Chris was born in Luton. His career in broadcasting and journalism spanned 60 years. He reported from 120 countries, including 16 wars. He nearly lost his life in a series of minefield explosions while covering the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. After an apprenticeship of five years training as a news reporter, and also writing regular weekly columns reviewing films, jazz and pop records, he joined the Daily Sketch, aged 20, where he was the youngest reporter in Fleet Street. However, five years later in 1962, much to the shock of his family, friends and colleagues, he left his career in Fleet Street to gamble on setting up a British freelance news agency in Spain, then under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
For the next 10 years, based in Madrid, Chris established his reputation as a foreign correspondent for British national, daily and Sunday newspapers including the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Evening News, Evening Standard, The Sunday Times, Sunday Mirror, News of the World. He also worked as a reporter for ITN and BBC News (television and radio).
In 1966, Franco ordered Morris to be expelled after he broke the story to the world of the worst nuclear accident in America’s military history, when a US Air Force B-52 on a strategic air command patrol at the height of the Cold War was involved in a mid-air collision with a refuelling aircraft. The B-52 jettisoned four H-bombs as it crashed, bringing terror and spreading radioactivity around the Mediterranean village of Palomares, when two of the nuclear devices cracked open on impact spilling lethal plutonium over a vast area. Only hours later, when the Pentagon in Washington admitted the radioactive contamination on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, was the expulsion order revoked.
Chris returned to London and joined BBC Radio as a news reporter (1972 – 1974) and was soon sent back to Spain. During his time there, he reported on: the assassination by the Basque terrorist group ETA of Franco’s chosen successor, deputy Prime Minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco; Franco’s death and funeral. His first war assignment in Cyprus was to end in disaster when a press convoy strayed into a minefield. The Press Association (PA) newsflash on the morning of 8th August 1974 caused chaos and confusion in the BBC newsroom. It read: “BBC newsman Paul Morris has been killed in a minefield explosion in Cyprus.” In fact, Morris was critically wounded. It was BBC News colleague and sound recordist, Ted Stoddard, who had been killed. Six other British and American journalists were injured when five anti-personnel mines exploded. Morris came close to death after shrapnel hit him in the chest, collapsing a lung, shattering ribs and paralysing his left arm. After spending months in hospital, and with his arm permanently disabled, he returned to work a year later. More war assignments for the BBC would follow: in the Western Sahara, Chad, Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique, Nicaragua and the Lebanon.
During his time at the BBC, he was home reporter (1974 – 1983) and special correspondent (1983 – 1988). He was also a relief BBC TV newsreader, making appearances on Evening News, Nine o’Clock News, News Headlines, Weekend News and BBC Two’s News View (30th July 1979 – 8th July 1980, 15th February 1987 and 17th – 24th October 1987). Famously, Chris was on duty on Bank Holiday Monday 27th August 1979, when he announced the assassination of Earl Mountbatten of Burma by the IRA, in the first of seven newsflashes within Grandstand. The main evening news bulletin was extended from eight to forty-five minutes and the audience that night of 26 million is still the record for a British TV news bulletin (ITN was on strike). It’s a record unlikely ever to be surpassed with the proliferation of digital channels. Chris also appeared as a newsreader on BBC TV’s Breakfast Time (1984 and 1985).
Among many major stories he reported for BBC TV News: the world’s worst oil tanker spill (at the time) off the Brittany coast in France, when the Amoco Cadiz split in two; the car bomb at the Houses of Parliament in London that killed Airey Neave, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary and war hero, who was the first British prisoner to escape from Colditz. On 23rd February 1981, Chris was back in Madrid, and by chance, the only journalist inside the Cortes, the Spanish parliament, when rebel civil guards burst in during an attempted coup to oust King Juan Carlos. Along with more than 300 Spanish MPs, Morris and his BBC TV crew were held hostage at gunpoint for several hours before being released. His eyewitness account and film of the shoot-out has become an historic record of the day democracy defeated dictatorship in Spain. Throughout the Falkland Islands conflict, Morris was in Buenos Aires, one of only a handful of British journalists allowed into Argentina to report from the enemy side during the war. Immediately after the war ended, he was assigned to Israel to cover the invasion of southern Lebanon.
When the BBC decided to switch him to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) side he was trapped inside West Beirut with the guerrilla forces of Yasser Arafat and under daily shellfire from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). While in Beirut, Morris broke the news of the massacre of 3,500 Palestinians by Lebanese Phalangist militias in Sabra and Shatila. He managed to smuggle video-recorded evidence of the event to Damascus in neighbouring Syria where the pictures were sent by satellite to London. The pictures caused worldwide protests and almost led to the downfall of the Israeli government. Defence minister Ariel Sharon, later to become Prime Minister, was forced to resign over complicity in the refugee camp attacks.
