The death at the age of 97 of the veteran BBC space and aviation correspondent Reginald Turnill is a timely reminder of a by-gone age in Fleet Street. Turnill, a fifteen year old school boy, joined the Press Association news agency in1930 as a reporter’s telephonist. After five years as a copytaker he was promoted to reporter – and seventy years later he was still just as busy writing and broadcasting.
I had the good fortune to come to know and respect Turnill at several points in my career: in the early 1960s, again in the 1980s and as recently as 2011 when he reflected on his days as an industrial correspondent with both the Press Association and the BBC and contributed to my book The Lost Tribe: Whatever Happened to Fleet Street’s Industrial Correspondents?
My first encounter with Turnill was in 1962 when, after seeing him at work as the BBC’s aviation correspondent, I decided that I too wanted to become a broadcaster. Two decades later he encouraged me in my own writing after reading articles I had written for The Listener. Turnill’s advice was invaluable: he told me to always keep my BBC scripts because they were a reliable source of information which could not be bettered by newspaper cuttings.
Turnill put his own advice to good use and his many articles and books on manned space flight and the development of aircraft such as Concorde are a testimony to the legendary accuracy of his reporting – an accuracy which had been instilled in him from his early years copy taking and performing the menial fact-checking tasks which were then demanded of reporters.
Like Turnill I was an early school leaver, starting out as a magazine editorial assistant at the age of 17; and just Turnill was forced by the BBC, against his will, to retire at the age of sixty, so too was I in 2002. In recent years I renewed my contact with Turnill at receptions organised by the Journalists' Charity, of which he was a long-standing member and of which I am a past chairman of the trustees.
I reproduce “Advice from Reg”, my contribution to a collection of tributes to some of the best-known names in journalism, which was published by The Journalist's Handbook in January 2002:
“I was perplexed for days by the task of trying to select a journalist I have known or admired: looking back on 40 years’ work as a reporter, there was no shortage of likely contenders. Names and faces came flooding back. Many of those I remembered, I respected for their flair and news sense; others I admired for their guts in never taking ‘no’ for an answer. There were some about whom I was, on reflection, rather envious. They had always seemed to me to have had the luck to be in the right place at the right moment. Nonetheless their success was a reminder of all those missed or fluffed opportunities which return to haunt any journalist who dares to pause long enough to reflect on his own responses to the stories of yester-year. Finally I decided to apply another test: whose work or example was it that inspired me to go on striving to meet the next challenge or perhaps to try again for that elusive job?
In the winter of 1962, after two and a half years in journalism and six months as an indentured apprentice on the Portsmouth Evening News, I was a 20-year-old district report at Cowes in the Isle of Wight. One wet and windy morning I was on the landing slip of the aircraft manufacturers, Saunders Roe, as engineers prepared the new SRN2 Hovercraft for its first test flight. Among the assembled reporters was Reginald Turnill, the BBC’s aerospace correspondent. Not daring to approach him, I stood there transfixed with admiration as he held up his microphone and delivered his report into his tape recorder. I decided there and then that was what I wanted to be: a radio reporter.
In the early 1960s, life was far from glamorous on the Portsmouth Evening News. After seeing the SRN2 head off the landing slip and move out into the harbour, I hurried away to the nearest telephone box to file my report. There was no district office for the Cowes reporter. Instead I had to rely on a five-shilling bag of pennies from the Post Office and use an ‘A’ and ‘B’ push button ‘phone box to dictate stories and ring my contacts. The sight of Turnill standing there so authoritatively as he recorded his radio despatch, knowing that his report would be broadcast by the BBC, was imprinted on my mind. It was an image which stayed with me year after year as each BBC interview I attended was followed by yet another rejection slip.
Ten years had elapsed before I eventually landed the job of news producer at BBC Radio Leicester. By 1973, when I succeeded in gaining an attachment to the radio newsroom in London, Turnill was the corporation’s most senior correspondent and far too important to be reminded of his visit to Cowes. My first (and only) chance to speak to him occurred a decade later, at the height of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. As labour correspondent, I was writing regularly about the dispute for the BBC’s defunct weekly magazine The Listener and Turnill, who had been retired for some years, was an occasional visitor to the correspondents’ office. He liked to call in to collect the post which still arrived for him from all over the world. In his retirement he had written numerous books on space exploration and the many American and Soviet missions. Without prompting he told me to make sure that I always kept copies of my radio reports and filed them away. He said his scripts had proved to be an invaluable resource for his books on space flights and rocket technology. He knew that he could always trust his own work and that he had not needed to fall back on newspaper cuttings.
Turnill’s advice helped to spur me on to write my first book, Strikes and the Media. He was so right in what he said and I came to realise that on many occasions my reports for BBC radio probably could not be bettered as a primary source. Usually I find there is no need to give extensive chapter notes for the source of the facts and observations which I refer to. My books are almost always based on what I have seen and heard. Until that one chance encounter, it had not dawned on me that my work for the BBC meant I could consider myself a credible and reliable source of information. All I needed was a foolproof filing system and a big loft. Thank you. Reg!’
(The Journalist’s Handbook, January 2000)
Illustration: The Independent 18.2.2013