Copyright Ian D. Richardson. Email:

(First published in The Guardian, London, and The Age, Melbourne, 1996)


by Ian Richardson

Johan "John" Ramsland, founding editor of BBC World television

None of the tens of millions of viewers watching BBC World News, the BBC's television equivalent of World Service Radio, would have had the faintest clue that the editor of this most-British television service was an Australian.

Johan Ramsland, universally known as John, eschewed self-publicity and gained his satisfaction from an enormous pride in working for the BBC and in the growth of a TV service that began early in March 1991 with one 30-minute news bulletin a day and rapidly became a 24-hour service seen across Europe, Asia, The Pacific, Africa and the Middle East.

Johan, who died on Sunday (Nov 17, 1996), was born and educated in Melbourne and came to this country in the 1960s on one of the last ocean liners to pass through the Suez Canal before it was closed by the 1967 War in the Middle East.

His trip was typical for an Australian journalist: He spent much of his first year travelling, before seeking what he expected to be a holiday-relief job as a newsroom sub-editor with BBC World Service at Bush House prior to returning to his homeland.

But this job soon became a long-term appointment, and over the years he steadily rose through the ranks to become an assistant editor, punctuated by attachments as deputy editor and managing-editor.

The Gulf War, which made CNN's reputation as an international broadcaster, was ironically John's greatest career opportunity, and one which he grasped with undisguised enthusiasm.

The BBC, inspired by the-then managing-director of World Service, John Tusa, made a new - and this time successful - bid to launch itself as an international television broadcaster to take on CNN.

Johan, assisted by John Exelby as managing-editor, was chosen to lead the news staff of just 15 people.

Johan was given three months to deliver the infant that was World Service Television News, and it had such modest beginnings that it was frequently derided or simply ignored by the rest of the Television Centre establishment.

One senior BBC news manager was asked at the time what impact World Service Television would have on the operations of the corporation's foreign correspondents, and his answer was "none" -- a snap judgement that was to be proven grotesquely wrong within months.

Eight months after its low-key launch, WSTV switched to a 24-hour operation making a huge impact across Asia, particularly in India.

Though Johan never lived to see his beloved BBC World beamed into the United States, he did oversee a breathtaking expansion to most other parts of the globe.

By the end of 1994, the WSTVN empire had expanded to the point where it occupied almost the entire top floor of Stage 5 at TV Centre, with a total journalistic staff of around 200.

Johan had moved into television with relatively little management experience and with only a few months experience in a TV newsroom.

Yet this was his strength. A more experienced person would have rejected the time scale and the pitiful budget imposed upon him, but as Johan did not know it wasn't possible, he cheerfully delivered the service on schedule and, as he always did, on budget.

Under Johan's editorship, WSTVN introduced radical new working practices that became a model for other parts of the BBC and other broadcasters.

As part of this, he broke new ground with WSTVN's news gathering operations by equipping World Service radio reporters with lightweight camcorders -- thus making World Service the globe's first truly-bimedial news organisation.

Less obvious perhaps was the fact that Johan managed to transfer to WSTVN the editorial ethos of Bush House, making it a genuine, very modern World Service product in a medium where glitz is often regarded as more important than substance.

For all the frustrations of his job, most of them to do with the relentless battle to make the best of limited resources, Johan always approached each day with tremendous vigour.

And he had an almost-childlike delight in the trappings of his position.

He loved the cars and the occasional posh functions that went with the job, but at the same time, he was one of the least pompous, modest and approachable people I have ever known.

It took three years to get him to abandon his scruffy, tiny offices for something more appropriate to his position as the editor of one of the most influential broadcasting newsrooms in the world.

Even then, he complained that the money would have been better spent on satellite circuits.

Johan had a favourite restaurant where he periodically took his fellow managers for kebab and chips: it was not in an elegant part of the West End; it was The Europe, a most unfashionable eating place in the Uxbridge Road in Shepherd's Bush, so run down that its identifying sign has long fallen from the front of the building.

Johan and I first met when we worked together in the newsroom at Radio 3AW Melbourne, and I will always remember him for his unstinting and deeply-ingrained sense of loyalty to his family, friends, the World Service and its staff - and to a lost cause: the Australian Rules Football team, St Kilda.

Such was his devotion to St Kilda - and indeed to almost every competitive sport - that he once flew from London to Melbourne for the weekend to see his team make a rare appearance in a grand final.

Not least, Johan was devoted to his family: His sister Karen in Melbourne, his first wife, Carole, who bore him two sons, Johan James "JJ" and Ben, and his second wife, Sue, with whom he had a third son, Nick.

The fact that Johan was able to have happy family gatherings attended by both Carole, Sue and the three children was an unequivocal demonstration of the affection with which he was held by everyone who knew him.

The discovery that Johan had skin cancer was a tremendous shock to everyone.

The cancer was a legacy of - to use his own words - "too many years sitting in the sun on Melbourne's beaches".

Even when to his friends and doctors the situation looked hopeless, Johan fought on with an extraordinary tenacity.

And just hours before his death he continued to speak of the future, refusing to discuss for one moment the prospect that he might succumb.