During the Iran-Iraq war, after being the first journalist to report the fall of the key oilport of Khorramshahr, Ayatollah Khalkhali broadcast on Iranian TV putting a price for Morris’ capture and described him as “the serpent of imperialism and international Zionism.” Evading capture by Republican Guards, he was at the front line with the forces of Saddam Hussein to witness their use of chemical and biological weapons. In the 1991 Gulf War with Sky News he was the first British television journalist to reach Kuwait City on the day of liberation. He reported on the massacre at the Mutla Ridge when coalition forces intercepted the retreating Iraqi army. Morris also reported from the various front lines during the civil war in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, including Srebrenica where 7,500 Muslims were rounded up and shot by the advancing Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic.
Chris was the only television journalist to accompany Bob Geldof on all his visits to the famine-stricken countries of Africa after Band Aid and Live Aid when his reports for BBC TV News helped to raise £70 million in aid.
Other major assignments for the BBC and Sky News include: the first television interview with Anthony Blunt after the master spy’s exposure by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; Spain’s reopening of the border with the Rock of Gibraltar, 13 years after it was closed by Franco; the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the attempted coup in Russia against president Mikhail Gorbachev; the release after 27 years in prison and first face-to-face interview with Nelson Mandela on his long walk to freedom before becoming South Africa’s first black President; the assassinations of India’s prime ministers Indira Gandhi and, seven years later, her son, Rajiv Gandhi; the election of Bill Clinton for his first term as US president; the murder trial in Los Angeles, lasting nine months, of O. J. Simpson; the murder of the Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, shot dead outside his mansion in Miami; and the handover of Hong Kong to China.
Chris has also reported on several Royal tours for BBC Television: with HM The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in Canada and Australia; with Prince Charles and Prince Harry in Africa; the royal wedding and honeymoon of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales; the first-ever royal tour by newly married Prince Charles and Princess Diana – in Australia and New Zealand. He was the Sky News commentator at RAF Northolt for the return of the Princess after she was killed in Paris, and later for her funeral at Althorp.
For almost two years in 1988 he returned abroad, this time as Australia correspondent for the BBC setting up the Corporation’s first TV news studios in Sydney, as he had done previously, 21 years before in Madrid. He was also appointed Australasia correspondent for The Times newspaper. He joined Sky News in February 1989 for the channel’s launch, and for 11 years he was both senior foreign correspondent and one of the main news anchors, presenting over 10,000 live bulletins until February 2000. He returned to the BBC as a newsreader (on BBC News 24). Also in 2000, he launched OmniVision, an independent TV production company based at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire and was a director until 2011.
In 2002, Chris was appointed director of public affairs at Harrods. As a producer and director, commissions included a television series Only Food and Forces filmed in Afghanistan, Oman, Norway, the Falkland Islands and the United Kingdom. He also produced and directed documentaries on some of Britain’s most distinguished actors: Sir John Mills: A Century in Films (Mills’ last interview, just before he died); Kate Winslet: Starmaker to Superstar, about the career of the Oscar-winning actress. Morris is also the author of a best-selling book The Day They Lost the H Bomb about the 1966 US military disaster in Spain. In his last OmniVision documentary The Curse of America’s H Bombs, he revisited Palomares to assess the continuing radioactive fallout from the nuclear accident.
Paul R. Jackson corresponded with Chris in February 2018.
Did Your Work in Spain Help You Get the Job at BBC Radio in 1972?
“Yes and No. My intention when leaving Fleet Street for Spain in 1962 was to gain experience as a foreign correspondent in Spain but to freelance abroad for only a year. My principal ambition was to join the BBC as a reporter and over the following ten years I applied, attended appointment boards, and was rejected a record 13 times for this job. Only on the day I quit Madrid in 1972 did the then editor, BBC Radio News, Peter Woon, ring me to apologise for so many rejections. He explained the only reason was because, as a Spanish-speaking correspondent with such good contacts in Spain, I was invaluable rather than just another reporter on the ‘taxi rank’ at Broadcasting House. Only when he realised I really was returning to London did he invite me to his office and I was, at last, offered the reporting job I had so long coveted – and this time without an appointments board!”
How Did You End Up Reading the BBC News and Did You Enjoy Studio-Based Work?
“I read my first BBC news bulletin by accident. Kenneth Kendall reported sick that morning less than an hour before the lunchtime news. I was cutting a story in one of the edit suites when I was ordered upstairs to be told I would be presenting the news in 20 minutes. I was apparently the only news reporter in the building and had never read a bulletin in my life. There was time for just the briefest of rehearsals, as was the custom in those days. I was instructed on how to use and mark up the autocue script, how to address the camera, how to cope with the live instructions in a borrowed earpiece – and then projected, rather nervously, into the studio. Fortunately all went well with no major hitch though the studio director did give some first-class advice afterwards. Next time, try to relax – you didn’t blink once – and you did at times rather look like the proverbial rabbit caught in a car’s headlights!
