Robin Day in orbit 

17 October 2016

Robin Day pics 2

ITN Newscaster 1957, aged thirty-three.

The date was Sunday 23 February 1958. The interview was live. I was sitting in a small studio at Television House, Kingsway, in London. On the other side of the table was the Rt Hon. Harold Macmillan MP. TV cameras usually go to Prime Ministers at No. 10 Downing Street. On this occasion the Prime Minister had come to the TV studios, which added to the tension.

As we waited to begin, the Prime Minister derived considerable amusement from the seating arrangements. He drily complained that he was sitting on a hard upright seat, whereas I was enthroned behind the table in a comfortable swivel chair with well-padded arms. This, said the Prime Minister, seemed ‘to symbolize the new relationship between politician and tv interviewer’. He felt as if he was ‘on the mat’. I offered to change chairs. But the Prime Minister, keeping up the banter, said, ‘No, no. I know my place.’

The occasion was a weekly interview programme put out on Sunday evenings by ITN, the news service of the commercial television network. Mr Macmillan was then in the early period of his premiership. It was just a year since he had taken over from Sir Anthony Eden following the Suez fiasco.

My interview with Macmillan lasted thirteen minutes. It was by far the most important interview I had done with a British politician. It was the moment when my life as a political journalist on TV really began. There were banner headlines on the front pages next morning.

The interview with Harold Macmillan was historic and unprecedented. No one had previously interrogated a Prime Minister in this way outside Parliament. Neither Sir Winston Churchill nor Clement Attlee would have thought of giving an interview on radio – the medium of their time – let alone on television. Sir Anthony Eden had been first to dip a toe in the water. He had used TV for addresses to the nation and in party broadcasts. He had been interviewed for TV only briefly, as at airports. Macmillan had done likewise.

This then was the first time a Prime Minister had been vigorously questioned on television. The interview was also the first in which a Prime Minister had been questioned by a single interviewer, apart from brief interviews at airports. Two days earlier, Macmillan had been questioned in an anodyne BBC programme by three newspapermen, charitably described in The Times as ‘a restrained group’. But the interview on ITN was, according to Derek Marks of the Daily Express, ‘the most vigorous cross-examination a Prime Minister has been subjected to in public’. I later heard that Macmillan himself referred to this interview as the first time he had really mastered television.

The author interviews Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1958 for ITN.

The author interviews Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1958 for ITN.

Macmillan thus became the first Prime Minister to emerge as a TV personality. He might be Edwardian in style and appearance. but on the twentieth-century box that Sunday evening he showed himself to be more than an accomplished parliamentary performer. The Yorkshire Post commented: ‘Certainly he is no longer just a House of Commons man.’ Macmillan’s official biographer records: ‘His first breakthrough as a “television personality” had come with a full-length interview staged by a young, brash, and virtually unknown journalist called Robin Day on 23 February 1958…’

A few weeks later, having scored so brilliantly on ITN, Macmillan was able to display his screen showmanship with consummate ease in a relaxed interview with Edward R. Murrow and Charles Collingwood, the star commentators of US television.

The significance of my ITN interview with Macmillan is difficult to convey today. Here was the nation’s leader, the most powerful and important politician of the time, coming to terms with the new medium of television. He was questioned on TV as vigorously as in Parliament. His TV performance that Sunday evening was an early recognition that television was not merely for entertainment or party propaganda, but was now a serious part of the democratic process.

Banner headlines after the author's ITN interview with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan on 23 February 1958

Banner headlines after the author’s ITN interview with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan on 23 February 1958

That interview, according to Martin Harrison, Professor of Political Science at Keele University, was when:

Macmillan first grasped that television was neither a meretricious toy nor the instrument of torture he once termed it, but the means by which political leaders must henceforth reach the electorate, and through which they must now as a matter of course account for themselves.

So that occasion in 1958 was a watershed in the premiership of Harold Macmillan and in the development of tv journalism. It was also the moment when I realized that being a TV journalist was to make me a figure of controversy at the centre of political events. I had been in television for only two and a half years. I was now into orbit.

