The Early Days

Cecil Taylor was the first television journalist appointed by BBCNI. He became News Editor and later Head of Programmes. He retired in 1985. Here he reflects on the birth of the news operation - and the beginning of the IRA's 1956 campaign.

The young journalists who use satellite communications to report for BBC Newsline, in sound and vision, from Colombia or Cookstown, New York or Newtownards, work in an industry that has been transformed by technical developments in the last 20 years.

It is difficult to remember that television news bulletins in the United Kingdom didnt start until 1955. I joined the BBC in Belfast that year to provide the infant television news in London with a service from Northern Ireland. Similar appointments were being made in other regions but there were two differences about the Belfast job. First, it was thought in London that Northern Ireland was such a quiet place that only a little of my time would be needed for the network news and the rest of the time I could work on radio news in the region. Second, as there was no film industry here and no camera crews available to hire, I would have to learn to use a camera. That information was carefully withheld until I took up duty.

In 1955, the news department consisted of one journalist who was the news editor, Leslie Frankland, and one secretary/typist. The output was a daily five-minute radio bulletin at 6.15pm, plus a 10-minute report on Fridays on the weeks proceedings in Parliament at Stormont. At the selection board for the job, the Controller at the time, Richard Marriott, asked what I thought of the bulletins. I said that they sounded as if they had been written in the Government press office at Stormont and that they virtually ignored the one-third of the population who were Roman Catholics. On my second day on duty, Marriott sent for me and told me he expected me to ensure that the bulletins reflected a community divided by religion and politics. That was a green light for changes.

The region had a small film unit producing a 15-minute feature, Ulster Mirror, for the network every few weeks. The cameraman was Douglas Wolff, an ebullient Englishman who took me in hand and showed me how to use a camera. I started with a simple magazine-load camera with a single lens, not much more than a toy for home movies, but with Wolffs help I graduated to a much better camera with three lenses on a turret and eventually to a fully-professional French camera which could use either 16mm or 35mm.

To its surprise, network news got a steady flow of film stories from Northern Ireland and of great variety. I still remember some of them. A ship ran aground at Torr Head and another became a wreck on the Maidens rocks off Larne. A Royal Navy plane crashed on take-off at Sydenham. The British amateur womens golf championship was played at Royal Portrush. A cardinal from Boston was a guest preacher at St. Patricks Cathedral in Armagh and the cathedral clergy were astonished that the BBC wanted to film part of the service. And there was a big parade at Palace Barracks, Holywood, to mark St. Georges Day in April 1956. Brief coverage of that was to pay dividends later.

On December 12 that year, at about 3.30 in the morning, my home phone rang and an excited mans voice said, 'Theyve blew up the Derry transmitter. The caller was the night watchman at Broadcasting House in Belfast. The BBC radio transmitter in Derry had been bombed. It was one of the targets on the opening night of an IRA campaign of violence launched across the border by units based in the south. Soon I had a comprehensive list - bombings and shootings at Toome, Magherafelt, Derry, Omagh and Armagh. I phoned a story to radio news in London, although the big problem was to persuade the duty editor that I was who I said I was. His newsroom wasnt used to getting stories from Belfast, especially at 5 am.

The story led the early network bulletins. I heard the 7am news in the car and a quick drive around Northern Ireland provided film from all the places mentioned. It was sent to London on an early-afternoon plane and led the network television bulletins that evening.

Some months into the IRA campaign, the Belfast Telegraph carried four lines saying that an Army unit from Palace Barracks was moving to Armagh to assist the civil power. Curious to know what that meant, I phoned a senior officer who had been helpful at the St. Georges Day parade. I was invited to Holywood, taken to the operations room and shown a large map of the border areas in Down and Armagh. Several red circles had been marked. I was told that the next day, the Army were going to blow craters in unapproved roads being used by IRA units crossing into the North to carry out attacks.

At 8am the next morning I was parked outside Armagh police station. A convoy of police and Army vehicles headed south with me following. Before lunch-time, the Army unit had blown craters in half a dozen roads, from hedge to hedge, making them impassable. Army co-operation was total and the first two explosions were filmed, through all the preparatory stages, right to the eruption of tons of earth and boulders. This was another lead story on the 1pm network radio bulletin and the evening television news.

There was a political storm for a few days, partly because RUC men in uniform crossed the border to warn people living close by on the southern side about what was going to happen. The irony is that the whole operation was largely a waste of time. Local residents, including farmers with tractors, filled in the craters and the roads re-opened. If the IRA were inconvenienced at all, it wasnt for long.

