Window to the World – The analogue television years (Part seven – Top moments in News and Current Affairs)

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While TV viewers have often escaped reality with drama, comedy and light entertainment, television has had a vital role in bringing people back down to earth.

News and current affairs has been critical to that, acting as a window to the world.

We have come a long way from the days of Richard Whitmore, Sir Alastair Burnett, Angela Rippon and RTE’s Charles Mitchel reading teatime, nine o’clock and ten o’clock news bulletins with the occasional news flash.

Now we have wall to wall 24 hour news coverage of major state events and unfolding news stories and audience participation with instant text polls and social media commentary.

But what are the TV news and current affairs moments that grabbed viewers during the analogue age?


Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shake hands after signing the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in the East Room of the White House. September 17, 1978. September 19, 1978 The White House, Washington DC, USA



September 17, 1978

During the long dark days of violence in Northern Ireland, one other conflict cast a depressing shadow over the world and that was between the Israelis and the Arab World.

But then, during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter in the White House, something remarkable happened.

Egypt’s President Anwar al-Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin began in Maryland to talk peace after years of violence in the Middle East.

The Camp David Accords sought to establish the rights of Palestinians, with an autonomous government operating in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. But they also sought to settle the dispute between Egypt and Israel over the occupation of Sinai Peninsula, with the latter withdrawing its troops and evacuating civilians, as well as allowing free passage between Egypt and Jordan in return for normal diplomatic relations with Cairo and freedom of passage in the Suez canal and other waterways.

The BBC’s Martin Bell covered what many around the world hoped would be a major breakthrough after years of bloody conflict between Egypt and Israel but it was not to be.

The Arab League, Jordan and the PLO rejected Sadat’s efforts and within three years he was assassinated during a military parade commemorating the Yom Kippur War but at the time Carter’s initiative for a brief moment offered a glimmer of hope.


Pope John Paul II visits Ireland



September 29, 1979

Just over a year into his Papacy, Pope John Paul II brought Ireland to a standstill with a three day visit to the Republic.

It was one of the biggest broadcast events in the history of RTE, with Brian Farrell fronting coverage and establishing himself as Ireland’s answer to Richard Dimbleby.

A total of 1.25 million people packed into Dublin’s Phoenix Park for an open air Mass and to catch a glimpse of the Polish Pontiff in a Popemobile that the BBC2 comedy show ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ thought looked like an ice cream van.

Over the course of the visit, there were visits to Monasterboice, the Marian shrine at Knock, to Limerick and, of course, a memorable event in Galway Racecourse for the young people of Ireland.

Unable to cross the border because of security concerns, the most poignant moment of the visit was in Drogheda where Pope John Paul II pleaded, on the first day of his visit, to Catholic and Protestant young people to reject violence. He urged republican and loyalist paramilitaries in particular: “On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and return to the ways of peace.”

Even though the paramilitaries spurned his call, this was nonetheless a time when the Catholic Church exerted a huge influence on Irish society.

After all the child abuse scandals that have engulfed the Irish clergy since, it is difficult to imagine a second Papal visit attracting the same kind of frenzy.

RTE was there to capture every moment, including the wild and unfulfilled speculation that the Pope would make an unscheduled visit to the church frequented by the devout Dubliner Matt Talbot.


The SAS storm the Iranian Embassy in London



May 5, 1980

One of the first pieces of live television news to make a deep impression on my generation was the dramatic BBC and ITN coverage of the SAS storming the Iranian Embassy in London.

Six armed men had seized control of the Iranian Embassy six days earlier in south Kensington, holding 26 people hostage including diplomatic staff, a Syrian journalist, BBC employees who had called in to collect visas and a Pakistani tourist.

The hostage takers belonged to a dissident Iranian group opposed to the Ayatollah Khomeini, the fundamentalist Muslim cleric who deposed the Shah of Iran a year earlier and defied and denounced the West.

The Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA)— demanded regional autonomy to the Iranian province of Khuzestan, the release of 91 political prisoners in Iran and an aircraft to take them and the hostages out of the UK.

After the group killed its first hostage, the Embassy’s chief press officer, dumping him on the doorstep and threatened to kill more, the Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw ordered a raid on the embassy.