In its newsworthiness and novelty, the Macmillan interview was a professional triumph for me. But amid the applause there was a rumbling of stern disapproval. Certain of my questions were sharply attacked by leader writers and columnists. This was the first of many such occasions during the next thirty years.

The question which provoked the controversy was about Selwyn Lloyd. He was then a much-criticized Foreign Secretary. His future was a topic of avid political speculation. Would Macmillan drop him from the Cabinet? In a Fleet Street tavern, I had bumped into John Junor, Editor, of the Sunday Express. Referring to my forthcoming interview, Junor said, ‘Are you going to ask him if he’s going to sack Selwyn Lloyd?’ I laughed and said, ‘Wait and see.’ My laughter was unconvincing, I fear – because I was at that very moment thinking how to raise the question of Selwyn Lloyd without being seen as grossly impertinent. Television journalism and television interviewing were then in their nervous infancy.

On the screen at the start of ITN, 1955.

On the screen at the start of ITN, 1955.

The Editor of ITN was Geoffrey Cox, a seasoned political journalist who had been a ‘lobby’ correspondent, that’s to say one of those reporters with privileged access to politicians in the lobby at Westminster. He agreed that, come what may, the question of Selwyn Lloyd’s future would have to be raised. We felt that ITN’s reputation for independence and integrity depended on that question not being ducked. The problem was how to phrase a question which would produce an answer from the Prime Minister without asking him outright whether he was going to sack Selwyn Lloyd.

The interview ranged over many topics of the time – the Rochdale by-election, Britain’s H-bomb, Macmillan’s recent Commonwealth trip. Then, towards the end, came the moment to put the crucial point. The wording had been carefully prepared:

What do you say, Prime Minister, to the criticism which has been made, especially in Conservative newspapers, about Mr Selwyn Lloyd, the Foreign Secretary?

The Prime Minister answered quickly and calmly, and he did not express the slightest annoyance afterwards. However, a dozen years later, in the fourth volume of his memoirs, Macmillan surprisingly referred to that question as ‘a somewhat truculent question from one of the new class of cross-examiners which has since become so popular’. ‘Truculent’? Macmillan’s memory must have confused my delicately worded question with the over-heated reaction to it in the press.

Macmillan’s reply to that question was the front-page lead in the newspapers next day:

Well, I think Mr Selwyn Lloyd is a very good Foreign Secretary and has done his work extremely well. If I didn’t think so I would have made a change, but I do not intend to make a change simply as a result of pressure. I don’t believe that that is wise. It is not in accordance with my idea of loyalty.

The interview continued:

Q: Is it correct, as reported in one paper, that he would like, in fact, to give up the job of Foreign Secretary?

A: Not at all, except in the sense that everyone would like to give up these appalling burdens which we try and carry.

Q: Would you like to give up yours?

A: In a sense, yes, because they are very heavy burdens, but, of course, nobody can pretend that they aren’t. We’ve gone into this game, we try and do our best, and it’s both in a sense our pleasure and, certainly, I hope, our duty.

Some leader writers and columnists seized on this mild and courteous exchange as if the constitution was crumbling. That most vitriolic of columnists, Cassandra (Bill Connor) of the Daily Mirror, lashed out fiercely at me:

If anybody wants a demonstration of the power of television let him refer to the interview which Mr Robin Day had with the Prime Minister on ITV on Sunday night.

Mr Day, who is a formidable interrogator, suddenly asked Mr Macmillan how he felt about criticism in Conservative newspapers ‘particularly of Mr Selwyn Lloyd’.

At once the Queen’s First Minister was put on the spot. What else could he say about his colleague? How could he suddenly reject him? How could Mr Macmillan be anything but complimentary to his colleague – and to his accomplice in the Suez escapade?

So here you have the ridiculous situation of how the British Prime Minister can suddenly be put on a Morton’s Fork which forces him into defending and maintaining a colleague who is obviously a disaster to British foreign policy.

Mr Robin Day by his skill as an examiner has been responsible for prolonging in office a man who probably doesn’t want the job and is demonstrably incapable of doing it.

The Idiot’s Lantern is getting too big for its ugly gleam.

