Sir David Nicholas, TV news-inspired editor who drove the success of ITN’s News at Ten in its golden years – obituary

Sir David Nicholas, who has died aged 92, played a key role in establishing Independent Television News (ITN) as a serious rival to the BBC, combining dramatic coverage of big events with human stories which made them understandable to the widest possible audience.

He produced the very first News at Ten, became its editor, then ITN’s editor, managing director and chairman. He enshrined the doctrine of the four ‘e’s – Exclusivity, Enthusiasm, Enthusiasm and Entrepreneurship – which have defined ITN as one of the world’s leading journalistic brands. “At the sight of a report, remembers one of his journalists, David’s eyes lit up. He loved the world of information.

David Nicholas became known for achieving the impossible, notably as editor of News at Ten between 1977 and 1989, when he was both energetic and tenacious. In 1982 he fought a battle with the Ministry of Defense to tell the truth about what was happening during the Falklands War. After hiring a news crew to join the task force bound for the South Atlantic, Nicholas was frustrated that official reluctance to allow access to a satellite feed was delaying ITN footage of ongoing events.

A brilliant and instinctive editor, he knew how to spot talent in front of and behind the camera and was responsible for much of ITN’s success in handling major news events. In 1967 he landed exclusive live coverage of Francis Chichester’s completion of his solo trip around the world, hiring a Dutch coaster to ferry the ITN film crew and loading it with 300 tons of gravel as ballast, the strangest item to appear at his expense. sheet.

In 1978, he led an elaborate operation to rescue correspondent Michael Nicholson and his film crew after 110 days of marching 1,500 miles through the Angolan bush with the rebel forces of Dr Jonas Savimbi.

The following year he sacked longtime ITN newsreader Reginald Bosanquet and later oversaw the company’s move to new, more spacious headquarters and the launch of the global news ‘superchannel’ of ITN, the first television news broadcast from London across Europe.

Nicholas became known for his enthusiasm for new technologies and ITN was the first news organization in the world to have a mobile satellite dish, allowing journalists to transmit their live reports directly to the studio.

He quickly developed the potential of computer graphics, which could help viewers understand complex scenarios – like the distribution of forces on a battlefield – much better than words. “We can describe things with absolute clarity and in a short time,” he said. “The newspapers cannot follow us. Our graphics move and are in color.

One of the keys to Nicholas’s success and longevity is that he never forgot his early days as a small-time journalist at a local Wakefield newspaper, where he satisfied his readers with no less than eight columns a week. tracing the fortunes of Wakefield Trinity. rugby league team.

Whenever the brilliant Welshman felt depressed by the budget worries of the ITV companies that owned ITN, he was thankful for delivering him from this early drudgery. Yet he also recognized the value of “human interest” stories – the News at Ten reporting “…and at last” – that would resonate in Wakefield’s backyards as loudly as it did in the greenbelt of stockbrokers.

The son of a bank teller, David Nicholas was born in Tregaron, Cardiganshire (now Ceredigion) on January 25, 1930, and grew up in the small town of Glynneath, South Wales.

“My dad was a radio freak,” he recalled, “and my job was to come down every Wednesday and bring back the wet radio battery when it had been recharged.”

David attended Neath Grammar School and the University College of Wales in Aberwystwyth (now part of the University of Wales), earning a degree in English before doing his military service in the army.

His period with the local Wakefield newspaper was followed by stints as deputy editor of the Yorkshire Post and the Daily Telegraph. He was persuaded to go on television after replacing Telegraph reports on union corruption which had little impact until the BBC’s Panorama picked up the story.

He joined ITN in 1960 as a screenwriter and before long his energy and flair for a good story won him a promotion – assistant editor (1963-77), then editor and general manager (1977 -89).

When News at Ten began as a 12-week trial on July 3, 1967, Nicholas felt he couldn’t do much wrong in the summer. He had an impact early on, helping to make Vietnam the first televised war and broadcasting the first images of the Biafra famine. It remained on screen for over 30 years, reaching a viewing count of 14 million during the 1980s, eclipsing the BBC’s ratings.

Looking for something new to boost ITN’s election coverage, he spotted a computer program designed to display knitting patterns and saw its potential. Shortly after, Peter Snow was to be seen on television screens across the country reporting the election as the infographic behind him tracked the incoming results in colored ribbons.

Nicholas encouraged his reporters to view their stories not just as scripts, but as packages. These can include video footage, graphics, maps, music and other sound effects, camera bits and commentary tracks – all molded together in the field or by live-action editors. ‘ITN in London.

The choice of stories on News at Ten, he once said, could also be made by anyone who had walked down the street: “The choices would reflect the opinions of most ordinary people given the constraints of time . Where professionalism comes in is in the packaging.

When the circumstances warranted it, he was quick to step out of the half-hour time slot. For an ITN Special on the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, he hired Trafalgar Square for a party and recruited the likes of David Frost from the roster of studio presenters.

Where BBC coverage focused on scientific achievement, ITN coverage was not just news, but a celebration of a milestone in human history. In the BBC’s weekly magazine, The Listener, journalist William Hardcastle discerned a significant moment. “In the past,” he observed, “the BBC has tended to excel in the management of this material, partly because of experience and partly because of the national cohesion of its network. So it was quite striking how ITV rather than the BBC rose to the occasion.

Nicholas became Chairman of ITN in 1989, at a time when ITV companies were looking for cost savings. Even his most ardent admirers noted that he was not one to preside over a period of rigor. He lacked the appetite, as a colleague put it, “to tickle costumes.” A hole in ITN’s accounts brought matters to a head, necessitating major redundancies, and in 1991 he retired as chairman, after two years.

Nicholas was a strong proponent of round-the-clock news, arguing it would allow politicians to be watched more closely. Subsequently, he was a consulting editor of Associated Newspaper’s 24-hour television news station, Channel One, director of Worldwide TV News and non-executive director of Channel Four.

Nicholas, who enjoyed walking and sailing in his spare time, was made a CBE in 1982 and knighted in 1989. In 1991 he received the Royal Television Society Judges Award and in 2001 he received an award for of his accomplishments at the global news forum News World. in Barcelona.

He married, in 1952, Juliet Davies, whom he had first met at a birthday party when they were both eight years old; later they would sit together on the school bus to Neath.

She passed away in 2013 and David Nicholas is survived by their son and daughter.

Sir David Nicholas, born January 25, 1930, died June 6, 2022

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