“It was an exhilarating experience though and I was later recruited to join eminent presenters like Richard Baker, Kenneth Kendall, Peter Woods and Richard Whitmore on the regular newsreaders’ rota. I eventually asked to go back to reporting as I found newsreading rather boring in those days as presenters were not allowed to inject any personal writing skills or creativity into the scripts. It was only when Peter Woon introduced journalists like John Humphrys and John Simpson, to read the news did the job become more challenging. But back on the road I was initially appointed a sports correspondent covering the Moscow Olympics, the World Cup in Mexico, the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton and an England rebel cricket tour in South Africa before finally returning to news as special correspondent.”
And Career Highlights?
“There have been so many career highlights but to name just three:
- 18th January 1966: acting on a hunch, I was the first reporter to reach the scene of the worst nuclear accident in America’s military history after four H-bombs were jettisoned by a US Air Force B-52 around the village of Palomares on Spain’s Mediterranean coast following a mid-air collision with a refuelling aircraft. After breaking that story around the world I faced expulsion from Spain until the Pentagon admitted the disaster had caused widespread radioactivity that persists to this day.
- 23rd February 1981: by pure chance, I was inside the Cortes, the parliament in Madrid, with a BBC camera team when Spanish civil guards firing semi-automatic weapons and led by pistol-waving Colonel Antonio Tejero staged an attempted coup. With bullets zinging around the chamber and over 300 Spanish MPs cowering under falling masonry, cameraman Mike Viney carried on filming what has become a historic record of the day when the coup failed after the intervention of King Juan Carlos and dictatorship was defeated by democracy.
- 12th February 1990: the morning after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa and then working for Sky News, I was in the black township of Soweto following a tip-off and waiting outside his house with ITN’s Trevor McDonald. With most of the world’s press still in Cape Town where the African National Congress leader had spent his first night of freedom at Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s home before secretly heading back to Johannesburg, our objective was to get the first face-to-face interviews following his 27 years’ incarceration. We waited for hours by the garden gate until we were suddenly ushered inside to be warmly greeted by Mandela and the interviews we’d sought. Another moment of history.
What Are Your Memories of: the Mountbatten Death and the Incident Were Jan Leeming Was Sprayed in the Face with Ammonia by Youths When She Disturbed Them in the Newsround Office – 20 Minutes Before She Was Due to Present the 9.10pm Bulletin?
“I was the only newsreader on duty when Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA on the summer Bank Holiday 27th August 1979. First tip off of a bomb explosion on the boat of a member of the Royal family in the Irish Republic came from the BBC’s Belfast office just minutes before the short bulletin that preceded Grandstand. However, the editor-of -the-day refused to run the story without confirmation by the RUC or Irish police. So one minute after I’d presented the five-minute bulletin, confirmation did come through and I was despatched straight back into the studio for a newsflash – one of seven that afternoon. As Frank Bough drily remarked later: ‘So many newsflashes really f****d up my Bank Holiday sports programme.’ I was also in trouble with the editor for being inappropriately dressed when due to present a major story about the murder of a member of the Royal family.
“Admittedly, my light blue American jeans suit and scarlet tie really were unsuitable. But the BBC’s wardrobe was closed, so I was sent home to St Albans to find a dark suit and black tie between newsflashes. I thought one of the senior newsreaders would be summoned in to read such an important bulletin that was extended from eight minutes to forty-fivr minutes. But I was on my own that night reading the news with the biggest-ever audience in British television news history.
“Although I later asked to return to reporting the news rather than reading it, there were other occasions when I was propelled back into the studio at short notice – when one of Kenneth Kendall’s front teeth fell out when he was reading the news on BBC Two and when Jan Leeming had ammonia thrown in her face by intruders she disturbed in the office of John Craven’s Newsround on the 7th floor of TV Centre. Once again I was the only newsreader in the building capable of presenting the news that night on BBC One, and managed to get into the studio 60 seconds before the live bulletin after getting stuck in the lift going to retrieve my earpiece from my car in the underground garage.
What Was It Like to Join Sky News at Launch and Was It a Difficult Decision to Leave the BBC?
“Chaotic is perhaps the best word to describe the launch of Sky News on 5th February 1989, when I returned to London after almost two years in Australia as the BBC’s Radio and TV News correspondent while also The Times correspondent Down Under. The Sky News studio in a prefabricated building behind the Gillette factory at Osterley in west London was in reality a building site. The entrance was ankle deep in mud and workmen had to stop drilling on the roof when the bulletins were broadcast live. It was a difficult decision to leave the BBC after almost three decades but the challenge of joining Britain’s first 24-hour satellite news channel was too exciting to miss, even though the first night audience – apart from invited VIPs in nearby Syon House – was zero as no satellite dishes at that time were available in the shops. I stayed at Sky News for over a decade as senior news presenter and foreign correspondent before finally going back to the BBC as newsreader on BBC News 24 the day after I quit Sky.”
Video Clips on the Internet
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PICTURED: Christopher Morris. SUPPLIED BY: Christopher Morris.. COPYRIGHT: Christopher Morris.