Terry Dobson: TV editor who broke the news of JFK’s shooting to Britain

Anthony Hayward
·4-min read
During a long career, Dobson (centre) worked in regional newsrooms across the country (Ken Williams/BBC Pebble Mill)
During a long career, Dobson (centre) worked in regional newsrooms across the country (Ken Williams/BBC Pebble Mill)

Terry Dobson, who has died of lung cancer aged 87, was a television journalist responsible for breaking the news in Britain of John F Kennedy’s shooting – on regional TV.

On Friday 22 November 1963, as news editor of Manchester-based ITV company Granada, he and copytaker Joan Riley were sitting alone in the newsroom as Scene at 6.30 was being broadcast live, presented by Mike Scott.

“Almost 10 minutes in, the direct-line phone rang and it was Stan Kirby from the Press Association,” Dobson told me last year. “A few weeks earlier, I’d made a deal with them to provide a ‘news flash’ service for anything important that happened while we were on air.”

Kirby had been listening to live coverage of Kennedy’s trip to Dallas on shortwave radio and heard gunfire. Dobson returned the call to ensure he wasn’t being hoaxed, then phoned his executive producer, Barrie Heads, in the control room to say that shots had been fired at the president’s motorcade – words repeated on air by Scott.

“Granada was about 20 minutes ahead of the rest,” said Dobson, who continued to feed updates to Scott via Heads, first reporting that Kennedy might not have been hit, then to say he had.

Only after 7pm did ITV’s national news service, along with BBC television and radio, report on the shooting, followed by an announcement of Kennedy’s death when it was confirmed.

Dobson was helped to his scoop by the fact that many BBC and ITV staff were on their way to London’s Dorchester Hotel for the Guild of Television Producers and Directors’ annual dinner and ball when the news was breaking.

Also, the days of 24-hour news were far off and the only telecommunications satellite, Telstar 2, was in downtime.

Dobson reached a national audience when, in 1972, he joined the BBC in Birmingham to launch Pebble Mill at One, a daily lunchtime show.

With chat, showbiz stars and features that included gardening, yoga, cookery and Claire Rayner’s agony aunt slot, he pioneered a magazine format that is common in daytime TV today.

He showed a single-mindedness in achieving his vision as its editor and is remembered by his staff for being as quick to praise as to explode. “Very hard but very fair,” said one of them.

Once, Dobson and main presenter Bob Langley had an argument. “Terry gave me a mouthful,” Langley recalled. “I remember losing my head completely and I started moving towards him. He saw the anger in my face and made off like a rocket. I chased him through corridors and he was closing open doors behind him.

“Fortunately, I came to my senses and thought, ‘What am I doing?’ The following day, when I arrived at the studio, he was reading his paper and said, ‘Have you brought your boxing gloves in?’ All was OK.”

Dobson also had the distinction of firing Ken Dodd from Pebble Mill at One after half a dozen appearances – because the comedian famous for letting his stage shows run on for hours constantly failed to wind up his weekly Anthology of Humour spot on the live programme when the floor manager gave him the instruction.

After six years, Dobson left the series – which had by then been retitled simply Pebble Mill, the name of the Birmingham studios – to return to regional programming, but his lunchtime creation ran for a quarter of a century.

Terence William Dobson was born in Deal, Kent, in 1933 to Gwendoline (née Gallagher) and Harry Dobson, a coal miner, and grew up in Doncaster, in the West Riding of Yorkshire (now in South Yorkshire).

He joined a local newspaper as a reporter on leaving school and later moved to the Daily Express in Manchester as news editor.

In 1957, he became a subeditor with Granada Television, rising to deputy news editor, then news editor – a job he then did at BBC South West in Plymouth, from 1963, and BBC North East in Newcastle.

On leaving BBC Birmingham in 1978, Dobson was appointed regional television manager at BBC South in Southampton, where one of his legacies was hiring naturalist Simon King to film some of his earliest wildlife programmes.

He returned to Birmingham in 1983 as managing editor of all BBC English regions but retired three years later when the corporation’s regional management structure changed and the job disappeared.

In 1960, Dobson married Eileen Summerscales, who died in 2017. He is survived by their four daughters, Jane, Sara, Kate and Joanna.

Terry Dobson, journalist and television executive, born 27 June 1933, died 19 September 2020

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