Veteran journalist Peter Sissons broke into his TV schedule to talk about his early life and 45 years in the media at St Mary’s Church, Loughton on Tuesday 15 March 2011.
Mr Sissons was taking part in the Essex Book Festival between appearances on Loose Women and the Alan Titchmarsh Show. Promising to air his views on the British media, current affairs and the World at large, Mr Sissons pulled no punches. After the event organised by Epping Forest District Council and Essex County Council he signed copies and his new book ‘When One Door Closes’ and chatted with members of the audience.
Peter Sissons believes there is an ‘inner cadre’ of ‘superb’ BBC reporters such as John Simpson and Jeremy Bowen. However, describing himself as ‘a candid friend of the BBC’ he now feels free to voice his concerns and criticisms. He abhors sloppy journalism, political correctness and poor leadership. During the Six Day War in 1967, he usually had two days to stop a piece being broadcast if he felt he had made a mistake. In the modern world where immediate live coverage gives no time for checking and reflection, he worries about the new forms of social media and 24 hour coverage. Peter still believes there is no excuse for not checking a story or not getting it right. He believes there has never been a time when we need good journalists more. The values of ‘accuracy, balance and impartiality’ instilled in him by Sir Geoffrey Cox at ITN should be the aims of a new generation of reporters.
On a lighter note, Peter Sissons was reminded during questions and answers at the end of his talk by one of his former colleagues in the audience of some of the fan mail he used to receive. He had a certain following which included one lady who would send him knitted hats, scarves and other clothing on an almost weekly basis during his newsreading years. He also remembered the requests for ‘secret signs’ he was asked to give out on air such as scratching his nose if he fancied another particular lady.
Drawing on material in his book, Peter Sissons described his early childhood as one of four sons growing up in Liverpool during the 1960s. It was a special time. Other children at Dovedale Primary, Peter’s first school were Jimmy Tarbuck and John Lennon (both a year older) and George Harrison (a year younger). Having passed the Eleven Plus, Peter found himself at the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys at the same time as Paul McCartney. Other boys to pass through the institute gates included Derek Hatton and the former MP for Epping Forest, Steve Norris.
The importance of education was instilled in Peter Sissons by his mother. From his poor background but excellent education he entered Oxford and took his first tentative steps into journalism, interviewing a very young Bob Wilson who does not remember the event, and Ron Atkinson who does.
From graduation at Oxford to the end of his career with the BBC 45 years later, Peter took no more courses, bar one only called ‘Safeguarding Trust’ reduced from two hours to ten minutes for his benefit by the BBC.
From Oxford, it seemed that a career in journalism might follow but initially he was rejected by among others the Liverpool Echo. However, introduction to his great mentor, Sir Geoffrey Cox at ITN was to set him on the course to TV stardom. Peter Sissons working class background, described by Cox as ‘Liverpool Rough’ contrasted with the public school dominated newsrooms of ITV and the BBC at the time.
Peter had began to make a name for himself. In 1968 he was asked to step in to read the Ten O’Clock news after Reginald Bosenquet was taken ill. He had already covered the Six Day War in the Middle East. Then a life threatening gunshot wound sustained in Biafra cut short a promising career as a War Correspondent. Peter still has fragments of the bullet that nearly killed him and the WW I British Army surgical dressing thrust into his leg by the Nigerian Army Major who staunched the flow of blood and saved his life.
After a prolonged stay in hospital, Peter was no longer fit for duty in war zones but found a new role as ITNs Industrial Editor. He believes this period between 1970 and 1978 made his name. Night after night, he appeared on British TV screens to report the latest industrial unrest.
Following its launch in 1982, Peter became part of the new Channel 4 ITN news team. Initially, the programme proved a “total disaster” as ratings plummeted. However, after staying with the format, he was part of the team that turned it into a BAFTA winning formula.
While at the height of his popularity at ITN, the opportunity arose he had always wanted, the chance to present the BBC’s Question Time. However, after four years and 150 editions, he was very disillusioned and in 1994 began a ten year reign as one of the BBC’s top anchormen with Michael Buerk on the Nine O’Clock News.
Throughout his career with the Corporation, Peter struggled to come to terms with the BBC way of doing things. He covered some memorable events. Princess Diana died on his shift. He reported on 9/11 and temporarily became ‘the most hated man in Britain’ after reporting the death of the Queen Mother, wearing a burgundy rather than a black tie. BBC policy, checked with his producer moments before going on air was only the death of the Queen herself qualified for black.
After ten years reading the Nine O’Clock and Ten O’clock News, a further review at the BBC prompted Peter to switch to News 24, from which he eventually retired.
Councillor Anne Grigg, Chairman of Epping Forest District Council was in the audience at St Mary’s in Loughton. She said: “Peter Sissons provided a controversial but fascinating account of his years in TV journalism and at the BBC. Having been forbidden to express opinions when he joined ITN in 1964, he is making up for lost time now. It was a privilege to hear him speak.”
Mrs Grigg added: “I would also like to thank the organisers of the Essex Book Festival at Essex County Council and Epping Forest District Council on achieving another literary coup following last year’s talk by George Alagiah.”