Gerald was educated at Charterhouse and New College, Oxford. He joined the BBC in 1949 as a news sub-editor. He spent his first six months on a contract, writing obituaries. He apparently jokingly wrote his own obituary shortly before leaving the job, for a post as a sub-editor in the news gathering operation. In 1954, he was posted to the BBC’s office in New Delhi, as BBC Radio News foreign correspondent (1954 – 1958) – the youngest person to fill that role (at 26). His next assignment would take him to Washington, D.C. (1958 – 1960) where he was number two correspondent. More foreign assignments awaited: he was Beirut correspondent (1961), and would then go on to spend four years as the BBC’s Middle East correspondent. He then requested a transfer back to London as a television newsreader.
He presented BBC Two’s news programme Newsroom as well as the Line-Up news summary (20th April 1964 – 30th September 1966). Newsroom introduced the idea of in-depth reporting, as well as a more informal presentation style (pullovers, versus the suits over on BBC One). Possibly Priestland’s best-known news broadcast took place on the opening night of BBC Two (Monday 20th April 1964). He had the unenviable task of being the face of the channel for most of the evening, anchoring impromptu news bulletins from the newsroom at Alexandra Palace. A widespread power failure in London knocked out the supply to TV Centre, meaning the channel’s planned opening night of programmes could not be transmitted. However, the lights remained on at Alexandra Palace and BBC Two’s output was sourced from there for the evening – albeit, it was a repetitive series of news updates and apologies for the loss of normal service.
Gerald would soon return to the US – this time as number one Washington correspondent (1965 – 1970) for BBC TV News. By the start of the new decade, he was back in the UK. A nervous breakdown kept him away from broadcasting for a short period. During his recovery, he became a devoted Quaker (many years previous, he had declared himself an atheist). He would soon resume his reporting role: first as London-based foreign correspondent for BBC TV News (1970 – 1972). He then began to veer towards religious broadcasting and became the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent (1977 – 1982).
His Priestland’s Postbag was a controversial part of Terry Wogan’s BBC Radio 2 breakfast programme, drawing both praise and criticism.
He gave the 1982 Swarthmore Lecture entitled Reasonable Uncertainty: A Quaker Approach to Doctrine to the annual gathering of British Quakers. He published The Dilemmas of Journalism in 1979 and his autobiography in 1986: Something Understood. His autobiography was updated shortly before its publication, to provide a more accurate account of his views on former BBC News editor, Tahu Hole, who had just died. The controversial news editor was responsible for sending Priestland to New Delhi in the mid-1950s. In the book, Gerald refers to Hole as “a monster in every sense”. He went on to claim that Hole “…took good care to make no operational decisions himself for which he might be blamed if things went wrong.” Hole was renowned for his authoritarian approach to management and insisting that each news item be backed by at least two different sources.
Gerald participated in a number of television and radio programmes for both the BBC and ITV until his death in 1991. After his death, he received the rare honour (shared with John Reith, Huw Wheldon and Richard Dimbleby) of having a series of annually broadcast lectures named in his honour. He expressed his love of Cornwall in Postscript: With Love to Penwith, which was published after his death.
Paul R. Jackson corresponded with Gerald in February 1986 and asked him about his involvement with BBC Two’s Newsroom: “This was developed first as News Extra on BBC One (I believe there was an earlier attempt still, called Behind the Headlines – but I was abroad then). There were two motives: (1) to give longer treatment to stories (“depth” was the fashionable word); and (2) to have stories presented by reporters who had researched them themselves, rather than by newsreaders. Hence the pullover treatment which did indeed take place; and the set was faked up with desks and typists in the background.
“As for the disastrous opening night – (John) Tidmarsh may well have been on the rota to do the main show, but I did the opening summary which was the only thing to get on the air. The power cut affected only West London (which meant Lime Grove and TV Centre); it did not affect North London (which meant Alexandra Palace – TV News was the only department left working there at the time). Instead of chatting my way through a quick three-minute summary of the news, I found myself ad-libbing off the agency tapes for what seemed like hours. Up at AP we were totally unaffected, you see. I guess I was presenting on BBC Two Newsroom from April – December 1964. I haven’t the faintest idea what the format was; except that we tended to do three or four longer stories, hopefully all on film from our reporters at home or overseas, though sometimes one of the team would lash together a package using agency and library film, slides, graphics, studio interviews. Peter Woon was the master of the animated graphics!”
Video Clips on the Internet
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Reference: Inside the BBC by Leonard Miall.
PICTURED: Gerald Priestland. SUPPLIED BY: Online. COPYRIGHT: BBC.