In 1956, a ten-minute bulletin on VHF (now FM) was added to the regions output. More staff were needed and Niall Gilbert, who was always called Dan for some reason, was recruited form the Northern Whig to become our third journalist. That was the beginning of a period of expansion. Over the next few years, additional radio bulletins were introduced at lunchtime, at just before midnight and in the early morning.

The first television news programme from and for the region started on September 30, 1957. It was called Today in Northern Ireland and lasted for five minutes. News supplied a two-and-a-half minute summary and the rest was feature items devised by a few radio producers who had been encouraged to try their hand at television. It came from Studio 2, one of the smallest radio studios and about the size of a decent bedroom. Two outside broadcast cameras from London were installed and two engineers, Bob Unsworth and Michael Carlin, were trained to become studio cameramen. The presenter was Maurice Shillington and the studio director was George Hewardine who had been a studio cameraman in London and was newly-arrived as an assistant producer.

It was the simplest form of television. One camera looked at the presenter and the other at still photographs which were the only form of visual illustration available. That limitation wasnt allowed to last long before the news staff and engineers got ambitious. George Middleton, an enthusiast who had done some commercial filming, had become available. He shot film, processed it in his bathroom at home and edited it in the corridor outside Studio 2. A projector was set up in the studio and the film was projected onto the pick-up tube of one of the cameras. In that crude but workable fashion, the first news film was shown.

It was at this time that I stopped working for network television news and transferred to the regional staff to take charge of the local TV news. Today in Northern Ireland continued in Studio 2 until February 1959 when it moved to the refurbished Studio 8. This had been a large radio studio but it was too cramped for television and in the wrong place. TV studios need to be at ground level to facilitate moving scenery, props and equipment in and out. But Studio 8 was on the fifth floor, at the end of a long corridor and up a flight of stairs. The control gallery and other technical areas were all too small but compared with Studio 2 it was a great advance.

There were three cameras. Film processing and telecine were close by but film editing for news was on the first floor, beside the newsroom. Videotape facilities, which came along soon after, were in an outside broadcast van parked permanently in the back yard. If these arrangements were not the most convenient, they were fully professional and the region was now equipped to make a proper television news programme and other programmes. Some staff got very fit running between the back yard, the newsroom on the first floor and the studio on the fifth.

Today in Northern Ireland became a 10-minute bulletin and needed a proper supply of film stories. A network of cameramen around the country had to be created almost from scratch. The programme continued until the late summer of 1962 and on September 17 that year it was replaced by a 20-minute programme called Six OClock, which was partly news and partly magazine items. By this time I was the Assistant News Editor – deputy head of the department – and led the news team working on the programme.

It changed its title several times, mainly to accommodate a longer early-evening network news, which it followed. It became Six Five, Six Ten and then, sensibly, Scene Around Six. The presenters over the years became familiar names and faces. Michael Baguley, Larry McCoubrey, Malcolm Kellard, Sean Rafferty and Barry Cowan all gave distinguished service. Some went on to achieve success in the BBC outside the province. Others, regrettably, died prematurely.

The news department got its first film sound camera in 1960 and it was used by a freelance crew, Dick Macmillan and Jim Huggard. This significantly improved the newsgathering operation, even if the camera was big, heavy and cumbersome. But it was reliable and produced quality pictures and sound.

As news output increased, staff numbers grew. Jimmy Boyd, who had joined the BBC in London and worked on television news in its early days, came back home and we all learned from his skills. Alan Reid and David Capper became familiar voices and faces. Terry Sharkie was a tower of strength on the radio desks. Eric Waugh was the first specialist journalist when he became Industrial Correspondent. Billy Flackes arrived as Political Correspondent and put coverage of Stormont and associated politics on a professional basis for the first time. These were just some of the journalists who set standards for accuracy, relevance and impartiality and helped make life easier for all those who came after them.

Considering the political and religious divisions in Northern Ireland, there were remarkably few attempts from outside to influence programme content. But there was some pressure occasionally. When Terence ONeill became Prime Minister in 1963 he asked that his Cabinet Secretary should have an opportunity to meet the journalists. The Controller, Robert McCall, arranged the meeting in his office. Seven or eight journalists were present. The civil servant made a thinly-disguised appeal for sympathetic reporting of the Prime Ministers attempts to modernise Northern Ireland and his efforts to involve the Catholic community more fully in the life of the province. He was told in plain terms that the job of the news department was to supply an accurate and impartial news service and in the process to be fair to all the political parties. The Cabinet Secretary returned to Stormont knowing that the Government was going to get no favours from BBC News.