Millions tuned in as the BBC and ITV interrupted their scheduled programming on a Monday evening to carry dramatic images of masked SAS men storming the building in images that looked straight out of a James Bond movie.

Five of the hostage takers were killed during the raid. One of the group was arrested and two hostages were injured.

The dramatic image of an SAS soldier throwing an exploding grenade into the front of the building as well as the sound of gunfire and screaming during Kate Adie’s compelling BBC Nine O’Clock News report remains as stunning today on You Tube as it did then.


Ethiopian Famine



October 23, 1984

Every journalist dreams of writing or broadcasting something that can change the world but few actually achieve it.

BBC journalist Michael Buerk is one of those who have managed that, spurring rock stars Bob Geldof and Midge Ure into creating Band Aid, with his powerful report from the Ethiopian famine.

Delivered in a calm, detached style, the vivid opening sentence of Buerk’s report is still seared in many people’s memories: “Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the Twentieth Century.’

The apocalyptic images caught by Buerk’s cameraman Mohammed Amin of hundreds of Ethiopians battling starvation and its wailing soundtrack still have the sledgehammer effect they had on viewers 28 years ago.

Buerk later confessed to The Observer how inadequate he felt in the face of such suffering.

“You take refuge in the technicalities of filming, finding sequences, working out the logistics and so on,” he said.

“There were two films, two pieces that finally aired. I knew they wanted about three minutes, but I cut eight and thought, f*** ’em. In those days as a foreign correspondent, communications being what they were, I tended to work on the basis that they got what they were given. I knew it was a very powerful film.”


Challenger Disaster Explosion



January 28, 1986

In this age of unmanned missions to Mars, you can forget the excitement and fascination the Cold War Space Race and NASA’s missions generated.

One of my most vivid primary school memories is of pupils packing in to our assembly hall in April 1981 to witness the launch of the first Space Shuttle mission, with Robert Crippen and John Young on board the Columbia.

Five years later, in a shattering blow to the program, the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its mission, killing all seven crew members on board.

The inclusion of New Hampshire schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, the first space tourist, among the crew added an extra dimension to the sense of tragedy.

BBC1 viewers first learned of the disaster from Roger Finn in a news flash brought to them by the childrens TV programme, Newsround.

The deaths of seven crew members on the Columbia in a similar tragedy in February 2003 were equally shocking.


Berlin Wall



November 9, 1989

For many generations, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation were a constant nagging fear as American and Soviet Union leaders defiantly denounced each other’s countries.

However, the emergence of a more moderate Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the introduction by him of Perestroika and Glasnost led to the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc with Communist regimes toppling like dominoes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria and more violently in Romania.

The most potent symbol of the changes that occurred was the breaking down of the Berlin Wall and the dramatic images of East and West Berliners for the first time being able to pass through the no man’s land that divided the city for 38 years.

The prospect of a united Germany alarmed some leaders in the West, including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and France’s President Francois Mitterand.

But looking back on ITN’s dramatic coverage of the fall of the Wall, fronted by Alastair Stewart, images of Berliners of all ages taking pick axes, hammers, diggers and pulling down the wall with ropes remain stirring and full of hope.

The most poignant reports were those of east Berliners crossing on foot and train for the first time into the forbidden territory of the west with a giddy, nervous excitement.


Nelson Mandela released from prison



February 11, 1990

Time can sometimes blunt your recollection of exactly how you felt at certain key moments in your life but few who were around on a Sunday afternoon 22 years ago to witness the release on live television of Nelson Mandela can forget just how stirring it was.

For 27 years, the world had not seen the African National Congress leader and had only the black and white image of a plump, bearded, defiant Mandela to go on.

He emerged 27 years later from the Victor-Verster Prison immaculately dressed in a light brown suit and tie, clutching his wife Winnie’s hand, a much slimmer, greyer man.

Like the Berlin Wall, his release was a potent symbol of change and it marked a kind of an Afrikaans’ Glasnost as FW de Klerk steered his National Party and the country away from decades of shameful oppression under apartheid.

