Sarah Cullen: Reporter for ITN and 'Today' who found the authentic voices of the streets


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The Independent Online

As a hard-nosed, tenacious news reporter dedicated to getting the story, Sarah Cullen embodied everything good about ITN in the 1970s and 1980s, when the ITV news provider achieved both public and Establishment recognition. "We subscribe to the generally held view that ITN has the edge over BBC news," declared the 1977 report by Lord Annan's Committee into the Future of Broadcasting.

ITN had established this pre-eminence through adapting news to the medium of television – with personality-style "newscasters" and reports written for the spoken rather than written word – and displaying a lack of deference to the good and the great. However, gathering the news was still based on long-held journalistic skills demonstrated by those in Fleet Street. Sarah Cullen embodied this in the way she stood on pavements for hours waiting for the chance to ask a snatched question, put her foot in doors and spent time with those on the receiving end of government action.

Above all, she was notable for getting "real voices" on screen, reflecting another of ITN's ground-breaking traditions from its early years, broadcasting vox pops – street interviews with the public. It was appropriate that, in 1983, she should be made home affairs correspondent.

Once, when Southampton City Council floated the idea of running an official brothel to end soliciting in public, Cullen sought to speak to the women selling sex, who would also be provided with protection under the scheme. After having half a dozen doors slammed in her face, she found one woman willing to talk. There followed a tale of earning up to £300 a week while paying £60 rent and being qualified for nothing else, following time in Borstal and prison.

When, in the dark road outside, illuminated by red lights in windows, Cullen then talked to the councillor proposing the idea, the interview was brought to an abrupt halt when another of the women unleashed her Alsatian on the film crew. Such were the realities of life brought to the screen by Cullen while much of the television news was dominated by the "official" voices of politicians and others who decided the fate of the masses.

In 1994, three years after being made redundant by ITN, Cullen joined BBC radio's Today programme. Her reporting seemed all the more urgent when, in the final years of the war in Northern Ireland euphemistically known as "The Troubles", she again brought the voices of those on the ground into the public's homes. The "Alsatians" here were much more dangerous, as she disappeared, fearlessly, on her own into Belfast's "no-go" areas and time and again emerged with illuminating interviews.

Once, after being captured by IRA members while conducting such interviews on the Falls Road, she was forced to make a 1am phone call to Stephen Mitchell, editor of BBC radio news, so that he could verify her credentials. He did so, and was told by one of the men: "Thank God, we can let her go. I was afraid we would have had to keep her – and she's terrifying."

Sarah Cullen was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1949, the granddaughter of John Bradley, editor of the Scottish Catholic Herald, whom she described as "one of the old school of Scottish journalists" and who George Orwell had berated for supporting the old order during the Spanish Civil War. Her father, an engineer from Lancashire, managed a quarry in Co Durham and the family moved to Leeds when she was still a child.

After attending the Sisters of Notre Dame convent school in Southport, and a sixth-form college in Cambridge, Cullen gained a degree in English from University College, London, where she was editor of the student newspaper. In 1972, she joined ITN as a trainee. After being sent for a brief stint working on the Liverpool Daily Post, she returned to London as a scriptwriter, then desk editor.

Her appointment coincided with a lifting of the restriction on daily television broadcasting hours and the launch of First Report as a 20-minute lunchtime news programme. The challenge was to produce it at a time of day when stories were still developing, few pictures were available and the film of those that were took time to be developed, in the era before videotape.

ITN's then editor, Nigel Ryan, was also keen to see more female reporters on screen in front of a daytime audience of mostly women and the unemployed. Carol Barnes and Joan Thirkettle were the first, followed by Cullen and Sue Lloyd-Roberts, who volunteered for extra work on their days off as desk editors.

Cullen was eventually seen pounding the streets for all ITV news programmes, whether interviewing the homeless about their futures after a town's temporary Christmas shelter was closed, revealing the widely differing prospects for cities in the North-east and South-east during the 1980s recession or spending a day with a Liverpool social worker in Toxteth to understand the problems behind the riots there. Those ITN colleagues who wondered why Cullen wore high heels when chasing with the Fleet Street pack on "doorstepping" assignments eventually discovered that she would do just about anything to get in first, including stamping on her competitors' toes.

After leaving ITN, she freelanced for BBC radio's PM programme and, in 1994, won the Sony Radio Academy Award as News Reporter of the Year (Bronze) and joined the staff on the Today programme. Four years later, following her divorce from the journalist Kieran Devaney, Cullen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She underwent an intensive course of chemotherapy that exacerbated other health problems such as arthritis – which stemmed from being born with a form of anaemia – and stopped working. She then moved to Exeter, Devon, where she concentrated on bringing up her son, Tom. In 2010, she suffered a heart attack.

Cullen's 1982 book In Praise of Panic, recalling her early years at ITN, was characteristically self-effacing and concentrated on the machinations of television news reporting and the stories she covered rather than her own career path.

Sarah Cullen, journalist: born Newcastle upon Tyne 6 October 1949; married 1986 Kieran Devaney (marriage dissolved; one son); died Exeter 22 January 2012.