Sir Geoffrey Cox
A pioneer of broadcast news, he covered the Spanish civil war and later founded ITV's News at Ten
Philip Purser The Guardian, Friday April 4 2008 Article historyAbout this articleClose This article appeared in the Guardian on Friday April 04 2008 on p37 of the Obituaries section. It was last updated at 07:54 on April 04 2008.
Sir Geoffrey Cox: was transfixed as he watched how live, unedited coverage reavealed McCarthy's witch-hunting methods. Photograph: ITV
The broadcasting executive and journalist Sir Geoffrey Cox, who has died aged 97, was a pioneering influence in the growth of television news in Britain. Appointed as the second editor of Independent Television News (ITN) in 1956, he launched News at Ten in 1967 as the first half-hour news programme in peak time on a mass audience channel. The programme quickly become a national institution, famous for its sharp, accurate journalism, larger-than-life presenters and the Big Ben chimes that accompanied its opening headlines.
After leaving the station in 1968, Cox became deputy chairman of Yorkshire Television and chairman of both Tyne Tees Television and the London radio news station LBC. Earlier, he had a distinguished career as a print journalist, covering the Spanish civil war for the News Chronicle, and the annexation of Austria and the fall of France for the Daily Express. He was also briefly a diplomat, representing his native New Zealand at its legation in Washington. After the second world war, he returned to print journalism and became a Fleet Street executive.
Born at Palmerston North, on New Zealand's North Island, Cox took a history degree at Otago University in 1931, before winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford (1932-35). On graduating, he went straight to the News Chronicle, then a renowned liberal newspaper with a tradition of outspoken foreign reporting. In Spain, its celebrated correspondent Arthur Koestler had already been flung into jail for being less than complimentary to General Franco. The paper had considered sending the eminent Vernon Bartlett to beleaguered Madrid, but young Cox was regarded as more expendable. He also had the advantage of a New Zealand passport, which might just mislead the Falangists if they caught him. In the event, Cox filed some vivid dispatches about the civil war and made his name.
Back in London in 1937, he speedily wrote a book, The Defence of Madrid, which caught the eye of the legendary Daily Express editor Arthur Christiansen, whose paper was then outselling all other dailies. Cox was promptly appointed as the Express correspondent in Vienna, from where he covered the Anschluss and the Munich crisis. He became head of the Express bureau in Paris in time for the outbreak of the second world war, and went on to cover the invasion of Poland, the Finno-Russian winter war of 1939-40, and finally the blitzkrieg with which the Germans overran the Low Countries.
Escaping through Bordeaux after the fall of France in 1940, Cox enlisted in a New Zealand army brigade that had been diverted to Britain, and fought with it in Greece, Crete and through the 1941 western desert campaign. Later in the war, he took part with the 2nd New Zealand division in the long slog up through Italy from Monte Cassino to the occupation of Trieste, finishing the conflict as chief intelligence officer for General Sir Bernard Freyberg, commander of the Allied forces in Crete. He was twice mentioned in dispatches and awarded a military MBE.
In between came a curious interlude when, in 1943, Cox was plucked from the army and sent to staff his country's newly established legation in Washington. The minister, Walter Nash, was still a member of the New Zealand government, and his presence was frequently required back in Wellington. Left in charge for weeks on end, the 32-year-old Cox found himself signing historic treaties on behalf of his country, on one occasion ahead of the Soviet Union's formidable Andrei Gromyko. He also represented New Zealand at the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration conference in 1943.
On demobilisation in 1945, Cox was thus equipped not only with first-hand experience of diplomacy but also with an advance taste of the postwar animosities that would bedevil the world. He rejoined the News Chronicle as lobby correspondent and set out to make his name as a commentator on world and domestic affairs. As well as speaking on the BBC Home and television services whenever asked, he would regularly rise early to broadcast to Australia and New Zealand, and stay up late to reach north America. One way or another, he said later, he saw more dawns breaking over Portland Place than he liked to recall.
An old aim to pursue an executive career in journalism was renewed when, in 1954, the News Chronicle made him an assistant editor. Two years later he was offered the deputy editorship, and his letter of acceptance was in his pocket, ready to be delivered, when he picked up a fragment of gossip that was to switch his career into television.
