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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 January, 2005, 16:25 GMT
From Cold War to the War on Terror
By David Sells
Correspondent, Newsnight

David Sells reporting for the first programme
David Sells presenting the first foreign report for Newsnight
To plunge into the past, trawling through memories of 25 years ago, when Newsnight was born, is an odd experience.

Much is remembered, yet so much forgotten.

It was still the age of the Cold War, of Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter, a dichotomy reflected in my first film report for the programme.

I flew to Oman, an antique sultanate tucked into the south-eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula. A land with a tiny population, but commanding the entrance to the Persian Gulf, so strategically important for the Americans and their western allies.

Two-thirds of the world's oil passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran was on its northern shore and South Yemen, a Soviet ally, was Oman's neighbour to the West. Soviet warships were lurking. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had just taken place. The Americans were more than interested.

Britain was Oman's historic patron, helping to build its army and air force at the time, but America was the key power.

Oman's Sultan, prime minister and foreign minister: Qaboos Bin-Said Al Said
The Sultan of Oman, Qaboos Bin-Said Al Said, on the first Newsnight
With a Marxist South Yemen next door, Oman needed American protection, but would permit no American military presence. As the Sultan himself told me: "the word 'bases' is out of the question."

For me an interesting trip. For Newsnight, a report from a rare location to add a little foreign colour to its opening programme on 30 January, 1980.

New ideas

A new programme is fun to work for. Colleagues are new, the ideas are new. A television identity is being sought. All this, in itself, is inspiring. And, as our doyen, the reporter and presenter, Charles Wheeler, told me once: working for a daily programme keeps you up to scratch with events, keeps your feet on the ground.

My speciality was foreign news. In July, of that same initial year, I flew to Ethiopia. The story: a famine. This was not the epic famine of 1984/85, but a precursor, one of many that has plagued this poverty-stricken land.

Only too often, I have witnessed man's inhumanity to man, just occasionally, there intervenes a moment of uplift
A yellow fever injection at the airport in Addis Ababa, malarial pills to follow. My producer, camera team, and I roamed the country, filming selected villages, a hospital, children with deficiency diseases, talking to Ethiopian ministers, a doctor and Oxfam representatives.

My diary note for Friday, 4 July, says: scripting until one o'clock in the morning, recording of script ended at three o'clock, typed it out and then slept for three hours, whizzing off to the airport in the morning to ship our film to London.

Red Brigades

The following month Italian neo-fascists detonated a powerful suit-case bomb in a crowded waiting room at the railway station in Bologna. It killed 85 people and injured almost 200 others. The victims were aged from three to 86: infants and adolescents, boys and girls, husbands and wives.

The bomb went off just before 1030 on a Saturday morning. The August holidays were beginning. Italians were flocking to the sea-side. The station was packed.

Red Brigade five-point star logo
The Red Brigades logo was found near the scene of the murder of an Italian government adviser in 2002
Bologna was famously Communist in those days, the seat of Red power in Italy. The trial of eight neo-fascists, accused of exploding another bomb six years earlier on an express train near Bologna, had just begun.

The trial was the trigger and the station massacre no co-incidence. These were the so-called "years of lead" in Italy. With the Red Brigades practising terrorism from the left, and neo-fascists responding from the right.

I, with a producer and film crew, flew to Milan the same day, driving down to Bologna on the Sunday. We paced that Bologna platform, peering into the crater, re-living the misery of the previous day, seeking to recreate for Newsnight a picture of postwar Italy's bloodiest mass-murder.


And so, in those early Newsnight years, the stories came and went.

We had access to an extraordinary camp outside Milan, in Italy, where Yugoslav gypsies, denied work permits, schooled their children aged 7-11 in theft, driving them into town in the morning, then letting them loose to steal. In Italy you couldn't be prosecuted if you were under twelve. A story straight out of Oliver Twist.

Only too often, I have witnessed man's inhumanity to man. Just occasionally, there intervenes a moment of uplift. Mrs Gena Turgel is a Polish-born Jew, now about 80, who lives in North London. She lost five of her brothers and sisters in the Holocaust, but she and her mother somehow survived Plaszow, Auschwitz, and Belsen.

For years she has been visiting British schools to tell them of what happened to her and other Jews at that time. Mrs Turgel is a quietly-spoken, remarkable lady who exudes grace, wholly unforgettable. Thank you, Newsnight.

Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10:30pm on BBC Two in the UK.

David Sells biography
05 Aug 03 |  Newsnight


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