The Editor of the Daily Telegraph wondered solemnly:

Should the Prime Minister have been asked what he thought of his own Foreign Secretary, before a camera that showed every flicker of the eyelid? Some say Yes; some say No.

Who is to draw the line at which the effort to entertain stops?

The Manchester Guardian was worried about the novelty:

Everybody wants to know what a Prime Minister thinks about his colleagues, and Mr Day asked the right questions: but Mr Macmillan is the first holder of his office to have satisfied public curiosity so bluntly. This may be judged a good or a bad development, according to taste, but it is certainly new. Could one have imagined Sir Winston Churchill when Prime Minister gossiping about Sir Anthony Eden, or Lord Salisbury?

Pendennis in the Observer speculated apprehensively:

Will the television screen begin to by-pass the House of Commons, or even (dread thought) the Press? This is the kind of question that has been sending a shiver down what’s left of Fleet Street’s spine.

For the first time Fleet Street could sense a journalistic challenge, not merely a pictorial challenge, from television. Newspapers were now beginning reluctantly to devote their front pages to reporting interviews which had been obtained exclusively by their TV competitors.

My question to Macmillan about Selwyn Lloyd had been misquoted in the Daily Telegraph editorial. I had not asked the Prime Minister ‘what he thought of his Foreign Secretary’. But the effect was to give the impression that I had asked that question. I had learned a valuable lesson: if you are going to put a question on a sensitive or provocative subject, be sure that the question is so phrased that, when the transcript is checked, it can be defended as having been fair, proper and in the interrogative. In this way a polite and softly worded question may none the less convey a hard meaning, and may elicit a newsworthy answer or disclosure. I have spent many hours preparing such questions.

ITN interview with President Nasser, July 1957, a world exclusive; the first by a British reporter since Suez.

ITN interview with President Nasser, July 1957, a world exclusive; the first by a British reporter since Suez.

Those who criticized me for asking the question about Selwyn Lloyd were unaware that Macmillan was expecting such a question and was ready to answer it. It was not putting the Prime Minister on a Morton’s Fork. This was not because I had forewarned him. On the contrary, he was told nothing about the questions except the main areas to be covered. But as we left the Editor’s office in ITN to go up to the studio, the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, Harold Evans, took me aside. He said, ‘I suppose you’re going to ask him about Selwyn Lloyd?’ I replied, ‘No comment,’ and we both laughed. But I knew then that the PM had come to the studio determined to scotch the Selwyn Lloyd speculation if he was given the chance. If I had not known this, would I still have put the question? Yes – because it was topical, relevant and based on fact: the fact of there being much speculation and criticism about Selwyn Lloyd.

Later that Sunday evening, I flew out to New York to do three more interviews for the same weekly programme, which was called Tell the People. The New York papers carried the Macmillan interview on their front pages, and I heard that the London papers did also. I flew down to Washington for an interview with Vice-President Nixon. This was watched with unusual interest because President Eisenhower was then an invalid. Nixon might succeed to the Presidency, or become acting President, at any moment. The Nixon interview, like that with Macmillan, was prominently reported. Once again I had the exciting sensation, immensely satisfying to a political journalist, of not merely reporting news but of making news, and of being more than a face on television, more than merely a ‘TV personality’. After little more than two years in television, I had found a serious profession in which I could succeed. My TV work was attracting praise from influential critics. By 1958 my name and face were becoming known. As early as 1957 I had been impersonated on the screen – by Peter Sellers.

My good fortune was that my TV career began when ITV and ITN began. I was seen as a pioneer of the new TV journalism. But the thought of becoming a ‘national figure’ or a ‘national institution’ never occurred to me. These, and other descriptions (like ‘grand inquisitor’), only gradually came to be hung around my neck.

I had never formed any such ambitions, if only because in the early fifties there was no such position to achieve and no such person to emulate. In Britain there was no profession of TV journalism. Before 1955 there were talented tele-politicians such as Christopher Mayhew or Aidan Crawley, who had made their names as MPs and government ministers, and who contributed occasional series to the screen. They were the only tv personalities of any significance at that time. There was no British Ed Murrow. There was not then any animal like Sir Alastair Burnet or any of the other presenters and commentators who have since become famous for their work in news and current affairs.

