Saturday 19 October 2019

Obituary: Peter Sissons

ITN and BBC reporter and newsreader was a reliable on-screen presence for decades and friend of The Beatles

Familiar face: Peter Sissons presents the BBC’s ‘Ten O’Clock News.’ Photo: BBC
Familiar face: Peter Sissons presents the BBC’s ‘Ten O’Clock News.’ Photo: BBC

Peter Sissons, who died last Tuesday aged 77, was British television's longest-serving newsreader, spending nearly 20 years as a television reporter and newscaster at ITN and fronting Channel 4 News during the 1980s before being poached by the BBC in one of the most acrimonious defections in media history.

When Sissons switched sides in 1989, ITN, which made Channel 4 News, sued him personally for damaging the programme by leaving.

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Peter Sissons interviewing British prime minister Margaret Thatcher for the BBC in 1993
Peter Sissons interviewing British prime minister Margaret Thatcher for the BBC in 1993

Eventually the BBC paid ITN a £40,000 transfer fee, unprecedented in news broadcasting, to settle the matter.

Over the following 15 years, Sissons anchored both the BBC's early evening and main mid-evening bulletins before moving to the rolling news channel BBC News 24 in 2003.

He was on the air the day Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997, and announced the death of the Queen Mother in 2002, drawing criticism for following BBC instructions not to wear a black tie and instead appearing on air in a sober but unmistakably burgundy one.

Sissons rode out the ensuing media storm, having survived more serious threats to his well-being during his years at ITN.

In 1988, Iran's supreme ruler Ayatollah Khomeini had urged Muslims to kill the author Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses had prompted violence and threats.

When Sissons interviewed the Iranian ambassador in London about the fatwa against Rushdie, for Channel 4 News, he let his personal outrage show, and shortly thereafter a group called the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution warned that he would "pay the price" for his impertinent questioning.

For six weeks Sissons and his wife and family were given 24-hour Special Branch protection until the threat was judged to have passed.

Twenty years earlier, in 1968, when he was 26, Sissons had become the first ITN reporter to be badly injured in the line of duty when he was shot while covering the civil war in Nigeria.

Trying to get to the front to film some action, Sissons and his crew came under fire from Biafran rebels; a stills photographer for Time-Life travelling with them was killed.

Sissons took a bullet through both legs and was so badly wounded that local doctors were preparing to amputate them to save his life.

A British doctor flown out from London by ITN arrived in time to operate and save his limbs, but Sissons was left crippled, fitted with a calliper and forced to abandon the life of a globetrotting foreign correspondent.

Having subsequently undergone a successful tendon transplant, which improved his mobility and allowed him to dispense with the calliper but left him with a limp and chronic pain, Sissons was appointed ITN's industrial editor in 1972.

The post gave him the chance to develop his stolid and reliable on-screen presence and style as well as the opportunity to stand in occasionally for the established newscasters.

After six years in the job he became a full-time newscaster himself when he took over as presenter of the lunchtime News At One.

In 1982 Sissons anchored the disastrous launch of Channel 4 News, a new programme on a new network with a distinctive non-tabloid news agenda, but hobbled by the appointment of an editor recruited from newspapers with no previous experience of television news.

Soon viewing figures had slumped to the point that Sissons joked it might be simpler to ring the viewers and tell them the news one by one.

But with a change of editor, new graphics and a new set, he put the programme firmly on the map during the miners' strike of 1984-85, chairing the only live television debate between the garrulous NUM leader Arthur Scargill and the taciturn chairman of the National Coal Board, Ian MacGregor.

Sissons's stamp of authority and gravitas on the nightly proceedings helped build a loyal and growing audience.

As a consequence he received two offers from the BBC, first to be principal presenter of Newsnight, then (personally extended by the deputy director-general John Birt) the role of political editor.

Sissons declined both, but in 1989 was unable to resist another approach from the BBC which not only anointed him one of the main anchors of the Six O'Clock News but also, following the retirement of Sir Robin Day, chairman of the studio debate programme Question Time.

The third of four sons of a merchant seaman, George Sissons, and the former Elsie Evans, Peter George Sissons was born in Liverpool on July 17, 1942 and brought up in a small rented terraced house near Penny Lane.

At Dovedale Road primary school he knew John Lennon, who was a year ahead, and George Harrison, a year behind. Jimmy Tarbuck, a couple of years older, also attended the school.

Having passed the 11-plus, he progressed to the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, where he abandoned a fleeting ambition to become a scientist to concentrate on Latin, Greek and Ancient History, and where he was a contemporary of Paul McCartney.

One of Sissons's closest school friends, Ivan Vaughan, lived next door to John Lennon, and Sissons was present at a church fete in July 1957 at which Vaughan introduced Lennon to McCartney and the pair performed together for the first time with Lennon's skiffle group The Quarrymen, a meeting Sissons recalled as a "moment of destiny" and which led to the formation of The Beatles.

At University College, Oxford, Sissons acted with the drama club, reported on football for the university newspaper Cherwell, and took a second in Philosophy, Politics and Economics before joining ITN as a trainee in 1964. Having learnt to write filler stories for the ITN bulletins, he was chosen to read commentaries over news films, and shed nearly all vestiges of his Liverpool accent.

In 1967 he joined the reporting team of the newly launched News at Ten, and after covering the aftermath of the Six Day War in the Middle East was dispatched the following year to report on the civil war in Nigeria.

His years as an ITN reporter and newscaster followed by his successful stewardship of Channel 4 News made him an attractive proposition for the BBC, who finally persuaded him to join them.

He was astonished and upset when ITN, and the editor David Nicholas in particular, reacted with furious rage and issued writs against the BBC and against Sissons himself; the case never got to court, but it was several months before his defection was finally settled and he took up his BBC duties in 1989 on a then record salary for a news presenter of £500,000 (€560,000) over three years - twice the money he had earned at Channel 4 News.

Some critics were disappointed with Sissons's stewardship of Question Time, feeling that he lacked Robin Day's sense of theatre and contented himself with conducting proceedings in the manner of a mere mediator rather than ringmaster.

Sissons himself was unsettled when the programme ceased to be made in-house and was put out to independent tender, and sensing a gathering media campaign to remove him, gave up the chair in 1993, to be succeeded by David Dimbleby.

In 1994 Sissons moved to BBC One's main Nine O'Clock News, and remained in the presenter's chair when the channel moved its late bulletin to 10pm in October 2000.

He left the Ten O'Clock News in 2002 and began presenting on BBC News 24 during the Iraq War in 2003. But he became increasingly disenchanted with what he considered to be the BBC's Left-wing mindset, and in June 2009 he presented his last television news bulletin.

In 2011 he published his memoirs, When One Door Closes, in which he dilated on the BBC's journalistic drift, declaring that "at the core of the BBC, in its very DNA, is a way of thinking that is firmly of the Left".

Sissons remained intensely proud of his Liverpool roots, and between 2010 and 2012 served as a member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, set up to place all the available facts about the Hillsborough football disaster of 1989 in the public domain.

He was a vice-president of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and held honorary degrees from both Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores Universities.

His professional honours included a Broadcasting Press Guild Award in 1984 and the Royal Television Society's Judges' Award in 1988. He was named Newscaster of the Year in 2001.

Peter Sissons married, in 1965, Sylvia Bennett, who survives him with their daughter and two sons.

© Telegraph

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