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Obituary: Vincent Hanna

Vincent Hanna, creator of the by-election as political theatre, was one of life's glorious immoderates. He ate immoderately, worked immoderately, read avidly, talked incessantly and, in general, lived every day with an innocent relish for people and events that exhausted many of those around him. One of the most richly and variously gifted journalists of his generation, he simply did too much for too long. Until yesterday, he never stopped.

Unlike most stars of the media, Hanna had had another career first. He was born near the Falls Road to a well-off Catholic Belfast lawyer, Frank Hanna, who was Labour MP for the area until 1965. The household was fiercely political, though not sectarian; of five children, all became lawyers in turn, and Vincent specialised in civil rights and industrial injuries cases for seven years, while pursuing a serious hobby as a guitar-playing folk singer.

Then, in 1970, he set off for London, to finish a doctorate at the LSE, where his jobbing journalism was spotted by the dominant editor of the day: Harry Evans hired him to the Sunday Times as an industrial reporter. Hanna's conversion to journalism was immediate and total: he is remembered on that paper as a frantically hard and enthusiastic worker who irritated lazier and less committed colleagues. He moved to the BBC to Tonight and then, when it was launched, to Newsnight, where he first became a national figure.

Above all, he became the great ringmaster and one-man impresario of the by-election as a kind of national political circus. Portable videotape meant Hanna was able to pursue, hound, hector, harass and occasionally ridicule hapless by-election candidates in towns and shires across the country - and deliver up-to-the-minute material for that night's programme. His sardonic, musically literate little films introduced hundreds of thousands of people to the theatre and poetry of politics, while simultaneously infuriating some of the politicians who found themselves ``Hanna'd''.

These films, his greatest achievement, comprised a new kind of political reporting, much copied and never rivalled, which ended forever the era when parliamentary by-elections were obscure and largely unreported contests. At one point a Labour whip complained in the Commons that he was behaving as if by-elections were held for his personal entertainment; on another occasion a Liberal organiser said: ``I think Vincent views by-elections rather as Nero used to view the Roman games - something for his amusement.''

But what such criticisms missed was that Hanna was simultaneously doing a job for democracy - connecting voters and viewers to events that they would otherwise have mostly ignored. Because of Hanna, by-elections became one of the ways in which the popularity and coherence of the (then Thatcher) Government was measured and discussed. Looking back now, it is hard to imagine some of those savage tussles of the time, when the SDP was struggling to break through, and Labour was half-engulfed by the hard left, without Hanna's pointed, impertinent and beautifully crafted essays on videotape.

He was, however, cordially disliked by some of his colleagues and his some of his bosses too. His problems with management are the more easily explained: all his life Hanna was a keen trade unionist. He was brought up among trade union leaders and spent eight years on the national executive of the National Union of Journalists. In 1985 he led a one-day strike in protest at the shelving of a film about Martin McGuinness, saying at the time that journalists needed organisers: ``They are hopeless at organising themselves. Whenever two journalists are gathered together, you have an argument. Whenever three are gathered, you have a split.'' He advised other trade unions and was a highly successful support- gatherer and vote-fixer in numerous crises and disputes. By the time he left his BBC job in 1987, it was an open secret that John Birt regarded his union activities with mounting anger.

The hostility felt by some other journalists to Hanna was a more complicated thing. He himself was always utterly baffled by it. Part of it was simple jealousy and the resentment felt by the less talented for a man of huge talent whose ego matched his girth. At times, Hanna showed that he had sharp elbows and a sharper tongue. Rarely taking offence himself, and coming from a background where a good argument was essential to a well-filled day, Hanna didn't understand that others found him bumptious and arrogant. ``He really couldn't believe he had an enemy in the world,'' one television colleague said yesterday. ``He couldn't bear grudges and just didn't believe ill of people.''

After his Newsnight era, Hanna went into television production; helped create and starred in A Week in Politics; advised large cities and trade unions; hosted late-night television shows; and, rather late in life, discovered a great talent for radio. On Sunday, he was discussing the Independent's coverage of the Versace murder and Northern Irish politics with his usual gusto and good- natured aggression on BBC Radio 4's Medium Wave. His ferociously fast banter just before going on air had fellow guests in stitches.

Though twice wed, he spent most of his adult life married to Joan Fitt, the daughter of Lord (Gerry) Fitt and was a proud and devoted father to two daughters. Outside politics, he was a fanatical follower of almost every sport the human race engages in; a passionate Francophile; and a lover of both music and food. But the words ``outside politics'' and ``Vincent Hanna'' don't really go together. He was a lifelong politics addict who, in the days just before his death, was utterly absorbed by (and optimistic about) the latest steps in the Northern Irish peace process. His head was ringing with the voices of scores of callers to his radio shows and his conversation was full of the intricate drama of Tony Blair's conversations with David Trimble.

One of the great characters and performers of post-war British political broadcasting, Hanna packed more into his 58 years of life than most people would get into 88 and his sudden death leaves an unfillable, Hanna-shaped hole in this country's political conversation. It brings an unexpected silence where we could not imagine silence falling.

Andrew Marr

Vincent Leo Martin Hanna, journalist and broadcaster: born Belfast 9 August 1939; admitted solicitor of the Supreme Court 1964; Industrial Relations Correspondent, Sunday Times 1970-73; political journalist, BBC TV 1973-87; founded ViewPoint Associates Ltd 1987; married secondly 1975 Joan Fitt (two daughters); died Belfast 22 July 1997.