David Phillips obituary
The television journalist David Phillips, who has died aged 87, was instrumental in helping ITV’s News at Ten to bring in a new age of reporting and steal a march on the BBC when it was launched in 1967.
Made by ITN, it was Britain’s first half-hour news programme, giving in-depth treatment to the day’s issues – slightly at variance with what Phillips and Nigel Ryan, its senior producer, saw on a trip to New York to investigate how networks in the US filled the extra time. “What the Americans have done is simply increase the number of stories in their bulletins,” wrote Phillips to ITN’s editor, Geoffrey Cox. “They have not come up with a new style, a new approach.”
Phillips and Ryan saw the opportunity to put “reporter packages” in front of viewers, allowing the news organisation’s on-the-spot journalists to stamp their authority on the stories. Reporters would now write and record their own scripts over the entire footage instead of simply recording interviews and “pieces to camera” while newscasters spoke over the rest of the film, as had generally occurred until then.
The impact on viewers was immediate and News at Ten was soon watched by up to 15 million people, even topping the TV ratings on some days. As a field producer for News at Ten and for special programmes, often in places of war and upheaval, Phillips showed himself to be enterprising, a master of logistics and a skilled negotiator.
In 1970, he travelled to Jordan to coordinate filming of an ITN documentary for ITV about the hijacking of three aircraft by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The planes were forced to land at a desert runway, Dawson’s Field, in Jordan, where more than 300 passengers, including 52 Britons, were held as ransom for the release of other Palestinians imprisoned in Europe and Israel, and explosives were strapped to the aircraft.
When the hostages were released, Phillips was happy with interviews conducted by Michael Nicholson and Gerald Seymour, and footage of triumphant Palestinian guerrillas firing rifles in the air. However, Nicholson was then told by their freelance Palestinian camera operator, Ghassan Dalal, to return to the airfield with him. As they arrived, there were three explosions.
ITN had the only closeup film of the aircraft being blown up but, in those days before instant satellite transmissions, film had to be flown out. With no scheduled airliners, Phillips chartered a Caravelle jet to fly to him to Nicosia, Cyprus, with the film, then on to London.
This involved striking a deal with a CBS journalist to share the flight cost and allow the American network to broadcast the film in the US only – once it had been screened by ITV.
On Phillips’s arrival in London, the film was edited in half a day, then screened in Deadline at Dawson’s Field at 5.30pm and on that Sunday night’s news. A former ITN colleague at the BBC offered him a job on Panorama, but he declined.
Instead, he continued to show his aptitude at getting major stories on to ITV in testing circumstances. During the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, which led to the independence of Bangladesh, he flew with film to Bangkok, processed it in a chemist’s shop and cut it on a small editing machine he carried in his holdall.
Closer to home, he travelled to Northern Ireland in January 1972, drafting in a second film crew when he saw the potential for violence on Bloody Sunday.
Later that year, he was at the Munich Olympics when the Palestinian group Black September took Israeli athletes hostage and 11 were killed. He and Seymour climbed over a security fence to get into the Olympic village and found a vantage point from which to film the negotiations. He sent the film out with the manager of the British men’s hockey team.
The following month, Black September sympathisers hijacked a Lufthansa plane and redirected it to Tripoli. Phillips – again with Seymour – chartered a plane and secured a world-exclusive interview with one of the terrorists. In 1973, he coordinated another ITN scoop, film of Egypt and Syria invading Israel at the start of the Yom Kippur war.
Later studio-based, Phillips was News at Ten’s output editor, then in 1976 – aware of the distinctive character developed by that programme and the lunchtime First Report – he suggested revamping the early evening news and extending it from 10 to 15 minutes.
As its programme editor, he travelled to New York with Alastair Burnet, who was to present it, to see how the American newscaster Walter Kronkite anchored the CBS news with “cosiness and authority”. On his return, Phillips launched News at 5.45 with a tightly edited, brash style and greater use of sharp images illustrating the stories behind Burnet.
However, he left ITN in 1979 to join the American network NBC as a field producer based in London, working on major international stories in Afghanistan, Lebanon and other hotspots. Before retiring in 1997, he was also the network’s Paris bureau editor and London bureau deputy editor.
David was born in Newcastle upon Tyne to Nellie (nee Attwood) and Tom Phillips, a journalist who became a well-known sports writer on the Daily Mirror. On leaving the King’s school, Canterbury, aged 17, David was a reporter on the Northern Echo and the Sunderland Echo, then a subeditor on the Newcastle Journal, Scottish Daily Mail, Manchester Evening News and the London Evening Standard.
In 1959, Phillips joined ITN as a scriptwriter before becoming programme editor of its current affairs series Dateline (1961-62) and Roving Report (1962-64). From 1965, he was producer of the 14-minute 8.55pm news until it was transformed into News at Ten two years later.
In retirement, Phillips, whom colleagues described as innovative and inspirational, was a voracious reader and regular visitor to Epsom and Ascot for horse racing, his great passion.
In 1957, Phillips married Joan Plemper, who died last year. He is survived by their two sons, Xan and Guy, and a daughter, Abigail.
• David Phillips, television journalist, born 17 October 1933; died 15 August 2021