When Sir David Frost (just for once) was on the wrong side

I count myself as being in what Chris Mullin would call ‘the foothills’ of Sir David Frost’s acquaintancies. For example I was among those guests for his summer garden party who would arrive nervous that he would have no idea who we were or why on earth he had invited us.I needn’t have worried.Whether or not he remembered,his legendary charm got both of us through the encounter without stress.

And so it was in all our professional dealings. But just to show that none of us is perfect I can also remember a Sunday morning in 1991 when we were on very opposing sides.

We were both working for the same channel,Channel 3 in the UK.But such was the bizarre structure  that I was the editor of the channel’s news service for for twenty and a half hours each day,the ITN News on ITV,and he was one of the founding presenters of the news service for three and a half hours each breakfast time,on the separate franchise TVAM.

During the Gulf War of 1991 ITN kept a correspondent,Brent Sadler,and crew in the Iraqi capital,Baghdad ,despite constant pressure from John Major’s Government to withdraw.A number of people who should have known better called me privately to add to that pressure.We did not change our mind.Newspapers ,like the Mail on Sunday,who did not have their own person in Baghdad, asked us to get Sadler to write for them and displayed those articles prominently.

But then the Mail on Sunday seemed to change sides.They ran an article attacking television as ‘a messenger for Saddam’s lies’.According to the paper television was ‘ a poor medium for news.It corrupts the intellect.It destroys real debate’. The Mail characterised the previous week’s TV coverage from Baghdad as ‘they had war in all its brutality.And how they loved it’.

David’s response was not to stand up for television but to join in the criticism. After one of ITN’s many overnight programmes on the progress of the war,he opened his  Sunday show on TVAM by proudly announcing  that TVAM did not have a correspondent in Baghdad.I cannot remember any other TV station in the world  making such a proud announcement  about any news event. The main front man for one part of the ITV system was publicly criticising another part for its commitment to independent eye-witness reporting,

I put it down to David ,with his excellent contacts in Government,  telling them what they wanted to hear by distancing himself from us.

It was a pity because David had been a major part of one of the greatest successes for cooperation within the dysfunctional ITV system-the 1969 coverage of man landing on the Moon. The combination of David Frost and Alastair Burnet ,with brilliant production by David Nicholas of ITN (all three later knighted for services to broadcasting), won the creative and ratings competition with the BBC.

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