First BBC News organiser in New York – how Ron Onions did it:

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May 16, 2015 by dontbringlulubook

In May 1971 Ron Onions, co-author of ‘Don’t Bring Lulu’ was coming to the end of his stint as the first news organiser of the BBC in Manhattan. Here is his account of how he coped with the demands of a posting which included the death of Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War and the Moonshot.


In trying to assess for myself the value and importance of what I do here, I asked myself – what would they (the Spur) have not had if I had not been here.

Without checking various records – no statistics, just memory – I came up with the following: –

*February, 1968: Tet offensive. Dynamic stuff of U.S. Saigon Embassy under siege, etc. Bypassed syndication services and VTR’d incoming CBS feeds from Tokio. Had courier standing by for overnight shipment London. TV news ran great slabs of it for six days. First justification of new post.

*March-December 1968. It was a shattering year.LBJ resigns, Czech crisis at U.N., Nixon election. I was EBU co-ordinator through most of these events, therefore in good position to make sure BBC got what I thought it would want and also to produce the many BBC unilaterals that were mounted throughout 1968.

*Spring 1969: Anguilla. London dithered and our crew were late in. On day of dawn invasion by British troops, NBC got 300 feet out fast,  due NBC New York 1400 EST. Satellite just possible for late news in London and ‘Twenty-Four Hours’ but uncut and dependent on NBC making film available to us BEFORE ‘Nightly News’ got their hand on it. Precedent established, Nightly News said yes – film (and it was all there) fed uncut. For the rest of Anguilla story, I was with Wheeler, flying film out and taking some of radio reporting burden off Wheeler, also did 2 film reports. BBC game, set and match over ITN on Anguilla coverage.

Front cover of Arial May 69

*July, 1969: Apollo 11, first man on moon. Was BBC producer Cape Kennedy and Houston, also did two background film reports with our own crew.

[You can see one of those reports by Ron Onions here:

Ron Onions - Slide

Ron Onions watching Apollo 11 take off

*August, 1969: To Tokio, for opening of Indian Ocean satellite. Co-produced two-way exchange programme, BBC-NHK, and ten-minute bulletin from Tokio live into 8.50 news (with Martin Bell). Martin Bell

*October, 1969: Massive anti-war moratorium. First day BBC want satellite, with Wheeler. NBC, New York, can supply unedited videotapes from various parts of the country, but have no production facilities. Neither have CBS or NBC. Take tapes to Hughes Sports Network, edit package together, but sound is hopeless – various fragments of different voices. Write commentary myself, arrange to switch from N.Y to CBS Washington for Wheeler upsum after pix and my narration. All this LIVE into the newsroom! Further crisis – Intelsat (Atlantic) satellite goes down, routing must be via West Coast, Pacific satellite, Tokio, Indian Ocean satellite, London. And Caroline on leave! Yvonne Espina and David Gregory invaluable at Sports Network. It works, pix and narration and hot switch to Wheeler. Hairiest satellite I’ve ever done.

March, 1970: You watch the network news shows, night and morning, for weeks – and nothing. Then all that monitoring pays off. Canadian peace group at height of Cambodia incursion fuss invades U.S. across British Columbia-Washington border – glorious punch-up as invaders lower U.S. flag in Blaine, Washington. Fed from CBC, Toronto, for NBC late news. Too late to ship overnight, so leave overnight message with the Spur recommending satellite a.m. Accepted. Satellite1000 ex NBC NY. No print journalists there so it didn’t make the papers – but a cracking example of television journalism.

October, 1970: Cross/Laporte crisis in Montreal. CBS late Sunday news has Trudeau doorstepped by CBC lads in Ottawa and Trudeau, narked over criticism of use of emergency powers, sounds off about “bleeding hearts”. TrudeaGreat stuff. Fed by CBS, Toronto,  for CBS, NY, who however barred from syndicating CBC material. for NBC late news. Visnews no help as NBC did not take feed from Toronto. Too late to ship overnight -rang Toronto for OK to pick up from CBS, New York. Then messaged Spur recommending satellite a.m. Meanwhile Smailes-Naysmith coverage of Robert Lemieux FLQ news conference (at which Australian newsman is roughed up) shipped to New York.. Arrange for overnight process and morning film editing  at NBC. Satellite accepted – Trudeau plus Lemieux presser. Enthusiastic reception from Spur – ITN nowhere.

