OBITUARY : Joan Thirkettle

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The Independent Online
Good general news reporters will tell you they've got a tougher job than the Political Editors, the foreign correspondents and the other high-profile journalists. They are the people who come into the office often not knowing what story they will cover that day and then, when assigned to a story, have to make themselves instant experts.

That is how Joan Thirkettle made herself an expert in so many subjects after so many assignments over so many years. In the process she became friends with many of the people she reported about - from High Court judges to pop stars.

Her first job in television was in 1965 as a trainee researcher at London's first commercial television station, Associated Rediffusion, where she worked on the most influential pop music programme of the era - Ready, Steady, Go.

It was there that she first met a young record plugger, Richard Branson. Later, as an ITN reporter, she was to cover his transoceanic balloon and speedboat challenges and also the development of his business career through Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Cola.

Thirkettle's journalistic career after Ready, Steady, Go included spells on the Daily Mail, the Sunday Times, BBC Radio and British Forces Broadcasting, before joining the London Broadcasting Company (LBC) in 1973. The early days of LBC are a source of extraordinary legends in broadcasting and, amidst the shambles of the launch, a remarkable range of talented people got their first hands-on broadcasting experience - Jon Snow and Carol Barnes were, like Thirkettle, to graduate from there to ITN.

Thirkettle joined ITN in 1974 as a reporter at a time when women reporters were not scarce on the screen but it was still unusual to see them on the sharp-end hard news stories of the day.

Over the next 22 years she covered over 1,500 news stories for ITN. She reported on the famine in Ethiopia, highlighted the artistic talent of the autistic boy Stephen Wiltshire, and was a member of the ITN team which won a Royal Television Society award for coverage of the Labour leader John Smith's death. In recent years she had tended to specialise in legal stories such as the appeal made by the Birmingham Six.

Perhaps the abiding memory of Joan Thirkettle as a reporter is a figure in a raincoat outside the High Court, competing with the wind and the rain to tell of the events inside. The law became a specialism, but Thirkettle never became a specialist correspondent. She was a general reporter with a whole range of specialisms that included pop music, painting, health and adventure stories. To them all she brought extraordinary determination and was never afraid to tell the input desk what she thought of the assignment, or the output desk what she thought of what they'd done with her material.

Her great integrity meant that she was sure of her facts and she was robust when those with vested interests would question them.

When not reporting, Thirkettle wrote short stories and studied natural history, politics and foreign affairs. She was also an occasional presenter of music programmes on the radio station Classic FM. One of the great joys of her days off was to walk from her home in her beloved Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, in north London, where she lived with her two children, Daisy and Michael, to Classic FM, just a few hundred yards away.

To fellow residents of Gloucester Crescent, who included Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, she was something of a community activist. She once told me when I was thinking of moving to the street that I would have to take my turn reading a lesson at the local church.

Her circle of friends went much wider than industry colleagues or local residents. It covered a whole host of people she'd met while reporting the news. She won their friendship and respect as somebody who cared strongly, very strongly, about her job but also about the people who get caught up in the news.

She will be missed by them and by the viewers to whom Joan Thirkettle had become just as much a part of their daily lives as the more famous newscasters of the day. For more than 20 years she was part of the fabric of ITN, part of its history and part of its family.

Stewart Purvis

Joan Thirkettle, news reporter: born 14 September 1947; married Jonathan Wallace (one son, one daughter, marriage dissolved); died London 11 May 1996.