Monday 19 December 2016

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old and fearless TV news, war correspondent called Michael Nicholson

Michael, who was arguably Britain's greatest television war correspondent, working for Independent Television News for 40 years and reporting from 18 war zones, has died at the age of 79.

He was born in 1937 in Romford, Essex, the son of Doris and Allan, a Thames lighterman, a bargeman on the river who transferred goods up and down from quays to riverside factories and back again. With the outbreak of the Second World War two years later, the Nicholson family found themselves on the dangerous German bomber route to London docks and Michael recalled that he spent a great deal of his 'early childhood in Anderson shelters. I can remember my mother coming in to wake my sister Jacqueline and me, and carrying us, one under each arm, down the garden into the shelter. Sometimes when people light a match, that sulphur smell sparks memories of her lighting the candle in the shelter.'

By 1941 he had been evacuated, with his sister, to the safety of life on a farm in Somerset and attended the village school in Theale, while his mother stayed behind in Romford. He later reflected :
'I remember my mother, Doris, walking back down the platform as the train left, without turning and waving goodbye. She had lost her children to evacuation, God knows where her husband was stationed, and she was going back on her own to suffer those air raids, not knowing whether she or her family would survive, whether she would ever see them again. Not enough has been written about the women who stayed behind. It must have been dreadful'. His father, drafted into the Army, was serving in the Royal Engineers and would rise to the rank of major.

At the end of the War the family moved to Germany when Michael's father was posted to Emden in the British Sector and involved in post-war reconstruction and it was here, that at the age of nine, Michael had an experience of war no other British child had when he 'remembered going along the roads with my father and seeing rifles stuck, barrel down, into the ground with helmets on the top of them – each marking some poor blighter's shallow grave. And on one occasion he had to organise the exhumation of a mass grave of British soldiers. I don't know why, but for some reason he took me, and I remember seeing all this human debris, and the stench as they were coming up. It was quite incredible. I suppose that was my first war, really.'

Even at at the Army's Prince Rupert boarding school at Wilhelmshaven, he was not insulated from the effects of war, since it had been a U-boat base and he recalled : 'sometimes at lunch we'd go down to the docks and see British divers bringing up bodies and debris from the U-boats that had been sunk by the RAF. So from a very early age I had first-hand experience of war.' Not unsurprisingly he said that these episodes left him with 'indelible memories'.

As a result of the War, he later reflected that his own family had 'disintegrated' : 'We were apart for so long – my two older brothers, my sister and parents – that when we did get back together again, we were so disjointed that we never really felt like a family any more.'

He thought that his father 'never really recovered from the War. He was one of the first to land on D-day. Many years later I met a man who had served with him. He said that, during D-day, my father worked harder than anyone and refused to stop when the commanding officer said to take time off. He reckoned my father simply had not been able to stop and that accounted for how he was afterwards.'

Michael had a difficult relationship with his father who 'could be very unpredictable, sometimes quite violent' and recalled : 'I can't remember my father ever showing me any love'. In fact his parents had a loveless marriage where there was talk of divorce. It obviously seared him as a boy and he recalled : 'sitting on my mother's knee and her saying : "You have to choose between him and me." But somehow they stayed together, which was bad news for all of us. I felt we were a very unhappy family when we came back.'

Michael's experience of death did not stop when the family returned to Britain and in 1952, when he was 15 at the Farnborough Airshow, he witnessed a de Havilland DH110 crash, killing the test pilot John Derry, his onboard flight test observer and 29 spectators on the ground..

 His passion for flying meant that when he was called up for his two years National Service at the age of 18 in 1955, he opted to serve in the RAF, which in turn saw him work in Air Traffic Control during the Suez Crisis the following year.

Back in civilian life he studied A-levels at Walthamstow Technical College and raised income by a succession of part-time jobs : working for the brewers Charrington’s, driving a greengrocer’s van and working as a nursing auxiliary at Ilford Isolation Hospital. In 1959, as a mature student of 22, he started a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Leicester University and it was here that his earlier part-time work at the 'Shoe and Leather News' came in handy, when he became editor of the student newspaper.

Michael was 25 when he graduated in 1962 and got his first job working in the London office of DC Thomson, publishers of the 'Sunday Post' and 'Beano' comic. It was short lived, since in 1963 he started work on the News Desk of ITN News after the editor, Geoffrey Cox's gave him a job, in the mistaken belief that he was employed by Thomson Newspapers, publishers of 'The Sunday Times.'

Working on the news desk, he wrote links for the on-screen newscasters and later scripted film reports, some of which he voiced himself. He was appointed News Editor in 1965 and covered his first major story. the Aberfan Colliery disaster in 1966, which he recalled as a disaster where : 'a tip of coal waste slid down and covered a school, killing 144 people, 116 of whom were children. All the crew were crying and I wasn't. I used to think: "You hard-hearted bastard." And then we had our first child, Tom, and I started getting wet eyes too. I could suddenly identify and understand. Ever since, it has always been the children that have upset me more than anything else.'

