UK

John Simpson: The debt owed to the BBC's Brian Hanrahan

  • 20 December 2010
  • From the section UK
Brian Hanrahan
Image caption Brian Hanrahan came to prominence for the public with his reporting of the Falklands War

Brian Hanrahan was the kind of journalist BBC correspondents aspire to be - always precise in his use of words and facts and scrupulously honest.

Government spin doctors who tried to persuade him to take a particular line got very short shrift from him indeed. He was quietly scathing about journalists who exaggerated their stories or who cut ethical or factual corners.

Brian Hanrahan was the opposite of modish - in his reporting, in his speech and attitudes, even in the way he dressed. I first met him in the BBC television newsroom in March 1978, when he was a producer/scriptwriter.

Over the years that followed he developed and matured, first as a reporter and then as one of the BBC's best and most respected correspondents, yet his approach and style never really changed.

For Brian the most important thing was the accuracy of the stories he reported, and he could be very blunt indeed to any editor who wanted him to report in a way he felt was not quite right.

At the same time, Brian possessed the key quality of the best foreign correspondent - he was lucky.

Although he was still quite new as a reporter, he was sent to cover the Falklands War because the two more senior correspondents who had been earmarked for the job were unable to go.

Famous line

Even then the feeling in London was that the ship he was on, HMS Hermes, would not see much action. That turned out to be utterly wrong and Brian found himself covering all the key actions throughout the war.

Television audiences are slow to identify particular news correspondents by face and name until they are involved in some news story of major importance.

In Brian's case it came early on when the first wave of Harrier jump jets was sent on sorties against Argentine positions in Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands.

It was the first real action of the war and the first time Harriers had been used in full-scale combat.

People all over Britain stopped everything to watch or listen to the news in order to find out what was happening.

Brian Hanrahan's calm, mellow voice gave them the reassurance they badly wanted - and his famous line about counting them out and counting them all back (which neatly got round the oppressive censorship) earned him a place, not just in the Oxford Book of Quotations, but in the affections of the entire country.

Brian was always a phrase-maker, but not in a flashy way. His phrases were down-to-earth and straightforward. They gained their effect by their honesty, not their cleverness.

Continuing trust

After 1988, when BBC news and current affairs were reorganised and given proper funding for the first time, Brian joined a group of like-minded people, among them David Shukman, Jeremy Bowen, George Alagiah, Ben Brown and me, who enjoyed each other's company and found the new World Affairs Unit which we created highly stimulating.

Brian was now at the heart of the BBC's coverage of many of the world's main events, from Tiananmen Square to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and Russia itself.

His reporting of the slow revolution in East Germany was particularly important and it was entirely fitting that, on the night the Berlin Wall was breached, Brian Hanrahan should have done his piece to camera on top of it with a rejoicing crowd around him.

Reporting on these things gave him an immensely valuable platform from which, as diplomatic editor, he was able to provide the BBC with his calm, accurate analysis.

BBC News has always been fortunate enough to broadcast to an audience which, for the most part, trusts it completely.

For 30 years, Brian Hanrahan's quiet, eminently sensible reporting has been one of the main reasons for that continuing trust.

His colleagues, and the BBC itself, owe him a great deal.

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