The most generally respected element of the young commercial television system was its news service, ITN, which had no advertising revenue of its own and was paid for by the other companies. Aidan Crawley, a former junior minister and assured TV performer in his own right, had brilliantly humanised the presentation of news on the small screen by introducing newscasters - including Robin Day, Christopher Chataway and Barbara Mandell - who, while the BBC stuck to po-faced news-readers, would apparently gather the news themselves and deliver it in their own words. ITN liked news film while BBC News, under the austere leadership of a fellow New Zealander, Tahu Hole, remained deeply suspicious of pictures.
But after a first year of mounting losses, the commercial companies of ITV had begun to cut short bulletins and shift them to off-peak hours. Crawley resigned in protest, and on a hunch, Cox stalled on the Chronicle's offer and applied instead to ITN.
He was summoned to lunch by Captain Tom Brownrigg, the formidable ex-naval officer who ran the London programme company Associated-Rediffusion and was also chairman of ITN. By chance, Brownrigg had been a staff officer when the British navy was sent to Crete to take off British and New Zealand troops - among them Cox - after German forces had captured the island in 1941. "Would have left you there if I'd had my way," he grunted. "We had already lost half the Mediterranean fleet. It was madness to risk losing more ships." But he offered Cox the job.
As so often happens, the new man in the job was granted some of the things his predecessor had demanded, and at the belated insistence of the Independent Television Authority the companies agreed to restore some cuts imposed on ITN. Chataway, a star newscaster, had resigned to join the BBC, and Cox swiftly replaced him with Ludovic Kennedy. He also rescued Mandell from scriptwriting duties, and put her back on the screen.
Cox's particular contribution, however, was to promote the virtues of live television in a news service. In the summer of 1953, he had been in Washington when Senator Joe McCarthy's communist witchhunt was in full swing. He was transfixed as he watched the televised proceedings of the senate investigations sub-committee, and how the live, unedited coverage gradually revealed McCarthy's methods. The following year McCarthy was exposed by Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly in their CBS television show, See It Now, which also went out live.
Cox, whose own memoirs 30 years later would be called See It Happen, strove for such immediacy. Though a combination of studio-bound newscaster and newsfilm was bound to remain the staple fare of his bulletins, he leapt at any opportunity to go live to a reporter on the spot. When President Kennedy first visited Britain in 1961, ITN collared him on the air. In 1962, in the middle of the main bulletin - still only 15 minutes long - ITN switched to cameras deep under the Alps for the moment when engineers linked the road tunnel from both ends. To celebrate the first transatlantic satellite link that same year, they flew Brian Connell to New York to introduce the news.
To make optimum use of such assets Cox was soon campaigning for a full half-hour for the evening bulletin, plus a later start so that they could over-run, if necessary, without wrecking the network schedules. He was repeatedly turned down by the companies but finally got his way with News at Ten.
Meanwhile, he had become a member of a consortium bidding for Yorkshire Television, one of the new ITV contracts to be awarded in the 1968 reshuffle. They were successful, and in due course a newly-knighted Sir Geoffrey had to bid farewell to ITN and take up his duties as deputy chairman of YTV. When this company took over Tyne-Tees in 1971, he ran the latter as executive chairman. In 1977 he returned to his old love as chairman of UPITN, the international agency formed by ITN and United Press, finally retiring in 1982.
A shrewd and popular chief executive, he had a knack of picking the right people for the right job, in front of the screen - his discoveries included Peter Snow, Reginald Bosanquet, Andrew Gardner and Sandy Gall - and behind it. He laid down his own moral guidelines. When, for example, he happened to recognise the face of a road accident victim in an ITN bulletin, he ruled that in future no close-ups were to go out.
Away from work, he loved fishing, especially in the river Coln, near his house in Gloucestershire. He was also a keen watercolour painter. He was married to Cecily Turner, who pre-deceased him. He is survived by his children, Peter, Patrick, Rosamond and Evelyn.
· Geoffrey Sandford Cox, television pioneer, journalist and diplomat, born April 7 1910; died April 2 2008