Late 1970: Highjacking much in news (BOAC and American planes blown up etc) Should there be armed guards on board? While this argument is going on, WINS flash – at San Fran airport, man attempts hijacking with gun, is shot down by off-duty Brinks guard on the plane. Hijacker carried off on stretcher. Time 11.30 EST. Call Spur, re: satellite interest. Yes – accept my warning they must pay line charges to West Coast, say $750 on top of satellite and production charges. Call camera contact in San F, Diner. Leo Diner says son Roy filming and we agree he should take film to KRON-TV. Can they make 1400, time of satellite booking? This is at least a $1500 gamble and I have doubts about doing the right thing. Meanwhile make studio arrangements NBC, NY for Osman U.N. piece (Golda Meir, U Thant films) on same satellite feed. Satellite comes up, Osman under way, I on phone to KRON somewhat desperate. But as Osman wraps up hijacking film is in the gate and feed to London is successful. It’s good stuff, with four hours of the story breaking 7000 miles from London – and we show it a clear four hours of the rest of the world. London reaction: didn’t think much of Osman’s backing and couldn’t we have tightened the shot on Osman after the first insert. How many of us do they think there are?

March 1971: Los Angeles earthquake. Story broke 10 a.m. EST. Werner Kohn says no EBU interest. Can’t believe it. EBU blow hot and cold, too busy with Apollo 14. 12.55 – NBC feed excellent aerials from West Coast. EBU have satellite up at 1.15 but unaccountably don’t include aerials, just Apollo. Call Fred. He says let’s go unilaterally in one hour’s time. Impossible – but thanks to contacts at NBC it happens. Never set up at satellite faster than that.

April 1971: Haiti – Duvalier death. Good example of value of contacts built up in N.Y. and elsewhere and experience of networks and affiliates. Contacts in Miami date from satellite feeds there in 1970 on Bobby Moore arrest at time of World Cup and Peruvian earthquake disaster. In Haiti, Wheeler and crew film Jean Claude succession after Papa Doc’s death and soundman flies from Haiti intending to ship film from Miami. Spur ask about satellite. Time very tight. Soundman’s plane arrives Miami 12.15, satellite at 3 p.m.(for nine o’ clock news). Arrange process and edit at Reela Labs, Miami. Leave message at airport for soundman (who not aware of satellite plan). Wish I was down there. Arrange to feed film from WTVJ, Miami, as they situated next to Reela. WTVJ later say they cannot cope as insufficient facilities. Plan B – call WCKT- Miami ( NBC affiliate, but not very good). Can they handle? Yes – but they’re a full 20 minutes across town from Reela. It all works – film arrives WCKT at 2.55 p.m. and Nine O’ Clock News takes it live at 4 minutes after the hour. Film and Wheeler subsequently lead item in NBC Nightly News. Rest of Haiti coverage, involving 3 staff( including non-news people). Anne Watson to Haiti, Onions to Miami, Yvonne Espina and Dave Gregory in N.Y. Lying-in-state of shipment arriving early Saturday from NBC, NY. Second satellite that day possible only because Anne hand carries film on plane from Haiti to Miami. I meet plane, grab film and rush to Reela for fast process and edit. Feed from WTVJ into 10 o’ clock news.

These are the ones that stick out. There have been many others and none of them would have been possible without a news producer ready and available in N.Y.  Aside from the satellite operation what else tangible would Spur have missed without news presence in N.Y.? There have been many other film compilations – an economical way of doing our ‘own’ film reports when our crew not available – from network sources with voice-over by Wheeler ( two-part series on Crime in the U.S., Newark/Imperiale, etc), Saxton (U.S. car problems), Railroad dangers, Fly-without-Fear, etc) and myself (anti skyjack methods, N.Y. pollution, new-old Army weapons, etc). Films used in these and other compilations were spotted by myself or Anne/ Caroline and ordered, are print cost, from network. Monitoring aspect of this job very important. Also obtain advance rundown of evening news shows, check Visnews and CBS news film on what’s to be syndicated, then order anything they’ve decided to leave out but we think is important.

This operation is like a fire station. A lot of the time we’re polishing the engine. But we put a lot of hours in just doing that – and we haven’t missed a big one in the past three and a half years …

*Only possible because Onions in N.Y. in first instance.


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