Popular news presenter

Born: July 17, 1942;

Died: October 1, 2019

PETER Sissons, who has died aged 77, was a household name and face on TV for 45 years, a reporter, newsreader and popular presenter on ITN, Channel 4 and the BBC. His face helped the fledgling Channel 4 News to get off the ground. But he was possibly best-known as the unflappable chairman of BBC TV’s Question Time, taking over from Sir Robin Day in 1989 and handing over to David Dimbleby in 1993.

Mr Sissons was more than just a newsreader and presenter: he was a good old-fashioned journalist who started out in 1964 as a graduate trainee at ITN, straight out of Oxford, when he was 22. He saw the world through the eyes of a journalist, listening, learning and informing his viewers objectively while himself staying in the background and (generally) keeping his own views to himself.

In 1968, as a young ITN reporter covering the civil war in Nigeria, he was shot in both legs by Biafran rebels on the frontline while a Time-Life photographer with him was killed. Mr Sissons looked like he might both legs but a British surgeon flown out by ITN saved them. For a time, he wore a calliper and he was left with a limp and chronic pain throughout his life. Desk work was forced upon him and most viewers never realized that his generally somewhat sombre delivery reflected not his personality, but his pain.

When news broke of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, Mr Sissons stayed live on air for more than 10 hours. “I made up the editorial policy as I went along. I ignored the guidance which was that it would be inappropriate to ask awkward questions rather than just reflect grief and shock.”

One of the few times Mr Sissons inadvertently became the story himself was when he had to tell the nation in 2002 that the Queen Mother had died. He happened to be wearing a burgundy-coloured tie, causing fury among royalty lovers and the tabloids. He simply hadn’t had time to find a black one. Plus, a producer had suggested “skip the black, Peter … she had to go some time”.

In early 1989, Mr Sissons received a death threat after he interviewed an Iranian official about the Islamic fatwa against the writer Salman Rushdie following publication of The Satanic Verses. Iranians considered his aggressive interview “impertinent” and Mr Sissons and his family received 24/7 Special Branch protection for six weeks.

The third of four sons, Peter George Sissons was born in Liverpool on July 17 to George Sissons, a merchant navy officer, and his wife Elsie (née Evans), a local department store employee. Brought up in a house near the now-famous Penny Lane, he went to Dovedale primary school, where schoolmates included John Lennon, George Harrison and the comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, all of whom became good friends. Moving to the Liverpool Institute High School, he also befriended Paul McCartney and Mr Sissons was present at what turned out to be an historic church fete in July 1957 when Lennon and McCartney performed in public for the first time in their skiffle group The Quarrymen.

Mr Sissons then went up to University College, Oxford, graduating with Second Class Honours in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE). His interest in journalism was tweaked when he wrote sports reports for the university’s weekly magazine Cherwell and he jumped at the chance to join the ITN graduate training scheme in 1964, starting off as a sub-editor on news bulletins.

He became a reporter in 1967 until his 1968 injury in Nigeria ended his reporting aspirations but led to his outstanding career as a presenter, his scouse accent soon morphing into “BBC English.” He nevertheless remained a passionate supporter of Liverpool FC and was awarded honorary degrees from both Liverpool University and Liverpool John Moores University.

Hearing of Mr Sissons’ death, Paul McCartney wrote: “Dear Peter, my old school mate from the Liverpool Institute has passed away. It’s so sad to hear the news. We were in the same year and stayed in touch as time went by and we both followed our separate careers. I will miss him but always have fond memories of the time we spent together … Thanks for the good times Pete. X"

For several years, Mr Sissons was a member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, set up to make public as many facts about the 1989 football tragedy. He presented his last TV news bulletin for BBC News 24 in 2009 and in his 2011 memoirs When One Door Closes, he was highly critical of the BBC, accusing the corporation of a gradual drift to the Left, as well as ageism as it increasingly opted for younger and more attractive presenters.

Peter Sissons lived his latter years in Sevenoaks, Kent, and a holiday home in Barbados. He died peacefully in hospital in Maidstone, Kent. He is survived by his wife Sylvia (Bennett), a fellow Liverpudlian whom he married in 1965, sons Jonathan and Michael and daughter Kate, an actress.


(ends – pd)