Obituary: Peter Woon

Peter Woon Peter Woon: respected boss and 'one of the boys'

Peter Woon, who has died from heart failure aged 82, changed the way the BBC reported the news.

Until 1970, radio news bulletins consisted merely of 'straight reads'. Woon ensured that all major stories included 'on the spot' correspondent voices and interview clips, features we now take for granted. His aim was 'to exploit radio's unique advantages over television and newspapers'. Later, he became a successful and innovative editor of television news.

Woon was popular with his editors and reporters because he brought to his work an experienced reporter's shrewdness and understanding of the problems involved in getting the story. He was meticulous and demanding but always made a point of congratulating a reporter on a good piece. He'd risen through local newspapers, principally the Bristol Evening Post, to Fleet Street where he'd been air correspondent for the Daily Express.

In the early 1960s, as ITN was proving an increasingly strong competitor, BBC management temporarily suspended its policy of recruiting from Oxbridge, in favour of hard nosed hacks like Woon. His new boss Tom Maltby gave them their first lesson, telling them: 'I never want to see you lads typing a script. You must dictate it so it will sound like the spoken, not written, word when you deliver it.'

'Younger, hungrier reporters'

After initial training at BH in 1961, he became a tv reporter at Alexandra Palace the following year. However, having got fed up with his news editor refusing to send him out on assignments with the excuse that he was being 'saved for the big story', he became a news editor himself.

In 1966, he set up the first half-hour tv news programme entitled Newsroom on the new BBC Two channel that soon began broadcasting in colour. He staffed it with younger, hungrier reporters like Tom Mangold, David Tindall, John Sergeant and Brian Saxton who, like him, had learnt the aggression and scrutiny that comes with working on national newspapers. He broke new ground in both the subject matter he chose and the manner in which he treated it.

He recruited younger journalists again when he took charge of radio news in 1969. He was able to pull off the trick of being both a respected boss but also 'one of the boys'. He'd enjoy sessions in the various watering holes around Broadcasting House, sometimes firing people during the heat of argument and reinstating them the following morning.

In 1980, Woon returned to television as the BBC's tv news editor. He dispensed with professional newsreaders and, in 1981, John Humphrys and John Simpson became the first journalist presenters of the Nine O'Clock News. Unfortunately for Woon, the managing director of television, Alastair Milne, took against the programme. In particular, he found Simpson's delivery wooden, and the set more befitting of a Chinese restaurant. Woon refused to be brow-beaten though and journalists still present the news.

Woon was presented with many other challenges during his tv news editor tenure. Most notably, he faced flak both internally and externally over aspects of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the miners' strike and the Falklands War for which the BBC's resources were stretched to the limit. Yet he was prepared to trust in the judgements of his programme editors and to take a stand on principles in which he believed.

US role

After a brief spell as head of BBC publicity, in 1985 Woon was appointed the BBC's representative in the United States, a largely ambassadorial role which enabled him to travel the length and breadth of the country. He also enjoyed entertaining, and his walk-in drinks cabinet was much admired and used.

He returned to England after retirement in 1988 and indulged his great loves of travel and cricket. He became a member of Middlesex County Cricket Club, though former colleagues with whom he'd regularly meet at Lord's say his first love was Gloucestershire, for he'd been born in Bristol in 1931.

He was married twice, first to Betty with whom he adopted a son, Peter, who survives him. After he divorced her in 1974, he married Diana with whom he had worked at Alexandra Palace. Though he divorced Diana in 1992, they and his stepson Mark remained friends.

In later years, he developed a passion for cruises. Despite having become ill with cancer, he insisted on taking one from Prague to Berlin in May but suffered a fall and was taken to hospital in Dresden where he died.


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