Sayers, John Edward (‘Jack’) (1911–69), editor of the Belfast Telegraph, was born 13 July 1911 in Belfast, son of John Sayers, journalist on and later editor of the Belfast Telegraph, and Elizabeth Sayers (née Lemon) of Strandtown. John Sayers (1879–1939) was born 1 December 1879, probably in Co. Down, eldest son of Robert Sayers of Mountpottinger, Co. Down. He was educated at the Methodist College, Belfast, and in 1895 joined the Belfast Evening Telegraph as a reporter. An omnivorous reader with an encyclopedic memory for facts and a descriptive flair to his writing, he was a great asset to the paper and covered areas as disparate as political, military, legal, religious, and sporting affairs. His great area of expertise was Belfast shipbuilding. His liberal unionist political views accorded with those of the paper, and about 1914 he was made leader writer. After the war, at the request of the Ulster Unionist Council, he wrote a short history of the Ulster Division and travelled to the Somme and Flanders on research. In 1925 he toured Canada for a series of articles. When Thomas Moles (qv) was made editor, Sayers became assistant editor and effectively ran the paper as Moles was also a Stormont and Westminster MP and deputy speaker of the NI parliament. In 1930 the Northern Whig offered Sayers the post of editor at twice his salary. The owner of the Telegraph, Sir Robert Baird (qv), asked Sayers to name his price, which turned out to be modest. He wanted Baird to take on his son, Jack, as a cub reporter, against Telegraph policy of not employing children of employees.
In 1937 Sayers was finally made editor, while his brother, Robert M. Sayers (below), was made assistant editor about the same time. John Sayers's biggest innovation was the introduction of a highly popular magazine section in the paper. In January 1939 he was made president of the Institute of Journalists. This was a prestigious role and it was only the second time in the history of the institute that it was filled by an Ulsterman. However, Sayers had not long to enjoy it. On 16 September 1939 a ship, HMS Courageous, carrying his son, was torpedoed and the original list of survivors did not name Jack Sayers. News of his safety came on 18 September – a Stormont debate was interrupted to confirm it – but Sayers was badly shaken and a few weeks later he suffered a heart attack and died at home on Kirkliston Drive, Belfast, on 15 October 1939. He was survived by his wife, his son, and two daughters.
His younger brother, Robert McMaster Sayers (1884–1964) took over as editor. Also educated at the Methodist College, he worked briefly in the Belfast ropeworks before joining the Belfast Telegraph as a junior reporter in 1902. During the first world war he was a war correspondent and visited the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow just before the battle of Jutland. As well as serving as assistant editor and leader-writer in the 1930s, he also edited the Telegraph's sister publication, Ireland's Saturday Night, a sports weekly. His fourteen-year editorship of the paper (1939–53) was solid but unadventurous. Dignity and decorum were his watchwords. He condemned any intrusion into privacy and any offence against good taste. Journalists were kept in line by his tongue-lashings; he supported neither fools nor sycophants. The paper was profitable; Sayers referred to the readers as the ‘red corpuscles’, respected their preferences, and made no new demands of them. The more adventurous among his staff found him unbending, parochial and frustrating to work with. His hold on the purse-strings was so tight that an office joke circulated that a bonus would be awarded to the first employee who swam the Atlantic, both ways, unescorted. However, though frugal he was charitable and used the Telegraph to sponsor appeals such as the Spitfire fund and the Whitehouse fire fund. A pillar of the community and a devout methodist, he initiated the best-kept town and village competition and was chairman of the Newspaper Press Fund, governor of the Royal Victoria Hospital, vice-president of the Belfast chamber of commerce, and founder member of the Belfast mariners' club. A member of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and senior grand warden of the grand lodge of Antrim, he was on the Ulster Unionist Council's standing committee and was happy to maintain the Telegraph's strong links with the UUP.
After the death of the Telegraph's proprietor, Robert Baird, in 1953, Robert Sayers was made chairman of the board and a joint managing director, while his nephew Jack (see below) became the third of the family to edit the paper. Sayers pointed out that management was not his métier, but typically he accepted the responsibility of joint managing director as a duty, and continued in this position until 1962, when he retired after sixty years with the paper, having been made CBE (1956). He died on 19 October 1964 and was survived by one son and predeceased by many years by his wife, Louisa.
