Reginald Turnill: Veteran BBC journalist acclaimed for his coverage of space and aviation
His aim was to convey precise information rather than seeking to make our pulses race
Monday 18 February 2013
Reginald Turnill, who reported on aviation and space travel for the BBC for 20 years, was among the last of a generation of journalists with little formal education who, initially hired to perform menial tasks, worked their way to the top of the profession. Like many of that breed – especially those who had spent time, as he had, with a news agency – his virtues were reliability, meticulous attention to detail, unflappability and impeccable shorthand.
His career spanned some of the most significant advances in his field, including Sputnik, the moon landings, Concorde and the first jumbo jets. Yet while his measured reporting, delivered in firm and authoritative tones, left listeners in no doubt as to the momentous nature of these events, he was careful to avoid hyperbole. Unlike so many of today's broadcasters, his aim was to convey precise information rather than seeking to make our pulses race.
By its nature, aviation reporting involves much foreign travel, often in the company of other specialists, as aircraft manufacturers and airlines showcase their new planes and routes. Turnill was much admired by colleagues for his determination to get the very most out of such trips. One of them recalls him at the end of a busy day at the Paris Air Show, disclosing that he had sent 17 stories to different parts of the BBC.
A symptom of his dedication was that, when on assignment, he would wear two watches, one set to local time and the other displaying the time in Broadcasting House, so that he would not miss a bulletin. On nearly all his travels he took his tea-making kit. Almost the first thing he did when arriving at the hotel would be to make a cup in his room, for himself, his wife Margaret (who sometimes accompanied him) and anyone else who happened to be around. Yet while a cordial host, he was reluctant to share hard-won facts and insights with colleagues. He was not the kind of reporter who hunts in packs.
His determination to leave nothing to chance paid handsome dividends in April 1970, when he was at Houston, Texas, covering the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. Late in the day, when nearly all other journalists had left Mission Control's press area, he stayed on to apply the finishing touches to a report. As he was about to leave he heard one of the astronauts report back to base: “OK Houston, we've had a problem here.” An explosion in an oxygen tank had damaged the spacecraft's power supply. He was first with the news, and for the next four days he sent crisp, informed dispatches to listeners and viewers, describing the unfolding drama as the three astronauts returned safely.
Turnill was born in Dover in 1915, the son of a coachbuilder. Four years later his father died and his mother remarried and moved to Raynes Park, south London, where he attended school. At 15 he became a telephonist with the Press Association, the national news agency. Within five years he had been made a reporter, and briefly left to gain experience on a weekly newspaper on the south coast.
Returning to PA, he was appointed a political reporter; but his career was interrupted by the Second World War. Joining as a machine-gunner, he was later promoted to warrant officer and assigned to duties that made use of his experience as a journalist, writing official reports on the progress of the war in Europe.
Afterwards he returned to PA and to the political beat. One of the friends he made among politicians was Ernest Bevin, the rough-hewn Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government. Turnill liked to tell of the time when, reporting one of Bevin's speeches, he made some corrections to the great man's syntax. When the two next met, Bevin took him aside and thanked him.
In 1956 Turnill joined the BBC as an industrial correspondent but a few months later found himself covering the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first space vehicle. Excited by the possibilities of space exploration, he was delighted to be appointed as the Corporation's aerospace correspondent in 1958.
The enthusiasm and commitment never left him. Many years later, he told a colleague that, if offered the chance to travel into space himself, he would leap at it. And he was equally upbeat about innovations in air travel, particularly Concorde, the costly and controversial Anglo-French project that failed to inaugurate an era of mass supersonic globe-trotting. Turnill defended it to the last.
Although the BBC made him retire in 1976 – much against his will – he continued to broadcast as a freelance, notably on Newsround, the news programme for children. He also wrote frequently for most of the serious newspapers about aerospace issues, including obituaries of leading figures in the field. Only last August The Guardian published his long and insightful obituary of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.
Turnill became, too, a doughty campaigner on issues that affected him personally. He wrote to the press about the BBC's treatment of its pensioners and of how Bupa, the health insurer, dealt with older people. When he was knocked down outside Buckingham Palace, he wrote calling on the authorities to make safer conditions for pedestrians there. And he campaigned successfully for the repair of the public clock in Sandgate, the Kentish village where he lived.
His wife, the former Margaret Hennings, survives him: this year they would have celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. He is survived also by two sons and two grandchildren.
Reginald Turnill, journalist and broadcaster: born Dover 12 May 1915; married Margaret Hennings (two sons); died 12 February 2013.
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