Sir Christopher Chataway Part 1: First with the news 

1 September 2005


This article was originally published in September 2005 and is being republished upon the death of Sir Christopher Chataway as a tribute to this fine sportsman, politician and newsreader.

Sir Christopher Chataway has been known for many things, from world record-breaking runner and Olympic athlete to being the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications responsible for the introduction of commercial radio to Britain in 1973. One of his lesser-known occupations was as one of ITN’s small initial staff, the first ‘newscaster’ on Independent Television’s opening night – 22 September 1955. In an exclusive interview for Transdiffusion, Chris Chataway talked to Richard Elen about the early days of Independent Television News.

Chris Chataway’s first job on leaving Oxford University was with Guinness, but he soon decided he needed rather more excitement, and made up his mind to enter politics in due course. He had continued to improve his abilities on the athletics field while at Guinness, and breaking the world record in the 5,000 metres in 1954 made him an instant celebrity. He decided to use that status as a lever to get into the world of broadcasting. “I thought that as a route to politics – and also as a means of preparing myself and learning more about current affairs,” he noted, “what I would like to do would be to work in television: not in sport, but in current affairs.”

Original ITN logo

He immediately received a number of offers, but not surprisingly they were all in sport-related positions. Then he answered an advertisement for the launch of Independent Television News (ITN), the company owned by ITV’s contractors and set up to provide news broadcasts to the new network. “The interviews were conducted in the basement of a house in Hampstead, by Aidan Crawley and senior producer Jim Bredin,” Chataway recalled. “After one preliminary interview I was among the final six. Then we had to present a bulletin – basically a summary of the week’s news – and after that I found myself as one of the two newscasters, the other being Robin Day.

For Chris Chataway, ITV’s Opening Night, on 22nd September 1955, was in some ways reminiscent of an athletic event. “I was used to tension and nerves before the gun went – that was the life I led as an athlete for some years, and the start of ITN was a bit like that. There was a great deal of tension: it had been a tremendous rush getting it all on-air in time. The equipment had arrived not long before.” In addition, ITN had started life in Ingersoll House and only moved across the street to the former RAF headquarters, renamed Television House, ten days before Opening Night. “It was all fairly new, and a lot of the arrangements were pretty last minute,” said Chataway. “The studio was on the tenth floor, but the news-room was on the second floor – so there was a rush to the lift to get up to the studios in time. It didn’t always work, and there were sometimes occasions when you were panting up those bloody stairs, and then trying to gather your breath sufficiently to start the bulletin.

“But on that day, on the opening day, I do still remember the frisson of a sort of guilty surprise at actually seeing a commercial on air. Because, of course, that was a huge change. One had heard commercials on Radio Luxembourg before the war; one had seen American television and occasionally a reference to commercials. But a commercial was fairly un-English then, and I remember that to actually see one and hear one on English broadcasting really was quite a shock.

“Another thing I remember is looking over my shoulder at one point during the bulletin, which I think is referred to by a number of people who have commented on the opening night, and on my first newscast. I don’t know why I did it: I think it must have been a noise in the studio or something or other, which distracted my attention. On the whole the press was quite kind the next day, but there were references to that as a noticeable bit of amateurism.”

The first newscast included a report on a case from the Old Bailey, a first for British broadcasting. “We certainly did move away from a lot of the stuffier inhibitions of BBC News,” said Chataway. “BBC News, for example, required any story to be confirmed by two wire services. It seems a million miles away now after Gilligan, but in those days even if the BBC’s own reporter came up with a scoop it couldn’t be used unless it was confirmed by two wire services as well.

“I think we did all feel that this was unquestionably a piece of broadcasting history,” Chataway went on. “The advent of commercial television had been very controversial. It had been fought quite hard through Parliament: introduced by the Conservatives, with the Labour Party – and I think the Liberals too – against it. Even a fair number of Conservatives were very much against it. Quentin Hogg, subsequently Lord Hailsham, and Chairman of the party opposed it; the Lord Chancellor was opposed to it; the Archbishop of Canterbury was opposed to it. On the whole, right-thinking members of the Establishment felt that it was the beginning of the end.”

This may be one reason why there is a distinct feeling, looking particularly at Associated Rediffusion output in the early years, that the commitment to public service broadcasting was felt to be at least as important as it was at the BBC. “On commercial grounds the companies, I am sure, felt they had to establish themselves as being respectable,” Chataway agreed. “That they weren’t going to be allowed to persist and flourish unless they satisfied the powers that be that they were responsible, and that they were not going to be like the British perception of American broadcasting, one. And two, they were all people who as individuals wanted to be well thought of by their peers. They weren’t out to make reputations as popular press barons or anything; they wanted to be seen as respectable broadcasters following in the footsteps of the BBC if they could.”

First newscast - caption card

“Robin and I soon struck up a partnership,” Chataway went on, “even though we were from entirely different backgrounds.” Both had been to Oxford, though at different times, and Day had not the slightest interest in sport. But the pair rapidly found that there were tensions built into the organisation that required them to work closely together. The editorial staff had been recruited largely from Fleet Street: quite a number from the ‘popular’ end – from the Daily Mirror and Daily Express. It was Chataway and Day’s understanding that the template for ITN’s presentation of the news was to be based around the American concept of ‘newscasters’, who were personally responsible for what they said on-air. “That was the model we had in our minds,” Chataway remembered, “but the journalists who were doing the writing felt that they were in the same position as they had been in Fleet Street: that they wrote the copy and the copy, once passed by them, was sacrosanct – we had no more right to change it than the printers did in Fleet Street. So, once we were on the air, there were considerable arguments day to day. Robin and I both took to coming in each day – even when we weren’t doing the bulletin – in order to lend moral support to the other.” Britain’s first two newscasters worked essentially alternate days, with the occasional exception at a weekend when one would cover both days so the other could get away.

“It came to a head, I remember, over Princess Margaret’s affair with [Group Captain Peter] Townsend,” said Chataway. “There was some copy that came from the newsroom, written in good tabloid style about Princess Margaret driving out of Buckingham Palace with a tear rolling down her cheek, all this stuff, so I crossed all that out – and there was an absolutely blazing row. But we were supported and we won, and I think that did have an effect upon the style that ITN adopted.”

The initial writing was all done in the newsroom by the team of sub-editors, and approved by the news editor of the day. But the newscasters would always amend the items, and sometimes – in the Princess Margaret story for example – altered them very substantially: they felt it was part of their brief. “That was what we had taken to be the basis on which we were hired,” said Chataway, “and that was the basis on which we came to operate. It did, obviously, mark a huge departure from the BBC, because the people you saw on-screen on the BBC were announcers, chosen for their voices and nothing more. Needless to say, neither Robin or I had any experience as reporters, or journalists, therefore we were not particularly well equipped to regard ourselves as being in the same sort of position as Ed Murrow – but we did anyway, and I think that it was an important influence on ITN for some years to come.

“There was a perfectly reasonable argument that went on among the early employees of ITN as to whether the company should attempt to be the Daily Mirror, to the BBC’s Times,” Chataway continued, “and indeed that’s the kind of argument that has perhaps been re-joined in recent times. In its choice of stories I think you will find ITN really has a more popular agenda than the BBC – and perhaps than Sky – but in its great days, ITN competed on exactly the same territory as the BBC, and in due course very effectively. I think there were long periods in the 60s and 70s when many people regarded ITN News, on balance, as superior to the BBC. So, I like to think that we, in the early months, made a small contribution to the way in which ITN subsequently developed.”

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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