If there was one story that confirmed the BBCs editorial independence, it was the coverage, in January, 1964, of Springtown camp in Derry. This had been an Army camp during the war and when the troops left, people who needed homes moved in. They were still there in 1964, living in poor conditions. I sent Alan Reid with a crew to do a substantial film story. He got no co-operation from the City Council so I went to Derry to see if I could help. One of the most influential unionists there, Gerald Glover, told me he would make sure that nothing about Springtown was broadcast. I told him we would cover the story, with or without co-operation.

I took the precaution of phoning the Head of Programmes to tell him what was happening. He duly got a call from Mr. Glover and rejected any suggestion that Springtown should not be covered. The Unionists on the council then decided to co-operate and a 12-minute film was shown in due course. It included an interview with Eddie McAteer, a Derry MP and leader of the Nationalist party. When he was approached for the interview, his comment was, 'Good God, miracles will never cease.

I had been News Editor for three years when the Troubles began in 1968. Austin Currie made his protest about council house allocations in Tyrone and the first civil rights march took place from Coalisland to Dungannon on August 24. A civil rights march in Derry on October 5 was banned and when the police attacked the marchers in Duke Street, pictures of flailing batons and bleedings protestors went around the world. The lid had blown off the pressure cooker and there was no way of putting it back. Northern Ireland had been destabilised and we were in for 30 years of seeing the country tear itself apart.

Covering all this was a mammoth job. The newsroom was at the centre of a big international story and reporters, camera crews and desk journalists found themselves working impossible hours, day after day, without adequate breaks.

In mid-November, 1968, the Government banned civil rights marches. In Derry, the Citizens Action Committee announced a sit-down demonstration for the following Saturday. This was certain to be a major event and there were dozens of reporters and camera crews in the city. Brian Willis, at that time an OB sound engineer, set up a temporary radio studio in the Melville Hotel. It was to be in use 18 hours a day for five days. Thirty-nine broadcasts were made from it, for BBC regional and network programmes as well as for RTE and foreign broadcasters.

In 1969, there was serious rioting in Belfast and Derry for days on end. It became quite common for the lead story in the early evening network television news to be done by Northern Ireland staff and to be broadcast without being seen in advance by the London editor. The presenter in London read the headlines and handed over to Studio 8 for the days big stories. In other parts of BH, the same thing was happening for the Radio 4 bulletins. The newsroom had come of age.

The pressure eased from time to time when London sent staff, often for weeks at a time. Martin Bell, Michael Sullivan, Keith Graves, Chris Underwood, Jim Biddulph and many others became familiar faces. Production teams, reporters and camera crews from current affairs departments came to gather material and broadcasters from all over the world poured into Belfast, many of them hoping to use our technical facilities and studios. The region wasnt equipped to meet these demands without imposing an almost unbearable workload. The engineering and technical staff were just as badly stretched as the journalists. Somehow, all the requirements of various parts of the BBC were met but occasionally some foreign broadcasters had to be disappointed.

On the worst nights of violence, we took liberties with the television schedule and opted out of the network at programme junctions in order to provide news summaries. Few viewers seemed to mind. The appetite for news was great.

Visiting broadcasters tended to gather in the newsroom but on busy nights they had to be asked to leave so that staff could work in reasonable conditions. It was after one such night in 1969 that I took a call from John Crawley, Editor of News and Current Affairs in London. He was impressed by our coverage and asked how we were coping. I suggested that he should come and see for himself. He did, travelling overnight by train and boat and arriving in the office at 7am to find people working there who had not been home the previous night. David Capper took him on a tour of the most ravaged areas of the city. He came back visibly affected. We discussed the staffing situation and he asked me what we needed. I said – Four more journalists immediately. He winced but said he would do his best. He phoned next day to say we could have two and that they could be appointed without our waiting for the paperwork to be done. Half a loaf...

I left the Newsroom in 1970 to become Assistant Head of Programmes. Several years later, a new Head of Administration said he had been checking the files and News seemed to have two more journalists than were authorised. They were being paid properly but there was no actual authority for the money to be spent. It was the next day before the penny dropped. The paperwork for John Crawleys two additional journalists had never been done.

But this was the BBC. Loose ends had to be tied. They were. And the journalists stayed.

Newsroom in Northern Ireland, Cecil Taylor (standing) amidst subeditors, copyists and typists

Newsroom in Northern Ireland, Cecil Taylor (standing) amidst subeditors, copyists and typists ©BBC

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Cecil Taylor stands over Newsreader Michael Baguley

News From Northern Ireland: Cecil Taylor stands over Newsreader Michael Baguley. On Baguley's left is Ann Chambers, Television News Secretary. The cameraman on the right is David Hanna. ©BBC

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Technician at work in Television News control gallery, 1959

Technician at work in Television News control gallery, 1959 ©BBC

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