Remembering Nan Winton

Presenter, News Channel

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On 20th June 1960 Nan Winton (pictured) became the first woman to read the news on BBC Television. In this post BBC News Channel presenter Jane Hill reflects on what inspired her to work in journalism. 

8th November 1987.  The television continuity announcer tells viewers that evening’s news bulletin has been extended.  I remember, clearly, turning to my mother, saying “I wonder what’s happened?”.   A massive IRA bomb had exploded in Enniskillen, shortly before a Remembrance Day ceremony, killing and maiming. 

The scale of the carnage was truly shocking.  And with 24 hour news still a decade away, the impact of that BBC One bulletin was all the more powerful, the story coming out of the blue for anyone who’d not listened to the radio that day.

Of course the bulletin was full of politics – the political ramifications were enormous - but also of individual stories. Many people my age – I had turned 18 a few months earlier – can still today summon to mind the photograph that became ubiquitous of Marie Wilson, in her nurse’s uniform.  One of 11 eventual victims, who held her father’s hand as they lay buried in the rubble, her last words “Daddy, I love you very much”.

I don’t remember which correspondent reported from Northern Ireland, or who was presenting the bulletin in London, but I do remember being hugely affected. I was upset about what had happened, but also aware that the facts had to be reported in as dispassionate a way as possible, while paying appropriate tribute to people like Marie and Gordon Wilson, who had been killed and injured.

I had begun volunteering at my local BBC radio station the year before, trying a variety of jobs - on the phone-ins, some specialist programmes, and in the newsroom.  I loved the music and magazine programmes – there isn’t much about radio that I don’t love – but I gradually spent more and more time in news, until by my final year at university (and returning to the radio station every vacation for freelance work) there was no doubt in my mind that news was where I belonged.

Thank you, then, to Nan Winton without whom I might not be doing my job today.  After 10 years in local and national radio, I switched to television, eventually moving, as she did, from being a producer and reporter to presenter - but I cannot imagine how hard it must have been to be the BBC’s first national female newsreader. 

Did the hostility and sexism she would have experienced put off many from even trying?  Back in 1960, according to BBC audience research, having a woman read the news simply “wasn’t acceptable”, and the chattering classes argued in the media that a woman was too frivolous to be the bearer of grave news. 

Nan Winton’s time as a newsreader didn’t last long because of such prejudices (she eventually moved to ITV), and it wasn’t until the mid-70s that BBC viewers became used to a woman reading the news, with the appointment of Angela Rippon.

How much has changed since then.  Now I and my contemporaries - of both genders – sit, and stand, in our shiny new studio at Broadcasting House, on air for several hours at a time. 

Reporting stories as they unfold, working to fathom the facts as information comes in, these days it frequently falls to a woman to be the bearer of bad news.  A US passenger plane on an internal flight hits one of the famous Twin Towers in New York Was it a terrible accident, a failure on board, or of air traffic control? By the end of my five hours on air that Tuesday in September 2001, both towers had been hit and had collapsed, and thousands of innocent people had died.  Recently, reports of an attack on a man in Woolwich, in south east London, could have turned out to be a fight about drugs, or another fatal dispute between gangs – grim, but sadly not uncommon.  By the end of the day, the true horrific account was emerging of a soldier murdered by fanatical strangers as he walked along the road. 

Whatever the story, that need for sensitivity and care, along with the responsibility to put the facts into context, is always there – whoever the news presenter.

 

Jane Hill is a presenter on the BBC News Channel

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