Last week, I left the BBC after 35 years. The farewell was a wonderful evening - just as any hack's departure should be: crowded, boisterous, affectionate, mischievous and just a little dissolute. Pippa Gwilliam's great photos will give you a flavour of the event.
Steve Titherington, that's him above on the right, likened me to "the last Emperor of Rome" - I don't know whether that's because I've allowed the Vandals in, or lived a life of legendary debauch ... or perhaps that I am the last in a venerated (well, some of them) line of Editors of World Service News.
Steve, I am told, made a determined attempt to get the original bust of a Roman head found when Bush House was being built to join us at the farewell - apparently, the Deputy Head of Antiquities at the BBC said "eheu!", or something of that ilk. So you don't believe there was a Roman bust uncovered where Bush House now stands? Well, here it is ...
A few friends and comrades (some of them even younger than our friend above) joined in by video - great to hear from India, which has loomed so large in my life and career, as well as from correspondents and sparring partners who claimed they were on assignment somewhere or other:
And I've posted below the video - complete with kind words, wildly inaccurate anecdotes, and a visit to 'The Dungeon' at Westminster ...
It seemed to go down well ...
The gift was brilliantly chosen - a first edition of James Greenwood's 1874 The Wilds of London, an account of the seamier side of my adopted home city, a city which I still walk, explore and relish.
If you want to know what I said at the farewell - and remarkably, some people do - here's the scripted part ... do keep scrolling down, more photos below and at the end the hallmark of any World Service News farewell - Yes, Nigel's poem.
There’s a custom of these farewell speeches by grizzled veterans that they launch into anecdotes of times so remote that everyone is immediately convinced they should have been pensioned off decades ago.
I vowed to myself that I would not fall into that trap. But then, I thought, well what’s wrong with a bit of nostalgia.
I joined the BBC as a trainee talks writer on a three month contract in the autumn of 1980. Apart from a highly educative six weeks working on a lawn mowing gang of the Pudsey parks department – you have no idea how educative - the BBC is the only employer I have had.
Within this one organization, I have done a huge variety of tasks – reported from Stonehenge on the summer solstice; messed up the financial news on Radio 4; made a TV detective drama which got more eyeballs than Sherlock; made it to the Maldives for work – twice; introduced Bollywood’s Shilpa Shetty to reality TV … though I’m not sure which side of the ledger that stands.
The BBC has shaped and defined my life, it has shown me the world, it has given me skills, it has introduced me to my wife, it has moulded the interests that I will pursue in the years ahead. So the first thing is to say to the BBC, and that is to you collectively: thank you.
When I joined, Margaret Thatcher was new in Downing Street; the Soviets hadn’t invaded Afghanistan; the BBC had a Maltese service; and a trolley – sorry, the trolley - visited the Bush Newsroom twice a day … I’ve been working off the sausage rolls ever since.
I learnt my journalism in the Bush House Newsroom in the 1980s. When I first ventured there, subs bashed out brief filler stories on manual typewriters, duty editors corrected with lashings of pencil lead. It sounds as if it was from another century. It was another century. Curling plumes of cigarette smoke, compulsory bar breaks, and some habits and attitudes which are perhaps best left unexcavated.
Many of the more experienced journalists had worked on daily and regional papers, quite a few had spent time in Rhodesia or East Africa or Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur – there was a healthy suspicion of young ones with degrees who had never chased a story. There was also a warm, generous and inclusive sense of purpose and professional pride, great journalists and colleagues to whom I will always be grateful.
And of course those high octane moments from the early part of your career stay with you: being the sub on the LatAm desk on the night it became clear that Argentina was invading the Falklands; the drama and rumour as Poland’s Solidarity trade union was outlawed; above all, the massacre at the Sabra and Chatila camps – and hearing a BBC correspondent come up on the line from Beirut, I can’t remember who, and saying that he was with six or so other hardbitten foreign correspondents, and they had all listened to the last World Service bulletin, and had without bidding burst into applause. A telling of the story in which I had no role whatsoever – but I can recall the swell of pride. I feel it still.
I was lucky – I got my dream BBC job when barely 30. I spent four years as a lobby correspondent at Westminster – the regicide, what other word can be used, of Margaret Thatcher was the most intoxicating story; watching from the Commons press gallery as Geoffrey Howe made his resignation speech quite the most electrifying moment. I got to interview Margaret Thatcher once – of all the political figures I interviewed, she was the only one that made me feel small. Twenty-five years later I did the half hour obit programme on her for the World Service – I know what you’re thinking, I couldn’t possibly comment.
I also had the biggest run in I’ve ever had with a public figure – Geldof apart. I profiled Denis Skinner for ‘People and Politics’. He didn’t listen but my thank you note made the mistake of mentioning the other Parliamentary voices I had talked to about him – including a right-of-centre northern Labour backbencher. Denis rang - and berated me for fully twenty minutes. ‘Mr Whitehead, it was the leader’s office that told you to talk to him, wasn’t it. Come on now – they’ll have said to you talk to him, he’ll shaft Skinner. What’s your politics Mr Whitehead – come on, what’s your politics. I know you BBC types, you’ll tell me you haven’t got any politics. I know what that means: you’re SD bloody P’. … which certainly wasn’t my self image.
