Donald MacCormick: BBC presenter whose civil yet insistent style set the template for 'Newsnight'

The broadcaster Donald MacCormick was a highly regarded interviewer and commentator, whose Scottish accent became familiar on national political television at a time when regional accents were still rarely heard. During the 1980s, on BBC's Newsnight programme, alongside John Tusa and Peter Snow, his civil yet insistent style set an authoritative template for the show that continues to this day. MacCormick also presented Question Time, Newsweek and The Money Programme, and was a stalwart of the BBC's live coverage of the party conferences.

Donald MacCormick was born in Glasgow in 1939 and attended King's Park School. He had an early passion for both literature and sport, though a trial for Queen's Park football club came to nothing. In 1957, he went up to Glasgow University to read English and edited for a time the student newspaper, Glum. Among his coterie of student friends was a glittering array of talent that included the future Labour leader John Smith, Derry Irvine, Donald Dewar, Menzies Campbell and John McKay. Though he was for a time chair of the Labour club at Glasgow, MacCormick, unlike his chums, harboured no political ambitions.

Rather, his aspirations lay in education, and in 1962 he followed the path set by both his parents and became a teacher. For five years, he taught English at the High School of Glasgow, and his broadcasting career began after he was invited to review books on Scottish TV. He impressed enough to be offered the chance to train as a broadcast journalist with Grampian Television in Aberdeen. Here, he progressed through the ranks of news and political broadcasting.

In 1970, he returned to Glasgow to be the main anchor for BBC Scotland's political programmes. He soon became the face of Scottish current affairs, and a huge media figure in the country. He caught the eye of network managers in London and in 1975 accepted the invitation to present the revived Tonight programme alongside Denis Tuohy and Sue Lawley. There he helped break the mould by being one of the first network presenters with a Scottish accent.

Among his proudest achievements at this time were his television parliamentary sketches that enabled him to draw on his wealth of knowledge, his dry wit and his acute powers of observation, in the era before proceedings in the House of Commons could be broadcast.

MacCormick's reputation for a quietly persistent and informed style of interviewing earned him a place as a Newsnight presenter in 1982, when he replaced Peter Hobday, who moved to the Today programme.

Colleagues recall MacCormick's knack for charming answers from interviewees during the Thatcher era, when extracting the truth from politicians had become an increasingly difficult art. He was an unflappable live broadcaster; had it not been for the presence of David Dimbleby, the era's live broadcaster par excellence, MacCormick's profile well might have been even higher.

Increasingly, MacCormick's more gentle approach was superseded by the gladiatorial style for which Newsnight is renowned today. He accepted, therefore, an offer from London Weekend Television to front its main lunchtime political programme following on from Peter Jay and Brian Walden. But MacCormick found the ethos more restrictive than he had been used to at the BBC and suffered from LWT's seeming lack of commitment to political programmes after the 1992 election.

He found freelance work with STV again, in September 1992, co-presenting the political discussion programme Scottish Questions. And in 1994, he provided the on-air commentary for the funeral of his old friend, John Smith.

He returned to the BBC in London, this time to BBC World, the 24-hour world news channel whose relaunch coincided with the Bosnian crisis. He co-presented the flagship evening slot and, through his wealth of experience, gave the new channel the authority and a stature it needed. He enjoyed what was a new format for him and was not averse to the odd practical joke, once passing a note to a colleague conducting a difficult interview that read, "Bloody lunatic".

In 1999, his first heart attack at the age of 60 ended his television career, though as a subsequent part-time media trainer, he would only claim to be "semi-retired". His main hobby became shouting at the Today programme.

Off-screen, MacCormick was gregarious and known as the "king of the one-liners"; bright and witty but always humble. He enjoyed tennis and among his regular partners was Sir Trevor MacDonald. According to one adversary, he displayed a wicked range of spins and slices and showed the same dogged determination to retrieve balls as he had shown seeking answers from politicians.

MacCormick was a proud Scotsman. His father had died when he was six, and, as a result, he was close to his uncle's family. Uncle John had laid the groundwork for the Scottish Nationalist movement in the 1950s. His cousin Ian became a Scottish Nationalist MP and his cousin Neil, to whom he was devoted, was a Member of the European Parliament for the SNP. Despite this, MacCormick never espoused the nationalist cause though he was steeped in the politics of his country. This engendered within him a non-metropolitan view of Westminster politics that contrasted with an increasingly inward-looking media, making him a more grounded person and journalist as a result.

Bob Chaundy

Donald MacCormick, journalist and broadcaster: born Glasgow 16 April 1939; married Lis McKinlay 1962 (divorced 1972; two sons, one daughter); married Liz Elton 1978 (one son, one daughter); died London 12 July 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW London

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW Londo...

Recruitment Genius: Bathroom Showroom Customer Service / Sales Assistant

£14560 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Even though their premises have...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Manager

£44000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Marketing company based in cent...

Recruitment Genius: IT Installation / Commissioning Engineer - North West

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Installation / Commission...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence