Jones, Sir (George) Roderick
- Donald Read
Jones, Sir (George) Roderick (1877–1962), news agency director, was born at Whitehead Street, Dukinfield, Cheshire, on 21 October 1877, only son of Roderick Patrick Jones, hat salesman, of Manchester, and his wife, Christina Drennan (d. 1897), second daughter of William Gibb of Kilmarnock, cotton agent; Gibb was a cousin of Archbishop A. C. Tait. He had two younger sisters. His parents married just five weeks before his birth. Throughout his life Jones overcompensated for his socially uneasy beginnings, and he rarely spoke about his father, who died in 1887. Despite his Welsh surname he regarded himself as a Scot because of his mother's superior background, descended from the earls of Cassillis. However, she had lost her money in the 1878 crash of the Bank of Glasgow, and this meant that he could not attend a major school or a university. He was educated at home by his maternal grandfather.
In 1894 Jones was sent to live with his mother's married sister in Pretoria, Transvaal republic, where he became a reporter on the only English-language daily newspaper. Intelligent and well informed, precise but engaging in manner and voice, Jones became a good journalist. He taught himself Afrikaans, and he got to know such politicians as Louis Botha and Jan Christian Smuts. Throughout his career Jones cultivated contacts in high places, not only for journalistic purposes but also for self-advancement. On 2 January 1896 he obtained the first press interview with Dr L. S. Jameson after the failure of the Jameson raid. In 1902 he began his long career at Reuters, taking charge of its new South African section in London. At the end of 1905 he returned to Cape Town as regional general manager. Jones made the business highly profitable, and he overcame a determined attempt by leading Cape Town and Johannesburg newspapers to break the agency's virtual monopoly of overseas news.
After the suicide in 1915 of the managing director, Baron Herbert de Reuter, Jones was called to London to take charge. The First World War was raging, and although Baron Herbert had left Reuters in a weak financial position, Jones knew that, as the news agency of the British empire, the British government could not do without the agency's news-gathering and distribution network. In return for covert government backing, financial and otherwise, Jones wound up the old public company, and installed himself as chief executive (and soon also chairman and principal shareholder) of a private company. He also undertook unpaid propaganda work at the Department (later Ministry) of Information. Throughout the war—and then between the wars and into the Second World War—he always contended that he had never permitted the traditional independence of Reuters to be compromised: that the agency under his direction was patriotically ready to work with successive British governments, but never for any British government. He believed that it was not contradictory for Reuters to claim that its news was objective even though deliberately presented 'through British eyes' (Read, The Power of News, 133).
As a reward for his wartime services Jones was made a KBE in 1918. He readily admitted that he ran the company as an autocrat. At first his dominance was beneficial, but later it became stifling. Recognizing that the agency could not make money out of selling general news, Jones encouraged a great worldwide expansion of the Reuters commercial services of stock and commodity prices; the profits from these services largely paid for the general news side. To speed the transmission of news Jones also encouraged the global use of wireless. And for the long-term protection of Reuters, he brought the Press Association, representing British provincial newspapers, into the ownership of the agency in two stages in 1926 and 1930. Although Jones could fairly claim that this was in the public interest, he never revealed that he had made a personal fortune from the transaction.
Jones lived in high style at 29 Hyde Park Gate, London, in a house elaborately redesigned by his friend the architect Edwin Lutyens. Jones also owned North End House at Rottingdean, Sussex, once the home of Edward Burne-Jones. The Press Association's provincial newspapermen knew little about the handling of world news, and after 1926 Jones kept control. But during the mid-1930s it became clear that Reuters was falling behind the two thrusting American news agencies Associated Press and United Press. Associated Press wanted to quit the international news cartel which Reuters had led since 1870, and Jones mishandled the crisis. He began to lose the confidence of his board, and also of the Foreign Office. Yet he refused to retire, despite hints of a peerage. Internal pressure upon him increased when several able new members joined the board. These included William Haley from the Manchester Guardian group. At the start of the Second World War Jones urgently negotiated news management arrangements with the British government which he believed left Reuters sufficiently independent. But there were ambiguities; and when the position was fully revealed to the Reuters board early in 1941, Haley and the other directors claimed that Jones had deceived them about the extent of his concessions. Yet paradoxically the Ministry of Information remained dissatisfied with Jones, and the decisive disclosure came from its director-general, Sir Walter Monckton. Haley summed up later: 'the Ministry deliberately betrayed him' (DNB).
On 4 February 1941, under threat of imminent dismissal, Jones resigned. In retirement he remained an active member of the Council of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and from 1950 he was chairman of the governors of Roedean School, near his Rottingdean home. At Reuters he had worn built-up shoes to add to his 5 feet 5 inches, and he always preferred tight-waisted suits and looked too carefully dressed, as shown in his posthumous portrait (at Reuters) by Reginald Lewis. After 1941 he became increasingly overshadowed by his wife, Enid Algerine Bagnold (1889–1981), the popular novelist and playwright, only daughter of Colonel Arthur Henry Bagnold, whom he had married on 8 July 1920. They had three sons and a daughter. Jones died from uraemia at his London home, 29 Hyde Park Gate, on 23 January 1962, and was buried at St Margaret's, Rottingdean, on 27 January.
- Reuters Archive, London, Jones MSS
- D. Read, The power of news: the history of Reuters, 2nd edn (1999)
- R. Jones, A life in Reuters (1951)
- D. Read, ‘Reuters and South Africa: “South Africa is a country of monopolies”’, South African Journal of Economic History, 11 (1996), 121–35
- A. Sebba, Enid Bagnold (1986)
- The Times (24 Jan 1962)
- J. Lees-Milne, Another self (1970), 122–31
- CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1962)
- Reuters Archives, London, papers
- W. Stoneman, 1920, NPG
- R. Lewis, portrait, oils, 1962, Reuters archive
- photograph, Reuters archive; repro. in Read, Power of news, pl. 25
- photographs, Reuters archive
Wealth at Death
£38,042; 36,439: probate, 14 May 1962, CGPLA Eng. & Wales