He had his first assignment as a war reporter in Nigeria during the civil war with Biafra in 1968 and witnessed a Nigerian Marine Officer shoot dead an Ibo prisoner in front of his eyes. He and the tv crew were surprised to be allowed to leave and when their film was broadcast showing this war crime, in breach of the Geneva Convention, the officer threatened the ITN men with a public whipping and attacked Michael himself with a baseball bat. As a postscript, he and his colleagues were forced to film the subsequent execution of the errant officer by firing squad.

In reporting a MIG 17 air attack on the town of Umahia, he demonstrated his complete lack of fear : "Fifty feet height, sweeping over the town and dropping rockets as they move. Yesterday 27 people were killed and about 300 were injured."
He also also threw a humanitarian spotlight on disease and starvation : "But the death rate is still high especially among children and old people. The main killers are 'kwashiokor', the disease of malnutrition, tuberculosis and measles."

In 1971, filming under heavy artillery fire as the Indian Army invaded neighbouring Pakistan, he fled in panic as the advance faltered. Once he reached the safety of his hotel room in the devastated Bangladeshi capital, Dacca, he drew some satisfaction from having held his nerve and recalled : “Now that I was out of it, I forgot my fear, as I would forget my promises never to do it again. It had all been washed away with the adrenaline, leaving only the filtered recollection of others’ fear and others’ deaths.” Having regained his composure he selected an abandoned vehicle from the dozens littering the streets and requisitioned it as a camera car after hot-wiring the starter.

In the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt in 1973 he reported :  "Quneitra Town is now is entirely empty. The troops, armoured cars, the tracked vehicles and the tanks have now left" :

He found and filmed an Israeli armoured column en route to counter-attack the advancing Egyptians and then dashed more than 100 miles back to Tel Aviv, in time for his film to be cut and sent by satellite to London, where it carried an 'exclusive' tag on that night’s 'News At Ten'. A few days later, he was knocked unconscious when his ITN camera car left the road at 80 mph and somersaulted before crashing on to its roof. In hospital he was fitted with a neck brace and insisted on returning to the War although this cut no ice with his editor back in London.Nigel Ryan, who cabled : 'Either the neck brace comes off the screen or you do.'

During the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, by chance his car broke down just as Turkish paratroopers were landing over his head onto the island and he walked up to the first of them and greeted them with "I'm Michael Nicholson. Welcome to Cyprus". He achieved a world scoop when his film was flown back to London on an RAF plane and made the evening news the next day.

He reported the panic-stricken evacuation of the South Vietnamese capital Saigon on the final day of the Vietnam War in April 1975, when with his cameraman and sound recordist, he had to fight his way over the high wall of the American embassy and into the hands of US Marines who were hauling only Westerners over the top to safety while “booting down the rest”, mainly Vietnamese mothers and children and lunging at them with bayonets and rifle-butts. He reported his ignoble departure : "the Embassy gates were closed and we, like the frightened Vietnamese and their families had to fight an claw our way up. And we did claw and we did fight."

Airlifted out of the Embassy compound, he and his camera crew were flown to USS Hancock waiting in the South China Sea and on touch down were ordered by a marine to bend over and drop their trousers before he searched them for hidden drugs with a condom-sheathed finger. When it came to Michael's turn he said :“Man, you’ve got a tight arse” to which Michael replied “Sergeant, if you’d been through what I’ve been through today, you’d have a tight arse too.”

In 1978 he was in Angola to interview the UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi, when he found himself pursued by Cuban mercenaries working for the communist MPLA Government. Trapped with his cameraman, Tom Phillips, and sound recordist, Micky Doyle, he spent four and a half months in the bush and walked, with them, a total of 1,500 miles, before being airlifted out in a dramatic escape.

As ITN’s first Bureau Chief in South Africa, based in Johannesburg from 1976 to 1981, he was the first tv correspondent to be allowed to live in apartheid South Africa and during this time, covered the Soweto riots, spent much time in UDI Rhodesia covering the War of Independence and was the first foreign journalist to interview Robert Mugabe on his release from prison.

In 1982, at short notice, he scrambled from a family holiday in the Lake District and was despatched, with the British task force heading for the South Atlantic, following the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. He boarded the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes for the six week journey and commented about the experience: "this was the first war, other than Northern Ireland, where I was among my own people. It made it a very special war and the Falklands a very special place." It was not an easy assignment because the military held the view that as a television war it had the same potential to be lost as the Vietnam War six years before.

