Sunday 17 December 2017

Obituary: Ray Fitzwalter, television editor

Award-winning 'World In Action' television editor who helped secure freedom for the Birmingham Six

Ray Fitzwalter
Ray Fitzwalter
Freedom: The Birmingham Six, after their sentences were quashed by the Court of Appeal in March, 1991 Newsdesk Newsdesk

Ray Fitzwalter, who has died aged 72, was the longest-serving editor of Granada Television's flagship current affairs series World In Action, earning it a reputation for hard-hitting and often confrontational investigative reporting.

A tenacious crusader against miscarriages of justice, he commissioned an investigation into the Birmingham pub bombings by the IRA in 1974, which concluded that the half-dozen men serving life sentences for the attacks, the so-called Birmingham Six, were wrongly convicted. They were subsequently released.

As a young newspaper reporter in the late 1960s, he had been the first to expose the scandal of the Yorkshire architect John Poulson, who bribed politicians and council officials to win contracts.

On joining World in Action, Fitzwalter was the journalist whose films finally nailed Poulson's corruption and led to the resignation of the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, and Poulson himself being jailed.

While the Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, newly-elected in 1975, reportedly considered his World in Action team to comprise "just a lot of Trotskyists", Fitzwalter himself was widely admired for his puritanical integrity, a scourge of corruption in public life and an advocate of what one senior Granada hand typified as old-fashioned, sleeves-rolled-up investigative journalism.

Yet the mild-mannered and softly-spoken Fitzwalter defied the stereotyped hard-bitten television editor, his owlish aspect suggesting (as one of his journalists put it) "a kind of Alan Bennett character" from another era.

Under Fitzwalter's meticulous editorial eye, World in Action made two documentaries in the 1980s which raised serious questions about the evidence that convicted the Birmingham Six for the 1974 pub bombings in which 21 people were killed. In 1990 Fitzwalter's controversial drama-documentary Who Bombed Birmingham? not only portrayed the six as victims of a grave miscarriage of justice but also identified several other men who, it alleged, were the real bombers and who, according to the programme, had been known to the authorities for years.

As executive producer, Fitzwalter rejected the charge of trial by television.

But his docu-drama, two years in the making, was criticised by some for focusing on the journalistic investigations (in particular the work of World in Action) rather than the question of how six innocent people came to be convicted.

After leaving Granada in 1993 Fitzwalter set up his own independent production company whose major ITV series Manhunt included an acclaimed documentary on the search for the Yorkshire Ripper.

With his commitment to tough-minded investigative journalism, he flourished in a pre-internet age, when journalistic endeavour involved painstaking research and grinding spadework, often on the telephone or doorstep.

The son of a Lancashire factory worker and a seamstress, Raymond Alan Fitzwalter was born on February 21 1944 in Bury, now in Greater Manchester.

He attended the Derby, the town's first state grammar school, and took a degree in Economics before joining the Bradford Telegraph & Argus as a trainee reporter in 1965.

After a year working as a feature writer, he was appointed the paper's deputy news editor in 1968, and the following year, having broken the story of the Poulson affair, was named IPC's Young Journalist of 1969. When he joined Granada as a researcher on World In Action, he took the story with him.

Promoted to producer in 1975, Fitzwalter was appointed editor of the programme a year later and held the position for 11 years.

In 1987 he became commissioning executive for news and current affairs and in 1989 head of current affairs as well as executive producer of What The Papers Say.

As current affairs supremo he pioneered the new television genre of drama-documentaries with the aim of bringing serious journalistic inquiry to a wide audience, an approach exemplified in Who Bombed Birmingham? which attracted nearly 10 million viewers. Fitzwalter left Granada in 1993 to set up his own independent production company, Ray Fitzwalter Associates, with Luise Nandy, whom he later married.

He was awarded two Baftas for his work, including one for his outstanding creative contribution to television, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Television Society in 1993.

Ray Fitzwalter married, in 1966, Mary Towman, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. The marriage was dissolved, and he married Luise Nandy in 1994.

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