Stories to tell

Peter SissonsPeter Sissons

He went to school with several members of The Beatles, was shot in the legs during the Nigerian Civil War and had an Iranian Fatwa issued against him. Former newsreader Peter Sissons will be telling some interesting stories at Wanstead Library this month as he discusses his autobiography, When One Door Closes. Interview by Lee Marquis

Do you think the rapid advance of technology in the world of media has had an impact on the art of good journalism and writing?
It has had a huge effect – and I don't think anyone fully understands whether or not it is for the good. It puts journalists under great pressure.

In your opinion, do rolling 24 hour news channels sacrifice quality for quantity?
It is a constant danger – the challenge of filling the space.

As a journalist, you have had to remain impartial and unbiased for many years. Following your retirement, do you now feel you have a lifetime of opinions to express?
It is a bit like being let out of jail! But I haven't suddenly run riot with my views. I still feel some responsibility and I don't want to be seen as an opinion-former.

You were criticised in the press for not wearing a black tie when you announced the death of the Queen Mother in 2002. What are your memories of that broadcast?
I was criticised in a small portion of the press. There were more complaints that day because the BBC moved an edition of Casualty to make way for the big obituary. My main memory is of being given so little warning of the impending announcement. Senior editorial figures were in the know, and kept the bulletin team in the dark until the last minute.

In 1989 you interviewed the Iranian ambassador following the Fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie. As a result, the death threat was extended to include you. Did you feel you had overstepped the mark by having an impact on events as opposed to just reporting them?
Nothing as complicated as that. I was doing my job. Some fanatics didn't like it – the concept of freedom of expression is totally alien to them.

You are somewhat critical of the BBC's management style in the newsroom. Is this an issue which you feel hinders their news output?
It must do. When morale is so low for most of the time, people can't give their best.

You have also criticised the BBC's one-sided coverage of climate change and emphasised the need for journalists to cover both sides of every story. Were your journalistic instincts restricted by BBC editorial policy?
Not at all. I thought the BBC's editorial policy was totally misguided. They tried to suppress the views of those scientists who disagreed with the alarmist orthodoxy. I did my best to get round that, and for a long time I was the only BBC frontman who challenged the BBC line. But I did so on journalistic grounds – since when was it the BBC's role to stifle dissenting views on an issue of huge importance?

What changes would you like to see in the way the BBC prepares and edits the news?
That would take another book!

In 1989 you were poached by the BBC from Channel Four News. Was the transition to public service broadcast a smooth one?
No – as my book makes abundantly clear. My bosses at ITN were convinced I was poached principally to damage Channel Four News, which was becoming very successful. I think there was something in that.

You attended school in Liverpool with an array of talented individuals, including Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Was this a happy coincidence or a testament to how a good education can maximise a child's potential?
You've missed out George Harrison and Jimmy Tarbuck! My book is not just the story of my career – it's all about social mobility. The boys that I went to school with, many from poor homes, were able to advance because the excellent education they had gave them the confidence to move upwards. All the current political talk of social mobility really annoys me. The reason kids don't progress is that the appalling basic education that so many receive just doesn't equip them to.

As a 26-year-old war reporter in Biafra you were shot in the legs, an incident which changed the course of your career. What other defining moments can you identify from your life?
You can take your pick – there are plenty of such moments in the book. But being hired in the first place by ITN started it all. I am immensely proud that I was one of those given a job by Sir Geoffrey Cox, ITN's second editor, and probably the most influential figure in broadcast journalism.

Since retiring in 2009, have you in any way felt out of touch? Do you miss being one of the first to know about breaking news?
I know enough about news, and the sources of news, to keep in touch. I don't miss being part of the editorial sausage machine.

You are part of The Hillsborough inquiry panel, set up to study documents relating to the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989. Can you explain your role in this and how you became involved?
I was approached by the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson. It is a panel of many varied and appropriate talents. I am the media person.

What plans do you have for the future – will you remain a vocal media commentator, or do you now wish for a quieter life?
I am not going to be a rent-a-quote on the media, but if I have anything worthwhile to say I will say it. I have given up my work in news broadcasting, but I will continue with my corporate work. If other challenges arise I've never been one to sit them out.

You will be appearing at Wanstead Library this month. What can we expect from this event?
That's up to my audience. I hope they can get to know me better, throw some tough questions at me – and maybe even have a bit of fun!

When One Door Closes, by Peter Sissons, is out now published by Biteback, £17.99. Peter will be speaking at Wanstead Library on Friday 27 May at 7.15pm. To book tickets visit or call 020 8708 7400

blog comments powered by Disqus