The author with ball-bearings and the Japanese Foreign Minister, Mr Fujiyama, 1958.

The author with ball-bearings and the Japanese Foreign Minister, Mr Fujiyama, 1958.

The most celebrated television figures of the early fifties were the over-publicized announcers like MacDonald Hobley, or panel-game personalities such as Gilbert Harding. Richard Dimbleby, of course, was already well known for his wartime radio reports and for his much-admired TV commentaries on royal occasions. But he did not become a commanding figure on television until he anchored the weekly Panorama. This did not begin until September 1955. Until then Panorama had been only a fortnightly magazine programme.

Before the mid-fifties, therefore, any young man looking for a career had no television ‘giants’ to emulate, no television heights to scale. The journalism of television, which is now part of daily life and of the political scene, simply did not then exist as we have come to know it.

Your young actor could aspire to be an Olivier or a Gielgud. Your young barrister could dream of becoming a Hartley Shawcross or a Norman Birkett. The Bar, the stage, Fleet Street, were long-established professional worlds with glittering prizes to be won. But one could not aspire to be a leader of a profession which did not then exist. Television journalism was undeveloped territory.

Even in the heady, pioneering atmosphere of the birth of ITN, I still came up against an occasional hankering after the traditional formality of BBC news broadcasting. One evening I had changed clothes for the transmission. I wore a bow-tie of the kind which I had often worn, like my father before me, ever since I was a student. The wearing of that particular tie, a navy-blue polka-dot bow-tie, was not an affectation, nor was it consciously flamboyant. A bow-tie to me was perfectly normal and, as my father always explained, had certain economic advantages. A two-ended bow-tie can be tied in four different ways, thus giving it a life four times as long as an ordinary tie, which tends to get badly worn in the one place where you can tie it. Another advantage was a bow-tie could hide a frayed collar.

When I came into the newsroom, unconscious of what tie I was wearing, I was surprised to be rebuked by one of the very pretty and very proper newsroom secretaries, Pamela Lyle. She later married my ITN colleague and friend, George ffitch. In a horrified whisper, she said: ‘Robin, you really can’t wear a bow-tie for the news!’ It was as though I was about to commit some dreadful solecism, like smoking in church. For a moment I wondered if I was doing the wrong thing. After all, her rebuke might be typical of spontaneous viewer reaction after years of formality from Auntie BBC. No sooner had that doubt occurred to me than I dismissed it from my thoughts. If ITN was to be different from the BBC, should it not look different from the BBC? Would not a bow-tie, of sober and conventional pattern, be a harmless distinguishing feature? But I did not ask these questions aloud. I thought it better to content myself with a polite though firm explanation that a bow-tie had always been a habit of mine, acquired from my father who had acquired it from some Victorian parliamentarian whom he greatly admired. And what, I asked, warming to my theme, was wrong with a bow-tie for the news? If the great Winston Churchill could wear a bow-tie on the most solemn occasions in our history, why could not I, a humble newscaster, wear one for the ITV evening news?

No one complained again. I have worn a bow-tie on television ever since. I had originally worn one without any thought. Then I wore one to establish my right to wear it. The tie gradually became a boon to cartoonists. So it became a uniform to which I have stuck. If I am off television, and I am not wearing a bow-tie, I am effectively in disguise, which is very convenient.


Robin Day pics 6

  • Sir Robin Day (24 October 1923 – 6 August 2000) was one of the original newscasters for ITN in 1955. In 1959 he joined the BBC’s Panorama to which he was a contributor for thirty years. From 1979-1987 he presented The World at One on BBC Radio 4, and from 1979-1989 he chaired Question Time on BBC-1. He was knighted in 1981.
  • His autobiography, Grand Inquisitor, was published in 1989 by George Weidenfeld and Nicholson. This excerpt is from the paperback edition, published in 1990 by Pan Books. ISBN 0 330 30787 8


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1 response to this article

Paul Mason 23 October 2016 at 3:56 am

Might as well admit it, I was born on the day of the Robin Day-McMillan interview referred to here. Sorry, no memories!

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