live on television on May 4, 1982 McDonald announced the devastating loss of a destroyer HMS Sheffield. In a calm and measured voice, he said, “The ship caught fire, which spread out of control.” For once he did show emotion. He paused and bit his lip: then continued, “When there was no longer any hope of saving the ship, the ship’s company abandoned ship," he said. "All who abandoned her were picked up.”

He was ever-mindful that worried families and friends were hanging on his every bulletin and occasionally he did respond to the rather erratic news stories emanating from Buenos Aries. After an entirely incorrect report from Argentina that HMS Exeter had been sunk with much loss of life McDonald justified the care the Defence Ministry was taking regarding the truth.

“In order to provide fully authenticated statements, we have to check and recheck, and that takes time. You can be assured that our reports are true and as complete as we can make them.” Such was the respect for McDonald, his reports were believed.

But the Ministry kept a tight grip on the reporting of the news. Journalists on the boats were restricted as to what they could say on live television. The BBC’s Brian Hanrahan, in some frustration at not being allowed to say how many aeroplanes had been involved in a siege, cunningly said, “I counted them all out and I counted them all back.” It was such distant incidents – McDonald could not answer questions on the ground attacks - that made his task so difficult.

After the war McDonald returned to the anonymous corridors of the Ministry of Defence and was principally concerned with personnel, salaries and promotions. However, in 1996 he was called to give evidence to the Arms-to-Iraq enquiry before Lord Justice Scott.

Successive Tory governments had failed to inform Parliament of a policy of selling weapons to Saddam Hussein. It was an unhappy experience and McDonald suspected he was a scapegoat for dubious decisions made by others further up the ladder. Significantly, he signed off his evidence with the enigmatic comment: ‘Truth is a very difficult concept.”

McDonald was widely respected for his honesty throughout the Falklands conflict. He coped with major events – notably the sinking of the Belgrano – in a straightforward and lucid style. Once asked if British forces were winning, McDonald replied twice: “We never thought of losing.”

To somewhat reduce the tension of the press conferences McDonald delighted in answering some questions with quotations. Remarks like “Hamlet, Act One, Scene Two, Line 215.” (Hamlet on the Ghost: “But answer made it none.”) sent the journos off in search of their Dictionary of Quotations.

But there is little doubt that McDonald, who never married, provided, in contrast to the feverish claims of the Argentinians, a straight-forward and factual account of the war. It proved a valuable weapon in securing the public’s support.