He found himself battling against censors and minders to make sense of events, finally sending a radio message to ITN in exasperation telling them that his reports were being censored and to make this clear when they were broadcast, only to find his censored message was rendered meaningless by the deletion of the word 'censored'

Things got serious when the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, accused him of revealing secret ship movements in one of his censored ITN reports. He was summoned before the task force commander Admiral “Sandy” Woodward, who threatened to “sack” him and send him home, Michael advised him to read the transcript of his piece and see that what he had said offered no threat to security - something he subsequently did, but made no apology for the error and said nothing more of it. After the conflict, Michael was awarded the South Atlantic Medal.

His description of the Argentinian attack on the landing vessel, Sir Gallahad, was broadcast after approval as : "The bombs hit Sir Gallahad aft through the engine room and accommodation section. I watched from the shore less than 400 yards away and felt the impact on the ground below me as the hold full of ammunition exploded."

Now,at the age of 45, he began an unhappy four years as a studio-bound newscaster on ITN's early evening News, before he resigned in March 1986 and went back 'on the road'. He became Channel 4's Washington Correspondent for ‘Breakfast News' in 1989, then ITN's Chief Foreign Correspondent for seven years until 1999.

Back in the saddle as a war reporter he joined the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Gloucester reporting on the Gulf War in 1991 : "Clearing the way seems to be the line of the day here. Clearing the coast of Kuwait of Iraqis before the next phase of the war can begin. Saddam Hussein must know the options, he might even guess at where and how. What he can't know is when."

The following year he reported the Balkan War and was based mainly in Sarajevo. It was here that he found 200 orphans living in a mortared and shelled building, four of whom had already been killed and fired by "anger and despair" he pleaded with the authorities to evacuate them. Among the children, the nine-year-old 'Natasha' stood out. "She shone," he said and when it turned out that her name was not on the list of those on the convoy, he smuggled her on to the bus. He then risked imprisonment by entering her name on his passport, as his daughter, and brought her to Britain, where he turned himself in at immigration. Then, despite protests from the Bosnian authorities and his critics in the press and four years later he succeeded in adopting her.

In defence of his controversial actions he said : 'Why did I take her? Well, I was campaigning to get the children evacuated. ITN let me go on air and say: "For Christ's sake, why don't we do something? The kids are dying here." I was evacuated during the (Second World) War and it probably saved my life, and I was saying, "why not evacuate these children and bring them back when the war is over?" That's what I intended to do. We never intended to adopt Tash, but the war went on and on – another four years of it – and by the time it ended we had fallen in love with her, and vice versa.'

He published 'Natasha's Story' in 1993 and it attracted enormous attention and was made into the Hollywood film, 'Welcome to Sarajevo', in 1997. In it, the central figure of the tv reporter was played by Stephen Dillane, as someone in his mid- thirties, twenty years younger than Michael at the time.
Set amid the random brutality of the Bosnian War, the moody and troubled reporter, makes an attempt to do more than merely report the horror of it all, alighting upon the girl in the orphanage. Of Stephen Dillane's performance in the film, Michael said : "He's played me to perfection. Bad-tempered and uncooperative." For all his brilliance, Michael recognized that he was not everyone's idea of a good colleague. It should therefore come as no surprise that he was widely disliked by his colleagues. "Horrible" and "deeply, deeply unpleasant" were a few of the epithets used to describe him at the time.

It was not widely known that he tried to reprise Natasha with another little girl, Ana, in South America in 1996 : 'She was desperately ill in Brazil and I brought her to the UK. She would have been dead if we hadn't. She had spina bifida and only one kidney, which was going downhill fast. She was eight when she came over and she had to have a big bowel operation.' Sadly, Ana found it much more difficult to adapt to life in Britain than Natasha and in her adulthood they became estranged.

Two of Michael's last foreign assignments were the handover of Hong Kong to China and the 50th anniversary of Indian independence in 1997. After that, his days in the field were effectively over, Between 1998 and 2009 he was a reporter and presenter on ITV’s Tonight Programme but in 2003 at the age of 66,  he did cover the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad at the end of the Iraq War.

Reflecting on the potential worry of his son Tom becoming a combat cameraman working in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, he was philosophical and said : "Looking back, I can see how war has shaped three generations of our family.'  'Tom doesn't talk much about it and neither do I. I can guess what goes on. He's doing what he wants to do, and that's what matters. It's his choice.'

Michael, whose professional life was dominated by war, the ultimate expression of a lack of love, wrote in 2011, when he was 74, about an occasion when he was 29 in 1966, forty-five years before. It was shortly after he had joined ITN and was waiting for his crew in a car park in Redhill, when he saw, what he assumed were man and wife, in a car when 'all of a sudden another car turned up and out came two young fellows, and the parents got out and they all kissed each other. Boys kissing their father, and I thought : 
"Wouldn't that be wonderful for that to happen to me, for my son to kiss me?" 
I can't remember my father ever showing me any love, but I remember that occasion, that coming together. And now my boys kiss me! I can't think of a greater pleasure.'

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