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Veteran newsman provides an evocative portrait of a dying era, writes Hamilton Wende of Jeremy Thompson’s autobiography

Published in the Sunday Times
 
Breaking NewsBreaking News
*****
Jeremy Thompson
Biteback Publishing
R385

Jeremy Thompson sits across the table. He loosens his trademark silk presenter’s tie and gives me a warm smile. His relaxed, open approach exposes the real person behind the global fame and the glass curve of the TV screen. A disclaimer: I have worked for other networks alongside Thompson, and always found him to be completely professional, and often downright amusing.

I jumped at the chance to interview him about his newly released autobiography Breaking News, his account of nearly 50 years in the news business. An epic journey from being an apprentice newspaper hack in Britain in the late ’60s, using a red phone booth and a pocketful of two-penny pieces to dictate his stories, to going live as a world famous presenter for Sky News on an iPhone from the streets of Paris in the November 2015 terror attack.

“I liked telling stories and digging around.” He looks at me over his loosened tie and unbuttoned collar. “I was a 16-year-old schoolboy when Kennedy was assassinated. I got hooked then. I wanted to know more.”

When young Jeremy announced his career plans, his father was appalled. An insurance man who had built a solid career, starting in the depths of the Great Depression, he blurted out that only jazz musicians were a worse insurance risk than journalists.

Thompson rose from apprentice newspaper reporter to local radio with BBC Radio Sheffield, where he covered the bitter coal miners’ strikes in the ’70s, the birth of Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, and the horror of the Yorkshire Ripper.

He joined British network ITN and his world exploded. He and his crews travelled the globe covering news for decades, “often blagging our way onto First Class”. His first major conflict was the violence after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, then on to pro-democracy riots in South Korea, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, then Sri Lanka, Tiananmen Square, a coup in Fiji, the first Gulf War, the release of Nelson Mandela, Bosnia, Kosovo.

“I’ve always followed my nose,” Jeremy says. “And opportunities opened up for me. I’m lucky, I never thought I would get this far.” In 1991 he and his family came to South Africa for ITN. One of his highlights was the 1994 election. “I had been at the Bisho Massacre, and at Boipatong. I had the soil of South Africa under my fingernails, and the blood of some of its residents splashed over me. It was hard not to get emotionally involved watching people here voting for the first time in their lives. I wanted to tell their story.”

The genocide in Rwanda that was occurring at the same time shook Thompson deeply. Yet he says: “I could cope. I could turn what I saw into TV that would hopefully make a difference somewhere down the line. I tried to be objective and fair, tell both sides and work really hard to let the viewer decide.”

Not so easy to achieve today? He looks at me carefully. “No, ISIS has taken things a step beyond. Most stories about Iraq and Syria today use third-hand information. They are still telling the story of what is happening. But you can’t really tell it as an eyewitness, because it’s become a death sentence to go there.”

His book is partly an elegy for a time when journalists were freer to roam the world and tell stories of what they found and who they met. “A lot of news today is a processing plant that is not dealing with first-hand, grassroots stories.”

It’s a great read – often funny along with the darker stories. He writes with an accomplished journalist’s verve and colour. The previous US election was Jeremy’s last big story. “By the end of the Trump election,” he says, “real news was left face down like road kill on the information superhighway.”

His book is an evocative portrait of an era that is dying, but it is a plea for journalists to keep fighting for what he regards as his most important goal: “The viewer’s trust,” he says, “is crucial.” @HamiltonWende

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