Donald MacCormick: BBC presenter whose civil yet insistent style set the template for 'Newsnight'
Thursday 16 July 2009
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.
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.
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