And then after the 1992 election – when John Smith’s accession to the Labour leadership convinced me, wrongly, that nothing was changing – I headed to India. My first trip there was making a doc about Calcutta’s Communists. It started badly. My luggage went to Saudi Arabia; the car didn’t show at Calcutta airport; the journey in, this was the blazing humid heat of mid-June, convinced me that no sense could be made of this chaotic, malodorous city; the hotel room wasn’t booked – so they put me in the only spare room in the old wing, the size of a ballroom, faded fifties decor, with a 20 watt lamp, just as well as it helped to conceal the substantial micro-fauna in the bathroom.
A couple of hours later, our then Calcutta stringer turned up to take credit for all the arrangements, bringing in tow, an aspiring young Bengali actress – his niece, he said - intended as my Calcutta chaperone, for whose benefit I immediately invented a pining wife and bawling baby back in London.
On that trip, I called in at Delhi and filed from a studio in the bureau there that entirely met the Duke of Edinburgh Indian gold standard for wiring. A producer in the bureau showed me the ropes – in gratitude, I gave her a dog-eared novel and indeed signed it. When a few months later I headed out as correspondent, she declared she had no recollection of the guy who couldn’t make the studio work: ‘There’s two or three of those London types passing through every week’, she moaned, ‘they all look the same.’
I went out to India single, I came back married (yes, to that producer) and with two kids. Anu is the best thing that ever happened to me, by far. I had the immense privilege of her as a guide to her country and its culture. A country which I have found intellectually captivating. Let me put it more plainly, a country which I love. India has been kind to me.
My relationship with Kashmir, whose history I have explored obsessively, is much more complex. Infused by conflict and suffering which I witnessed at close hand. Also by memory of a book bomb attack on the BBC office in Srinagar. It was intended to kill the BBC reporter at that time, Yusuf Jameel; he was badly injured; his colleague a photographer and camera operator Mushtaq Ali with whom I’d worked was killed. The bomb was delivered by a woman wearing a burqa. Culpability has never been absolutely clear – I’ll continue to keep my own counsel.
For the past five years, I’ve been head of news at the World Service. One of the perks of the job used to be having a PA. I came across the other day the stand-out email of my BBC years. From an agency worker who was coming to be my stand-in PA for a couple of weeks. I’d be told that she was also an actress and might need time off for auditions. On her first day, she didn’t show. At all. I sent her an email – where are you? ‘So sorry’ she replied that evening. ‘The audition lasted much longer than expected. My mobile and all my stuff was at the other end of Pinewood. Couldn’t even send a message. I was being tried out for a part as Penelope Cruz’s body double.’
That certainly stimulated my interest in meeting my new PA the following morning. No, she didn’t get the part. But yes, to my undiscerning eye I could see the potential. You just don’t know what they are looking for, do you.
I knew when I got the editor’s job it would be tough – with big public spending cuts in prospect, along with the move from Bush House. Leaving Bush was a wrench, but also the best thing that ever happened to the World Service. If we weren’t in here, part of this splendid if maddening building, that would be the tragedy.
And the cuts? Fairly bloody, and there were aspects of the whole business which left me feeling bruised. I am very grateful to the editors that I’ve worked with – fine editors … we kept together when we could so easily have fallen apart. We have emerged out of that process with our purpose and our audience intact. With a fine record of innovation and awards; making a good start to a digital transition. We are the BBC’s biggest radio network in terms of listeners – by far. Just 5% of those listeners are here in the UK, but that still gives us a reach here on a par with Radio 3. This coming year we have more new investment than we have savings – we’re growing again.
So it’s a good time to go. This departure from the BBC has not been forced on me. It’s something I’ve been thinking and talking about for a year or two. I feel sad that I am the last in the line of editors of World Service News, in the Gormenghast which is the BBC it’s like an ancient Earldom that’s falling extinct - but the future of our programmes and our network is as secure as anything in this organisation can be.
And of course there is the personal connection. Throughout my BBC career I have been lucky with my bosses; fortunate in my friendships. I’ve seen Kiev with Olexiy, Calcutta with both Bishaka and Nazes, Cape Town with Shen, Lahore with Mazhar, Lucknow just recently with Ram Dutt – those allegiances will outlast a job.
I’ve worked with some really talented colleagues. There is no greater pleasure than getting someone in a role or position where they just vroom – on air, and off. I’ve been lucky – that’s happened quite a lot in recent years.
Above all I’ve been blessed by your friendship. Thank you.
And a 'bonus' for getting this far - here's me c1988 in the old correspondents' unit at Bush House:
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