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Mark Turnbull: BBC journalist who refused to let his blindness curb a glittering career

Turnbull’s meeting with Frank Sinatra at the Savoy Hotel ended up in a late-night jamming session

Mark Turnbull, blind from birth, refused to allow his disability get in the way as he reported on darts and snooker, covered the law courts, ran his own radio programme, played the piano with Frank Sinatra, headed a union – and helped to change the way that the legal system excluded the blind from its ranks. He also scored a coup in landing the first broadcast interview with Tony Blair when he stepped down as Prime Minister.

Blair had made a promise to give Turnbull the interview. “Mark was a great man, and a true star of the radio in the North-east,” Blair told The Independent. “He was a fantastic interviewer – incisive, witty and yet warm. It was a privilege to be around him and to work with him. He had an extraordinary range of interests and talent – a unique personality. He will be sorely missed.”

Turnbull, larger than life and ebullient, but a tremendously sensitive character, was born in Saltburn, North Yorkshire, and was brought up in Redcar by his mother, Julie, who ran the local Working Mens Club. At 12 he went to Worcester School for the Blind, the first such private school, winning one of two scholarships awarded. He was bullied because of his size, leaving him with a lifelong determination to be noticed because of his ability.

His appearance would continue to cause comment. Years later, while sitting as a chief magistrate, he responded to a shouted comment from someone in the court that he was “a big fat blind bastard”. Sending the man down for contempt, Turnbull told him, “That might be so, but I am a magistrate.”

At school he showed a talent for the piano, winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, but he turned it down, claiming that he had the ability, but not the application. Homesick and unhappy in Worcester, he asked his mother to send cassettes of programmes broadcast on Radio Cleveland, awakening an interest in the law and in journalism, particularly in broadcasting. The love of both would remain with him for the rest of his life, as would playing the piano.

With a future in the law seemingly out of the question, he turned to journalism, becoming a frequent attender at the local magistrates’ courts, from which he would send stories to the Press Association. He reported on snooker and darts as well, and it was only two years later that PA discovered that he was blind. He also worked for the Northern Echo and the Darlington and Stockton Times.

Turnbull nurtured a talent for remembering conversations he’d had in detail, and along with his ability to make contacts – many of whom became close friends – and his incisive mind, he earned a reputation as a fixer and finder of people. Having bombarded the BBC with requests to work for them, he was invited to join Radio Cleveland, now Radio Tees, as a freelance, taking up a position in the middle of the office where he would act as “oracle” to programme-makers. In 1993 he was given his own Sunday-morning phone-in, which lasted until 2002, when he took over the Wednesday lunchtime programme.

Blind people had been banned from becoming magistrates, but in 1998 Turnbull met the then Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine at a party, and harangued him over the issue, pointing out that the ability to listen to the sounds of people’s voices, and to the evidence, meant that the blind could sit in judgement as well as the sighted. Irvine, who was carrying out a shake-up of the legal system, took Turnbull’s words on board and overturned the ruling. Turnbull spent the next five years studying law before becoming a magistrate and later the country’s first blind chairman, serving at Teesside Combined Courts.

He felt it was important that those who weren’t disabled should experience working with those who were, and he joined the National Union of Journalists, becoming a member of the National Executive, then president in 1998. During his year’s presidency he met Fidel Castro’s brother in Cuba, thrashed out details of the Freedom of Information Bill with David Blunkett and made sure that he reached out to members, responding to all calls to meet him.

He had a propensity to make close friends, one of whom was Paul Anderson, who worked with him at the BBC. Anderson described him as the “best and most sensitive [friend] you could have”. On one occasion, Turnbull met Frank Sinatra at the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar, a favourite watering hole where he could have a gin and tonic and play the piano. The meeting ended up in a late-night jam session.

He left the BBC in 2008, and was still serving as a magistrate when he died after a short illness. His local pub, The Princess Alice in Middlesbrough, is to put up a plaque above the seat where he held court. He is survived by his mother.

Mark Turnbull: disability pioneer, journalist, broadcaster, magistrate and trade unionist: born Saltburn  22 May 1964; died Middlesbrough 8 June 2013.