Friday, November 22. At 17 minutes, 32 seconds past seven o’clock the first news flash about the shooting of President Kennedy was transmitted. At 19.40.30 the President’s death was reported as a fact. Normal programmes were abandoned.
This is how four members of the staff recall that evening:
‘We were having a drink in the club when someone telephoned to say that Kennedy had been shot. Less than an hour later we had got the go-ahead for a special programme – and two hours, 40 minutes after that we were on the air…’
‘There were about six people up in features when I went off to the TV Ball at the Dorchester with the news. When I got back there must have been dozens – and every phone was in use…
‘Studio 9 was bare – but all sorts of people turned up and offered to help. We didn’t have a complete crew but someone phoned Wembley and every available person was diverted to Television House…
‘A switchboard operator returned of her own accord because she guessed how busy it was going to be. Pretty well everyone in features section either phoned in or came back to the office from pubs, clubs and homes…’
This is how the general manager saw it:
‘Associated-Rediffusion, as the “Nominated Contractor” of the Network, recast the whole evening’s programmes, dropped many advertisements, put on a special “This Week” and behaved with great responsibility. My thanks are due to all those members of the staff who, of their own volition, returned to the office or the studios so that this emergency could be met.’
This is how James Green, television correspondent of the Evening News saw it:
Now that the senseless tragedy of President Kennedy’s assassination is moving slowly into perspective, it is pertinent to consider how well or how badly British TV acquitted itself.
The moment of crisis could not have happened at a worse time for the two British networks. Almost to a man, the policy-making, programme-planning executives of both the BBC and the ITV companies were arriving at the Dorchester Hotel for the annual ball of the Guild of TV Producers and Directors.
Some 70 of the guests left at once for their respective offices and studios. Every telephone at the hotel was in demand and calls were even being made from the kitchens.
(Incidentally, what bad luck the organisers of this TV Awards ball do suffer: one year a clash with the Suez invasion, other times marred by the Lewisham train disaster, start of a newspaper strike, and the heaviest fog of the year.)
The Kennedy news presented British TV with the biggest surprise crisis it has handled in many years. Suez. Hungary. These involved major actions and quick thinking, but nothing compared with the impact of a bullet at Dallas.
The fact that so much of the ‘top brass’ was travelling to the ball accounts for the uncertain manner in which both networks handled the opening moments of the disaster. But within a few hours reasoned decisions were being taken.
The ‘breakthrough’, which must have struck all who looked to Associated-Rediffusion, ITN, and ATV for up-to-the-minute information and pictures, was in the way that published programmes were thrown out as situation demanded. Various ‘specials’ were hurriedly assembled and screened morning, afternoon, or evening as they became available.
Most of the pictures arrived through a pooling arrangement. The American networks providing material which was beamed on to London via the ‘Relay’ satellite. ‘Relay’ (and I’m told it will no longer be working by the end of the year) was able to pass pictures three times a day and ‘passes’ of around 30 minutes each were possible.
From Britain the American material was sent right across Europe, not only over Eurovision, but also the Iron Curtain’s equivalent, Intervision.
As a critic I viewed as many as possible of the emergency shows screened by ITV and BBC. I was left with a definite impression. First, beyond any doubt, Mr Geoffrey Cox and his team at ITN proved more than capable of meeting the challenge of the BBC’s news division. This is not to say that the BBC fell below their usual standards. Nor is it my intention to belittle their achievements.
The second is that, and I wish I could explain this better, somehow – before your very eyes ITV grew up, came of age, matured, found developing dignity. In the past, if you will accept a personal opinion, I think that the inclination has been to turn auto- matically to the BBC in times of emergency. It was as though the BBC spoke as the voice of the nation. Now that, I suggest, is what has been altered. As a result of ITV’s excellent public face during the four or five days of crisis, much has been done to remove that prejudice which favoured the BBC.
The British public, which likes to take its time, is correspondingly much closer to the day when it will accept ITV’s voice as nationally authoritative in days of trouble.
Not that the BBC were second-rate. What I believe is that the events in November have established as fact that they must now bear comparison with a challenger of powerful stature and increased responsibility.
It was also interesting to see the various ITV companies working together so smoothly and acting fast in disrupting normally inviolable programme schedules and advertising.
Summing up, Independent Television’s brand image has been considerably enhanced and a claim that the BBC are no longer monopolists of broadcasting in critical times can fairly be made.
The pity is that something similar in the way of emergency did not arise while the Pilkington Committee were in session. It would surely have had immense influence.
About the author
James Green (1926-2015) wrote for the London 'Star' from 1946 until it merged with the Evening News in 1960; he stayed with the Evening News until it merged with the Evening Standard in 1980. He then worked in public relations whilst also writing freelance for The Stage and other newspapers about the media