Who were the first female news reporter and presenter on UK national TV?

It was, according to a BBC Radio Four programme in November 2013 , ‘a forgotten piece of broadcasting history, the first woman to present the news on a national television service in Britain did not work for the BBC’.

To those of us latecomers to ITN who only joined in 1972, that woman was just Barbara, an always polite copytaster in the Wells Street newsroom. We’d heard that she’d once been an ITN newsreader on ‘Lunchbox’, ITV’s first attempt at daytime television back in 1955. But she hardly ever talked about it.

Now nearly sixty years after the event and fifteen years after her death, media history –and maybe some of us too- are catching up with the full significance of the life and work of Barbara Mandell.

‘Getting on Air-the Female Pioneers’  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ffp9q) was a five part lunchtime series presented by Jane Garvey and produced by an independent, Jane Reck. They managed to track down all eleven seconds of the only surviving recording of Barbara on-air as a news reader. Media historian Jean Seaton  said that judged by the clip Barbara didn’t conform to the  normal stereotype of a female newsreader  which was ‘a small nose, be pretty, not move very much ..and be accompanied by an older, greyer chap’. Instead, said Professor Seaton, ‘Mrs Mandell, when you see her, she’s eager, she leans forward, she’s a middle-aged intelligent woman’.

According to the programme Barbara had ‘proved an important point, a woman could be a voice of authority without upsetting the audience’

Barbara’s importance is also acknowledged by Suzanne Franks, author of  a new book ‘Women and Journalism’. Nearly two decades after Barbara’s first broadcast on ITV the BBC  still had what Professor Franks calls ‘a wide range of hostility towards women in the corporation’

She quotes from an internal BBC report from 1973:

On the prospect of female newsreaders it quoted a senior manager observing how ‘women have class bound voices unsuitable for news reading . . . [and] may introduce emotion’. On the possibility of hiring women reporters it noted that women would be ‘unable to work in the cold and wet . . . and (are) not able to make overnight stays on location with a man as wives would not like it’. Another senior male editor, commenting on the prospect of employing female reporters, said that ‘although he had interviewed many women for reporter jobs he had “never found any woman with the remotest chance of working in that capacity” . . . he believes that women are simply not able to do hard news stories .

An online search through the ITN Source archive database shows that Barbara was also significant for her role as a hard news reporter. The lunchtime news only lasted a few months before it was dropped for financial reasons, but Barbara had already proved her worth as a reporter and she focused on that.

The database shows that on 30th September 1955 she interviewed a man called Fred Russell on his 93rd birthday about the possibility of making it to 100,which was obviously less common then than it is now.

That transmission would have made Barbara the first female television reporter on air but for the fact that the database shows that the day before Lynne Reid Banks (later a successful novelist) had interviewed a boxer who had just got engaged.

Barbara did a wide range of interviews with people in the news and went on to do reporter packages on Paris fashion shows in the sixties.

She retired in 1980 and wrote travel books and made travel films with her partner, former  ITN cameraman Martin Gray. She had been divorced from Alan Mardell, better known as the broadcaster Alan Dell.

ITN is entitled to feel pride that a woman read the news a full 20 years before Angela Rippon became the BBC ‘s first permanent woman news reader. But maybe that pride should be tempered by the realization that it was 23 years after Barbara’s lunchtime news before Anna Ford joined the company as what was widely described in 1978 as ‘ITN’s first female newsreader’.

One footnote : in the same week as the Radio Four series went out I was on a train north when I thought the face of the woman sitting next to me was familiar. One name came to mind so I asked, rather clumsily, ‘did you used to be Victoria Brittain?’ .To which she replied ‘I still am Victoria Brittain’ .

Victoria was one of a group of women reporters hired by Nigel Ryan in the early seventies and was sent to cover the Vietnam war. She told me that afterwards she decided she wanted to go back to newspapers and she also wanted to go back to Vietnam, so she became the resident correspondent there for The Times. She went on to become a foreign editor at the Guardian and is a now a journalist and author specializing in ‘the war on terror’.

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