[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 8 August 2005, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
One of the best
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

There's a great spirit gone.

Peter Jennings, the ABC TV news anchor who died on Monday, was probably the best in the world at his trade; but he always maintained a wry awareness that reporting, and fronting other people's reporting, for television was something pretty slight in the grand scale of things.

Peter Jennings
Jennings was born in Canada, but became a US citizen in 2003

Yet he took the job with great seriousness. He had been a good correspondent for ABC for years, in the Middle East and elsewhere, before he was promoted to the job of anchorman.

Unlike most people who present the news in Europe or the United States, he also acted as an editor, going through the correspondents' scripts with immense care, and if necessary asking the teams on the ground to make changes.

On one spectacular occasion in the early 1990s, I was watching ABC News from a hotel room somewhere in the United States when something distinctly unusual happened - the videotape of a report on, I think, the situation in the former Soviet Union broke while it was being transmitted.

The producer cut straight to Peter in the studio, who apologised and then told us quickly and clearly what the correspondent's report was going on to say.

Peter did what he could to halt the downward spiral of television news in America

I do not suppose one news presenter in 200 could do that, because they rarely even see the reports they introduce beforehand.

But what impressed me was the ease and fluency with which Peter summed up the correspondent's points.

I have been a broadcaster for 40 years, but I have never managed to rid myself of the awful habit of umming and erring and falling over my words when I speak. Peter could have been reading off autocue - except I knew he was not.

No wonder, I wrote to him afterwards, with the acidity of someone on a tiny fraction of his salary, they pay you so much.

Missing privacy

Yet Peter knew the presentational aspect of television news was just candyfloss.

"I can't walk down the street in New York City nowadays," he said to me on one of the last times I saw him. "I have to be driven, even if it's only a couple of blocks. People just crowd round."

He was not being boastful; on the contrary, it was said with real regret.

"When I was a correspondent, nobody recognised me at all. I could go anywhere."

He maintained a sentimental affection for the job of the correspondent in the field. And he knew how to flatter us.

I remember Mr Jennings as a very photogenic presence on the TV screen
Jodi, Brussels, Belgium

In 1992, during the siege of Sarajevo, he and his producer made the difficult journey without a cameraman. Because ABC and the BBC had recently formed an alliance, I had offered him the services of the cameraman who was working with me - a superbly bearded South African giant called Nigel Bateson.

As Peter and I walked across the darkened, shattered lobby of our hotel to where Nigel was standing, the broken glass crunching under our feet, he whispered to me: "What's the cameraman's name?"

I told him.

Then he reached out his hand. "Nigel," he said, "what superb pictures you've been getting. I watched them coming in last night."

Nigel went pink with the pleasure of being praised by the best-paid man in television, and was prepared to do anything Peter wanted, forever more.

Peter did what he could to halt the downward spiral of television news in America - that terrible turning inward, which means the less you know about the world, the less you want to know about it, and therefore the less a ratings-obsessed industry decides to tell you.

Peter Jennings in Baghdad, 30 January 2005
Jennings reported on the Iraqi elections in January 2005

He often forced news items onto his programmes because they were important, not because the producers wanted them.

He loathed the arrival of the Fox network, with its open, noisy adherence to a political agenda, and believed it would destroy the old-fashioned notion of honest and unbiased reporting forever.

As for his own political opinions, I could never work them out. He would not tell me what he really thought about Clinton or George W Bush, and I eventually stopped asking him.

Old-fashioned journalism

As a Canadian, he was a bit of an outsider, though in the end he became an American citizen and was very proud of the fact.

He was seven years older than me, but looked a good 10 years younger.

"I can't spend what you do on make-up," I once said to him nastily. "It's all just appearance," he answered.

Now, though, he seems to me like the last, best example of a tradition that had already started to vanish long before his death - the tradition of Martha Gellhorn and Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite, people who went and found out what was really happening before they started to talk about it.

Nowadays, most American and British writing and broadcasting about subjects like Iraq is done by people who do not go there.

Peter Jennings did go there, and continued to go even when he knew he was dying.

"What brings you here?" I asked him the last time I saw him, standing outside the Convention Centre in the Green Zone in Baghdad last January.

"Oh, the usual. Just trying to find out what's going on."

That was Peter's greatest art - or as he would have said, in his self-deprecating Canadian way, his skill. It is something which is fast disappearing.


Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad is pulled down True predictions
Three years Saddam Hussein's regime fell, what has gone wrong in Iraq?




News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific