January 13, 2006

John Bierman – Reporter, writer and BBC correspondent who filmed the Bloody Sunday killings in Londonderry


John Bierman – January 26, 1929 – January 4, 2006

JOHN BIERMAN was the award-winning BBC TV reporter who covered the Bloody Sunday shootings in Londonderry and the writer whose bestselling book Righteous Gentile introduced the English-speaking world to the wartime heroism of the vanished Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, saviour of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

In a crowded career he was also the founding editor of the Nation newspaper in Kenya, BBC correspondent in Tehran and Tel Aviv — where he first met Jews who had been saved by Wallenberg — and foreign editor of the Toronto-based news magazine Maclean’s. In 2004 Viking Penguin published his last book, a biography of Laszlo Almasy, who was the real ”English Patient”. Bierman had recently undergone a kidney transplant, the organ being donated by his youngest son, Jonathan. Right up to his death, in a clinic near the home and garden he loved in the foothills above Paphos, Cyprus, he was working on a novel.

On January 30, 1972, Bierman’s was one of two BBC crews covering what started as routine Northern Ireland story, a civil rights march starting from the Bogside, the Catholic district. One camera was behind the police and army lines; Bierman’s team was assigned to the demonstrators.

”The first inkling of serious trouble was an angry mob of civilians claiming that a young man had been shot in the leg,” Bierman recalled. ”Some wanted to take us to where we could film him. Others wanted to lynch us. Then police water cannons opened up, putting the demonstrators to flight — and knocking out of action, as we learned later, all TV cameras but our own. An old lady living alone nearby invited us into her home for a cup of tea. Sitting in her modest parlour we heard the distinct sound of live rounds being fired.”

The BBC crew dashed outside and immediately began filming.

”On a street corner a paratrooper had taken up a firing position. From up the street, to our left but out of sight, we heard, ‘Hold your fire.’ Then, crouching low and waving a blood-soaked white handkerchief, came a dog-collared priest. Behind him two men carried a youth whose chest was covered in blood. The para moved towards them — a spontaneous movement, as if to offer help, or so it seemed to me. ‘Get away you bastard,’ one snarled.”

For the next few minutes Bierman and his crew, determined to get to as many of the 14 casualties as possible, scurried across patches of open ground, never certain which way the shots were coming and feeling ”horribly vulnerable”. Soon the deadline for the main evening news bulletin was approaching and, in those pre-video days, editing and scripting could be done only in the BBC’s Belfast studio, more than an hour’s drive away.

”I scribbled out my script but the deadline was so close I ad-libbed the last few minutes live on air. We ran for 13 minutes — a lifetime in TV news.”

That same year the judges at the Cannes film festival gave Bierman’s ”Bloody Sunday” report the Best TV News Coverage award.

John David Bierman was born in the East End of London to Ukrainian Jewish parents. His father, who for many years ran an antique shop in Soho, left his mother before he was born, and young John was shunted between grandparents, aunts and occasionally his mother who lived another world away in the West End. He calculated that he had attended 15 schools and recalled that, as an 11-year-old Blitz evacuee to a rural homestead, he did not suffer a single pang of homesickness.

Well over six foot, broad-shouldered and ruggedly good looking, he did his National Service in the Royal Marine Commandos shortly after the war, before becoming a junior reporter on an evening newspaper in Stoke-on-Trent.

Confident that he could make a living out of journalism, the young reporter left a drab early-1950s Britain — where wartime rationing was still in place — to work on Canadian newspapers. Four years later, determined to find a job in Fleet Street, he returned to London with his Canadian first wife, Alice Leftrook.

He soon discovered that the demand was not for reporters but sub-editors, the rewrite journalists and headline spinners who, then as now, were the backbone of the popular press.

Always a remarkably fast writer who knew what was boring, Bierman wrote his first published book, a thriller, in five weeks. Within a very short time he had gone from the Mirror to the Daily Express, then Britain’s biggest-selling paper.

But in 1960 he left the Express, lured away by the Aga Khan, who wanted him to edit the new English-language daily The Nation that he was about to launch in Nairobi.

In the countdown to the end of British rule, Kenyan politics were becoming volatile. Unlike the East African Standard, its chief rival, The Nation championed the colony’s African and Asian communities with an editorial team to match, most picked by Bierman.

When a small and irate member of the white settler community turned up in the newsroom threatening to horsewhip the editor, he was frogmarched to the door — amid the cheers of the staff — by the towering figure of the former Commando Bierman.

In 1967, after a short spell editing one of Roy Thomson’s Caribbean dailies in Trinidad, he joined BBC TV News — which must have been delighted to get hold of somebody whose experience was matched by his looks.

Bierman reported from Israel during the Six Day War in 1967, from besieged Biafra and got into West Pakistan to cover its 1971 war with India after a hazardous drive down the Khyber gorge from Afghanistan. His film went out the same way, in the hands of the Canadian TV reporter Hilary Brown, who became his second wife.

In May 1972, after his success in Londonderry and in order to set up home with Brown, Bierman became the BBC’s correspondent in Tehran. This proved to be a short posting. After 18 months a Panorama documentary on the more draconian aspects of the Peacock Throne so offended the Shah that the BBC was expelled.

Bierman moved to Istanbul and in the summer of 1974 found himself covering the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

During a dawn dash from Nicosia to the invasion beaches around Kyrenia he and his crew made rude signs at their main competitors, ITN’s Michael Nicholson and his team, who were changing a punctured tyre beside the road. But, in a story he often told against himself, it was Bierman’s luck that had run out.

Nicholson’s puncture had placed him precisely in the drop zone for a Turkish paratroop attack, and ITN had the best pictures of the conflict. Meanwhile, the BBC team were prevented from getting their film of the naval landings on air by the Finns manning a UN roadblock who had taken casualties and insisted it was too dangerous to proceed because Turkish paratroopers had cut the road to Nicosia.

This crushing example of how much better the logistics of TV news gathering have become since the advent of video tape and the satellite telephone did not sour Bierman’s love of Cyprus.

In 1991 he returned to the island to live. While his wife Hilary roved the region for the American ABC network, Bierman wrote two books with his friend Colin Smith, a former Observer correspondent and author of Singapore Burning. One, Alamein — War Without Hate (2002), was described by the historian Sir John Keegan as ”a remarkable achievement”.

Nonetheless, as a journalist Bierman was all too aware that most of the words he had written had a short life. In 2001 he was invited to the unveiling by the Queen of Morris Singer Jackson’s statue of Wallenberg in Great Cumberland Place, London, for which he had written its long and stirring inscription. Gazing at his bronze prose, Bierman remarked that it was typical that the most permanent words he would ever put down should be without a byline.

Bierman is survived by his second wife, and by two daughters and two sons.

John Bierman, journalist author, was born on January 26, 1929. He died on January 4, 2006, aged 76.