The BBC’s James Robbins was there to capture the iconic moment when Mandela emerged from jail, lifting his arm in a defiant salute to excitable supporters before being whisked off in a silver BMW to Cape Town’s town hall to utter his first words in public for 27 years.

In his address to 50,000 supporters, the ANC leader talked about intensifying the movement’s struggle but despite the rhetoric there was a real sense we were witnessing historic change and the building up of a momentum towards an accommodation between white and black South Africa.

And so it came to pass that four years later, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s President.


Paedophile Priest Brendan Smyth



October 6, 1994

Investigative reporting, in print or in broadcasting, is time consuming, expensive and exacting.

If an investigation is not handled correctly, as RTE Primetime’s disastrous ‘Mission To Prey’ programme recently demonstrated, it can backfire badly on those making it. But when all the ingredients of painstaking fact checking and a powerful story come together, it can have earth shattering consequences as the recent ITV documentary on the Jimmy Saville affair has shown.

Both BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘Spotlight’ and UTV’s ‘Insight’ teams have delivered powerful exposés over the years but it was investigative journalist Chris Moore on UTV’s ‘Counterpoint’ who delivered one of the most shocking stories ever to break in Ireland with his revelations about the Catholic Church’s failure to confront 40 years of child molestation by the paedophile, Fr Brendan Smyth.

Moore, who also wrote a powerful book on Orangeman William McGrath’s role in the abuse of boys in the Kincora Boys Home in east Belfast, blew the lid off the Church hierarchy’s failure to curb the paedophile priest or report allegations to the authorities.

But the programme also set in motion the dramatic downfall of Taoiseach Albert Reynolds’ government and led to the senior coalition partner, Fianna Fail spending three years on the Opposition benches in the Dail over his support for Harry Whelehan as Attorney General despite deep concerns over his mishandling of Fr Smyth’s extradition.

Twenty years on the spectre of Fr Brendan Smyth continues to haunt the leadership of the Catholic Church which has failed to get in top of a host of terrible child abuse scandals.


OJ Simpson



October 3, 1995

I was studying in the University of Colorado when President Bill Clinton and the Democrats got hammered in the Mid Term Elections, Newt Gingrich tried to shut down the federal government and a right wing militia group rattled the nation by detonating the Oklahoma Bomb.

But if there was one story that gripped the nation like no other it was the trial of OJ Simpson, the handsome American football star turned Hollywood actor, who was accused of the murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman outside her condo in Los Angeles.

Simpson had been arrested in June 1994 in the most dramatic of circumstances, with a high speed police pursuit of his Ford Bronco on the Interstate after he ignored orders to to turn himself in for questioning and issued through his lawyers what looked like a suicide note. Up to 20 police cars and a similar number of TV news crews helicopters joined the chase.

Local news affiliates and major networks seemed to carry incessant coverage of a trial that was no less dramatic, making instant celebrities of Judge Lance Ito, Prosecutor Marcia Clark, Defense Attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Alan Dershowitz, LA Police Department Detective Mark Fuhrman and another witness, the bit-part actor Brian ‘Kato’ Kaelin.

America was hooked as witnesses like Fuhrman and DNA evidence were discredited, with the most memorable moment coming when Simpson struggled to put on leather gloves linked to the murder, prompting Johnnie Cochran’s famous line to the jury: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

I was back in Norwich for my final year at the University of East Anglia when BBC2 carried live coverage of the verdict. Simpson’s acquittal bitterly divided the US.

But amid all the showbiz hoopla that surrounded the trial and the debate that still rages to this day around Simpson’s innocence or guilt, it is hard not to feel for the Goldman and Brown families.


Jeremy and Michael



May 13, 1997

In what is the most famous interview in the history of BBC2’s Newsnight programme, Jeremy Paxman asked Tory leadership hopeful Michael Howard the same question 12 times.

But if you watch the interview in its entirety, it is a masterclass in political interviewing – with Paxman carefully assembling the disputed facts like a prosecuting barrister, allowing the accused to puff himself up, only to expose the evasiveness of Mr Howard under questioning,

Paxman had just interviewed Anne Widdicombe, one of Howard’s harshest critics within the Conservative Party, about newspaper reports about the sacking two years earlier of the Director General of Prisons Derek Lewis and, in particular, suggestions from unnamed sources that she had a far too cosy friendship with Mr Lewis and his wife.

