Veteran broadcaster and the voice of breaking news at Sky TV, Jeremy Thompson tells us how a home by the river is key to life on the road. Linda Duberley talks to him about a career that started on a local newspaper and culminated on a world wide stage.
Jeremy Thompson is, by anyone’s measure, an international man.
He has lived and worked all over the world, covered some of the biggest news stories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and developed an insight which gives him real global perspective.
ITV’s Julie Etchingham, his former colleague at Sky, says his recently published autobiography, Breaking News, is “a bold and gripping trip through the last four decades of the world’s biggest news stories – and some lovely peeks behind the scenes – from the man who defined Breaking News in Britain.”
He has set up news bureaux in Hong Kong, Africa and the US. He is a storyteller in the truest sense of the word. Someone who masters the detail required for understanding the big picture.
So, it is perhaps surprising and yet reassuring, that this breadth of vision is built on a foundation of appreciating and understanding the importance of hearth and home.
While some may think he would be subsumed by geo-politics, he is the first to say that his worldwide career on the frontline has been largely built with the unrelenting support of his wife Lynn. The couple, have been together for 38 years, and own a roof-top sanctuary overlooking the Thames at Teddington.
When it came to putting pen to paper, Thompson naturally chose this place and the immutable river below it to inspire a memoire largely set in turbulent times.
“The river really is the lifeblood of our lives. Where ever I have been in the world, no matter how dangerous or difficult, I know that my home on the river and Lynn, my wife, are the constants that have allowed me to live my life as a correspondent to the full,” he told me on a glorious sunlit day as the Thames rolled on just a few feet away.
To say he has been in dicey situations would be to use the understatement familiar to many foreign correspondents. There have been many dangerous scenarios – to characterize them more correctly – particularly in Africa, the continent he loved to cover and in Kosovo where he and the Sky News team took presenting from the field to a new level.
“Yes, I have been incredibly fortunate to get the kind of front seat in the stories that make history. It has been a remarkable journey – everything from the assassination of Indira Ghandi, to the release of Nelson Mandela, to the election of Trump. I literally could not have wished for more,” he told me.
Yet, it all began a long time ago in the smoky newsroom of the Cambridge Evening News where covering weddings was a routine broken only by the occasional crime story. Thompson, like many old school journalists, started his working life with a harsh but fair News Editor. Eddie Duller’s severe reprimands left just enough room for ambition to grow and Thompson did not need much room at all.
Before long he was off to BBC Local Radio and at the age of thirty turned up at Look North, the renowned news programme serving the North East of England. Within a few years he had won a position as the North of England Correspondent for BBC Network News and although it is perhaps ghoulish to point this out, his coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper’s murderous four-year campaign did much to bring him to the attention of talent spotters at ITV.
Thompson soon took up a role as the Sports Correspondent on the upstart, but at one-stage unrivalled news gatherer, ITN. While many friends and colleagues questioned his decision to cross the divide into sport, their puzzlement may have been clarified when, by the end of that year, he was in a swimming pool in the upmarket area of Vaucluse in Sydney taking a break from covering an Ashes tour. Consternation that was almost certainly dispelled when – as the only journalist in the ITN newsroom with an Indian visa, as part of an accreditation for an England Cricket tour – he was dispatched to the Sub Continent to cover the assassination of Indira Ghandi.
After that the challenges and the stories came thick and fast. He set up ITN’s Asia Bureau before covering the pro-democracy riots in Tiananmen Square, the First Gulf War, the Yugoslav War, the Mandela years, the Kosovo crisis, 9/11 and a few royal stories just to keep things peaceful. During one of his busiest years he was away for 280 days.
“At Sky viewers came to know me as the voice of breaking news. It is certainly true that we were able to completely and literally rewrite the map when it came to a big, breaking story. Never before had news crews attempted that kind of coverage from the field. That worked for me….I would never have been happy bound to a studio,”
And this is true. Even as Thompson moved toward the end of his fourth decade in TV News in 2016, he was still covering the hurly burly of the Trump election from across the US.
“I have been fortunate to have a wife who does not just support me but takes a very active role building us a life wherever we have ended up. We are a team. You can do this job successfully in only two ways. You can go it alone or you have the right partner – someone who enjoys the travel, making new friends and the sheer uncertainty of it all.
“But at the end of the day you have to have somewhere to call home and for thirty years, it has been here in Teddington where the river gives us a sense of permanence in an uncertain world.
“Any good correspondent needs perspective. We have all been busy being the first with the news. But it is more important to be correct – to give a story context.”
It may be forty years since Thompson’s copy went down to hot metal presses but his values of accuracy and insight remain.