Denis Phelps

Radio news editor devoted to his 'craft'

Wednesday 05 October 2011 20:47

Denis Phelps, radio news editor: born Wellington, New Zealand 22 June 1943; died Wellington 9 September 2005.

From the confines of his wheelchair, Denis Phelps, trainer and associate of scores of news journalists and producers who became widely known in BBC and other media in Britain, worked for Radio New Zealand News for 35 years. Such people as Tony Reid, of Hard Talk, Tama Muru of Extra Time, the one-time Radio 4 reporter - and later Hollywood scriptwriter - Gavin Scott and Caroline Howie, until recently Head of News for BBC World TV, all have reason to remember this remarkable man from inside the news. Yet Phelps's role as bulletin editor for most of that time would not - to a world dazzled by rank, promotion and salary - have appeared spectacular or influential.

Indeed, the news editor in any medium, but perhaps particularly radio, has the most invisible of tasks, situated as it is in an amorphous territory between the very public writer and the equally public presenter.

Phelps, however, saw the role of bulletin editor as a high, and crucial, calling. He talked often of the craft of subbing - the crafting of material from a dozen sources (in often frenzied newsrooms) - into a tailored bulletin, timed to the second to suit the reading speed of each of his newsreaders. "OK to go." He spoke of the need for balance in a bulletin and in radio's presentation of the news. As importantly, perhaps, he talked of, and taught many who worked with him, the sense of the spread of radio news throughout a day or a week, in order to give newsbite-hungry listeners as well as the serious news analyst a fair representation of what was happening in the world. Like the true radio sub, he was the coalface arbiter of what the world should know and how they should be told.

Some thought Phelps, with his sharp intellect, extraordinarily broad knowledge, subtle analysis of human and world affairs, would have made a good judge. Possibly he had that thought too. However, there was no lift to take him to the law department of his local university when he went to enrol, so he studied politics instead on the ground floor.

Phelps suffered from - but rarely talked about - brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition which affects around 4,000 people in Britain. His parents were warned that he was unlikely to live much beyond 20. And, indeed, a pre-adulthood lifetime of breaking bones and lengthy hospitalisations meant that his formal education was brief. He spent no more than a few weeks in a classroom, rejected boring correspondence lessons by the time he was 15 and set about educating himself. For the next several years, his close extended family, his books, his music and the radio were his mentors.

Denis Phelps was born in Wellington in 1943, his grandfather (and regular companion) a greengrocer, his father and mother accountants in a market gardeners' co-operative. He spent his entire life in an inner Wellington suburb. When most of his contemporaries in early-Sixties Wellington were heading off to see the world, Phelps's travel was confined by the limitations of his mobility and by his always fragile physical condition and frequent, grievous accidents. He was told, when 16, that he would never work.

With his minimal formal education and several years' self-education behind him he took himself, with encouragement and physical help from his sister, to Victoria University. There he discovered an ability to gain A grades and burst into student politics as Secretary of the Students' Union. He began writing a weekly metropolitan newspaper column on university affairs.

He spurned, without deriding it, much of the help then available to the physically handicapped and felt it was necessary for him to make his way as a normal member of the workforce. But he had to be more than normal. "When you're in a position such as mine," he told one interviewer,

you have to be that much better. People don't accept you on the same basis as they accept other people so you have to try harder.

His chance came with his acceptance in 1970 into the then NZ Broadcasting Corporation news service. And it was here that he remained with a talented group of colleagues developing and encouraging in others a professionalism in the skill of news organisation, presentation and philosophy that was to make of Radio NZ News a service among the best in the world - and a source of talent for the UK and many other countries.

Soon he was in one of the hottest seats in broadcasting - president of his union, the Association of Broadcasting Journalists, this during the reign of the autocratic and divisive prime minister Robert Muldoon. In 1977 Phelps took a hard line against political interference and pressure experienced by journalists. He strongly defended the position - and human frailties - of journalists and journalism. "Of course," he said,

we make errors of fact, judgement and taste. And sometimes we are personally dishonest in an effort to stay in favour with management. But, with our imperfections, we remain one of the few barriers to an authoritarian bureaucracy.

Phelps's childhood experience of isolation prepared him for years of overnight and early-morning work and the pressure of preparing bulletins for the breakfast shifts. He was often alone, but never a loner. He craved company and conversation. He assuaged these thirsts as an elegant and sophisticated host, in his custom-built house. Therein could be found an always well-peopled dinner table where music and wines flowed while Phelps wheeled in his cordon bleu dishes from low-level oven to table. His party trick was the quiz, the conundrum, the unanswerable question, to confound. His politics were liberal and compassionate, his manner courteous, his method in the kitchen, as in conversation, orderly, tidy.

He carried this attitude into his work. To those of us working as his newsreaders, he would hand over carefully written, thoughtfully compiled, considered prose written for the reader and the hearer, a discipline so many of us in our various news roles tried to emulate here in Britain. We often discussed the nature of the news bulletin and its significance in the wider world of the media. He saw it as his demanding responsibility that the listener be helped to understand the sense of the story and, in the context of that bulletin and the news of the day and the week, its meaning.

Phelps remained at the coalface of news until the end of his life. He could have moved to administration or higher rank elsewhere. Rather, he chose, as he saw it, the continual professionalisation of his craft, the crafting of news.

He spoke of his work minutes before he died. "It's been a tough job," he said, "but I think I've done it pretty well."

Not a boast. OK to go.

Hugo Manson

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