Ms Widdicombe, who served in the Home Office under Michael Howard, denied suggestions that Lewis had won her over with dinner, flowers and chocolate and she accused the former Home Secretary’s camp of leaking it.

The focus of the subsequent interview with Howard, however, shifted onto his relationship with Mr Lewis and whether he threatened to overrule the Director General over the proposed suspension of the Governor of Parkhurst Prison.

Having walked a bullish Michael Howard into saying he totally stood over his account to the House of Commons about the Lewis affair, Paxman, then pointed up inconsistencies between his and Mr Lewis’s account.

Howard’s subsequent refusal 12 times to answer Paxman’s question about his working relationship with Mr Lewis arrested his leadership ambitions, keeping him at bay from the top post in the party for eight years.




September 5, 1997

The stand-up comic Eddie Izzard once compared the death of Princess Diana to an unexpected plot twist in a soap opera where a favourite character is killed off.

Whether or not you feel that trivialises her, Dodi al Fayed and Henri Paul’s death, Izzard’s comments do, however, capture the sense of shock that engulfed Britain following the tragic car crash in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel in Paris.

The subsequent outpouring of grief by members of the British public was quite extraordinary as the red tops and people in vox pops started to uncharacteristically vent their frustration at the Royal Family for failing to lower the Royal Standard at half mast in Buckingham Palace and for remaining in Balmoral instead of returning to London to lead the mourning.

Under intense public pressure, Queen Elizabeth II appeared sombrely dressed in black against the backdrop of thousands of people outside Buckingham Palace and addressed her nation live on BBC1 and ITV as “your Queen and as a grandmother”.

The stakes were high, as viewers around the world wanted evidence that the Queen understood the public mood and shared their grief. And that is what they got in a carefully crafted three minute address.

It was a watershed moment in the relationship between the British public and the Royals as they adapted under pressure to a different media age that required less formality and more empathy.

It’s a relationship that has developed to the point where the Queen was able to send herself up as a Bond girl opposite Daniel Craig’s 007 in a filmed sequence for Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony.





September 11, 2001

I was in Stormont’s Parliament Buildings, waiting to interview Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, when the first plane hit the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Centre in the most shocking terrorist incident the world has ever seen.

A half an hour later, both of us plus OFMDFM officials watched in stunned silence as live coverage unfolded across the networks of the South Tower, billowing smoke after a second plane crashed into it. Not surprisingly, plans for the interview were shelved.

Eleven years on and the impact of the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan and Washington DC still runs deep. Annual reruns of footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Centre mean that we will never be able to forget the full horror of that day from the moment of impact to the dramatic collapse of the towers as firemen and police officers tried to rescue those inside.

Many of us were glued to the coverage of the attacks on Channel 4, ITV, BBC, RTE and TV3 and many of us are still rattled by the images of panicked New Yorkers fleeing the Twin Towers before their collapse.

A special edition of Channel 4 News fronted by Jon Snow later that evening, with American Correspondent David Smith in San Francisco, sought to make sense of all the madness with typically forthright and comprehensive analysis.

As we watched the programme, the enormity of what had happened began to sink in and it was that the world, let alone the United States, was going to be a much scarier place.


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About Author

Dan McGinn has been a journalist since 1989 who has worked for the Irish News, Belfast Telegraph and the Press Association news agency where he served as the Ireland Deputy Editor and Political Editor. In 2008 he joined the Northern Ireland Executive's Information as a Principal Information Officer, working for Arlene Foster and Sammy Wilson during their tenures as Environment Minister. A year later, he joined the University of Ulster as its Director of Media and Corporate Relations. In 2013, he was appointed Media and Corporate Affairs Manager at the Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland. A long suffering West Ham fan, he is married with a Disney and One Direction obsessed daughter. A graduate in Film and American Studies at the University of East Anglia, he has been a film buff ever since he saw 'Jaws' at the age of six in Belfast's Grove Cinema and still loves cinema despite exposure to 'Alvin & The Chipmunks' and 'Nativity 2' as a critic for this website.

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