Jack Sayers (1911–69), as he was always known, was, like his father and uncle, educated at the Methodist College, Belfast, where he was head boy, and on leaving school (1930) followed his father into the Belfast Telegraph as a junior reporter. In 1937 he signed up for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. In November 1939, six weeks after the torpedoing of Courageous, Sayers was recruited by his friend Richard Pim (qv), future head of the RUC, to Churchill's ‘map room’. This was an extraordinary makeshift room which moved with Churchill from Admiralty House to Downing St. to conferences abroad; it was entirely fitted out with maps of the war zones and with naval, air, and civil defence statistics. Here the course of the war was plotted. Sayers manned this room for six years and was called by Churchill ‘the Ulsterman with the card index memory’ (Gailey, 19). Very shortly after the war Sayers married (October 1945) a widow, Mrs Daphne Godby (née Pannell), and returned to Belfast, where he was appointed political correspondent of the Belfast Telegraph under the editorship of his uncle, R. M. Sayers. He also undertook, from 1946, fortnightly radio talks on BBC Northern Ireland entitled ‘Ulster commentary’, where he discussed political matters and tried to bring to bear his relatively cosmopolitan outlook on the province. These talks were in no way radical: Sayers was an old-fashioned liberal unionist deeply attached to the province, who had a faintly nostalgic, imperialistic preference for a united Ireland within the commonwealth. A member of Eldon Lodge, the most prestigious lodge in the Orange order, he was well regarded by the country's elite and in 1950 was asked by the prime minister, Sir Basil Brooke (qv), to accompany him as his press officer on a prolonged tour of America.
In 1953 Sayers became the third successive member of his family to edit the Belfast Telegraph when his uncle was made chairman. Sayers began making tentative changes to turn the paper into an organ of a democratic, cosmopolitan society; these included ensuring proper coverage of international issues such as the Suez crisis, and holding the government to account for unemployment and welfare problems. He had turned down an offer from the Daily Telegraph – a decision he allegedly came to regret – and was determined to cast the Belfast Telegraph in the guise of a provincial evening Daily Telegraph. His priority was reform of the Unionist party and the unionist mentality. In leaders and articles he demanded that unionists address the province's sectarianism and cultivate the middle-class catholic vote. He presented this argument most cogently in the comparatively safe confines of a chapter in Thomas Wilson's Ulster under home rule (1955). In November 1959 he tried to calm the furore surrounding a speech by the attorney general, Brian Maginess (qv), inviting catholics to join the unionist party, with an editorial quoting Edward Carson (qv). The attitude of the Orange order to Maginess's speech led Sayers to take the unprecedented step of resigning from his lodge. Thereafter he became more vociferous in his calls to address minority wrongs, commissioning two articles in 1961 on housing discrimination in Fermanagh and provocatively praising the Republic for its positive role in the UN. This led the Irish Times to write (18 May 1961) of the quiet liberal revolution he was bringing about, and Hibernia (1968) to name him Ireland's most courageous editor.
Sayers hitched on to Terence O'Neill (qv) as a rising star in a new order and almost turned the paper into an election manifesto for him. He was one of the architects of ‘O'Neillism’, the politics based on creating a consensus of moderate opinion, and of conciliating catholics by raising their standard of living, epitomised by O'Neill's notorious post-resignation speech: ‘if you give Roman Catholics a good house, they will live like good protestants’ (Lee, 426). A devout and committed Christian, Sayers kept in touch with leading catholic clergymen and urged communal church action, but he had less contact with the broader catholic community and little appreciation of the extent of their disillusionment. After the violence of the October 1968 civil rights march, he urged sweeping reforms on unionists and optimistically envisaged that eruption being the last. A Belfast Telegraph campaign following O'Neill's keynote address on 9 December 1968 resulted in 50,000 signatures of support in just twenty-four hours. It was Sayers's last gesture for the premier. He retired on 17 March 1969, in poor health and disheartened over the turn of events. He died five months later on 30 August 1969 of a heart attack, and was survived by two daughters.
Jack Sayers was among the most dynamic of Northern Ireland's postwar editors. The Stormont civil servant Ken Bloomfield thought he had the vision, presence, and dignity to edit one of the great London papers. However, his reforming zeal made him over-optimistic about Northern Ireland's direction and led him out of step with many of his readers.