Originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 1st August, 2020, 06:00
John Heuston, who has died aged 94, was BBC Television’s first Foreign News editor, and before that a distinguished foreign correspondent in the days when radio was still king.
Heuston made the transition from radio to television at a critical time in the development of BBC TV news. For a decade the service had languished under the dead hand of Tahu Hole, a dour New Zealander who (like a good many other BBC executives at the time) saw television news as radio with still pictures. His cautious approach to the business of news-gathering invariably led him to wonder, when presented with a scoop, why it had not been confirmed from another source.
Heuston was part of the generation which, spurred on by the runaway success of ITN on the rival channel, determined to end this state of affairs. He enjoyed the advantage of having a foot in both camps, as a highly respected foreign correspondent for radio who had acquired some expertise in the new medium. He attacked the task of bringing BBC TV foreign news coverage into the second half of the 20th century with vigour and enthusiasm.
From being compelled to use radio practitioners he gradually built up a formidable stable of foreign correspondents who were thoroughly at home in the world of on-screen reporting, including such notable names as Martin Bell, John Simpson, Donald Milner, Brian Hanrahan, and Kate Adie. Reconciling the entrenched radio culture with the demands of the brash new service, he would say, was a bit like holding the ring between a loutish nephew and a prim maiden aunt.
Central to his new challenges were the daily news conferences and picture exchanges with other Eurovision countries. Lacking modern-day aids to instant picture communication, Heuston was called on almost daily to make a crucial decision: was a breaking story important enough to justify dispatching a reporter and camera crew?
Apart from the expense involved, he knew that London was unlikely to receive the huge cans of film which were the news service’s stock in trade in under 24 hours, by which time the story might have gone cold. It was, he would tell friends, “like backing horses”.
Delays at customs, plus the time involved in getting film to Alexandra Palace and processing it, added to his concerns. From time to time Heuston and his team found it necessary to “massage” a story to keep interest in it alive until the film was ready for screening.
He stayed in this demanding job for 14 years, sustained by a laid-back philosophy which one of his colleagues described as “studied casualness”. When faced with an outburst of temperament from one of the journalists the Heuston regime had helped to turn into stars, he would deploy successive weapons of sweet reason, Irish charm, and finally a touch of asperity lurking under his normally benign persona.
Descended from a well-to-do Anglo-Irish farming family with a big house in Tipperary, John Heuston was born in Dublin on July 18 1925 and educated at the twin pillars of upper-crust Anglo-Irish Protestantism, St Columba’s and Trinity College. On graduating he secured a post with The Irish Times. An interview with the BBC yielded the unpromising response that he would be sent for “should the radio service need him”.
Meanwhile he was posted to Paris, an environment he described as “something that had dropped out of heaven”. When the call from the BBC came, Heuston had a hard tussle resolving the delights of the Parisian fleshpots with his determination to advance his career. At 26 he found himself back in the French capital, this time as assistant to the famed BBC foreign correspondent Thomas Cadett.
He made an early reputation as a radio reporter with vivid dispatches from the Netherlands, covering floods which claimed the lives of 11,300 people. Soon he was in the shooting zones of Algeria and Cyprus, learning the sterner business of the war correspondent. He was also posted to Washington, where he met Eisenhower.
From active service in the radio field, Heuston was recalled to the BBC TV headquarters at Alexandra Palace to work as a news scriptwriter. It was this job which led to the focal point of his career as the BBC’s first foreign editor for TV News.
In 1966 Heuston married Rosemary Allen, an estate agent in East Sussex, whom he had met at a Swiss ski resort. They had no children, but he was unfailingly generous to the younger members of his wife’s family. In retirement he cultivated his taste for Irish literature, especially the works of James Joyce, and pursued an interest in the battlefields of the American Civil War.
Rosemary Heuston died in 2019 at the age of 91 and John Heuston spent the remaining months of his life in a retirement home near Uckfield, the Sussex town where the Heustons had lived for many years.
John Heuston, born July 18 1925, died July 6 2020