Obituary: Michael Nicholson, foreign correspondent who reported on some of recent history’s biggest wars

Michael Nicholson has died at the age of 79. Picture: PA
Michael Nicholson has died at the age of 79. Picture: PA
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Michael Nicholson, OBE, journalist and broadcaster.Born: 9 January 1937, Romford, Essex. Died: 11 December 2016, while on a cruise, aged 79.

Michael Nicholson was one of broadcasting’s best known ITN foreign correspondents, putting himself in danger and at risk for over 40 years while covering some of recent history’s biggest wars, including Yom Kippur, Vietnam and the fall of Saigon, the Falklands, both Gulf Wars, culminating in Saddam Hussein’s downfall, and the Balkans conflict.

Known as an uncompromising and hard-nosed journalist with a “very aggressive” streak, Nicholson attributed some of this to his upbringing. Born in Essex, Michael Thomas Nicholson was the third of four children to Allan, a lighterman on the Thames, and his wife Doris. Evacuated with his sister to Somerset in 1942 because of the wartime bombing raids on the nearby London docks, he did not see the whole family, in particular his mother, for three years. After the war the family “reassembled very much as strangers, and strangers we remained”.

Post-war, the family moved to Emden, north-west Germany as his father, now a major with the Royal Engineers, was involved in the rebuilding. Soon after, his father took him to see the exhumation of a mass grave of British soldiers. It had a profound impact recalling, “I remember seeing all this human debris, and the stench as they were coming up . . . I suppose that was my first war, really.”

Michael boarded at the Prince Rupert school at Wilhelmshaven and another indelible memory came from here. It had been a U-boat base, and “sometimes at lunch we’d go down to the docks and see British divers bringing up bodies and debris from the U-boats that had been sunk by the RAF.”

In 1952, while watching Farnborough air show, the 15-year old Nicholson witnessed the crash of a de Havilland DH 110, killing John Derry, the pilot, as well as the rest of the crew and 29 spectators. Undeterred, however, he learned to fly and spent his National Service with the RAF. This was followed by a variety of jobs, including journalism on Shoe and Leather News, working for the brewers Charrington’s, driving a greengrocer’s van and working as a nursing auxiliary at Ilford Isolation Hospital while studying for A-levels at Walthamstow Technical College. Aged 22, he went to Leicester University to read P.P.E. and edited the student newspaper.

Upon graduating, he gained employment at the London offices of DC Thomson. In 1963 he joined ITN, initially working on the news desk, writing links for the on-screen newscasters and later scripting film reports, some of which he voiced himself.

His first major story came three years later when he covered the Aberfan disaster in Wales in which 144 people died, 116 of them children. “All the [TV] crew were crying and I wasn’t,” he said. “I used to think, ‘You hard-hearted bastard’.” The arrival of his own children softened his approach and he suddenly understood.

In the early years, Nicholson’s lack of training was aided by his camera crews who furnished him with invaluable advice and tips. His first coverage of a conflict was in 1968 during the bloody civil war in Nigeria where he witnessed the execution (by revolver) of a prisoner at point blank range.

After a stint covering the conflict between India and Pakistan in 1971, he covered the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt. His team found and filmed an Israeli armoured column en route to counter-attack the advancing Egyptians, then dashed over 100 miles back to Tel Aviv, in time for his film to be cut and sent by satellite to London, where it carried an “exclusive” tag on that night’s News At Ten.

Days later, he was knocked unconscious when his car left the road and landed on its roof. Despite wearing a neck brace, he was determined to continue reporting, but his editor insisted “either the neck brace comes off the screen or you do.”

Two years later during the Vietnam War, he covered the catastrophic fall of Saigon, which he described as “America’s ignoble Dunkirk”. With his cameraman and sound recordist, Nicholson had to fight and scramble his way over the American Embassy’s high perimeter wall and into the hands of US Marines, who were only hauling Westerners over the top to safety, while “booting down the rest,” predominantly Vietnamese mothers and children, and lunging at them with bayonets and rifle-butts. Ushered to the last US helicopters to leave Saigon, they were airlifted to a US aircraft carrier waiting off-shore, where, upon landing, they were greeted by a big, burly Marine sergeant who ordered them all to bend over and drop their trousers before searching them for hidden drugs with a condom-sheathed finger.

“Man,” the marine remarked, “you’ve got a tight arse.” “Sergeant,” Nicholson replied, “If you’d been through what I’ve been through today, you’d have a tight arse too.”

In 1975, he became the first journalist to interview Robert Mugabe, the future leader of Zimbabwe, when he was freed from 11 years imprisonment in 1975. The following year, Nicholson subsequently became ITN’s first bureau chief in South Africa and was the first television correspondent to live in the country during apartheid, returning in 1981.

While holidaying in the Lake District in 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and he was scrambled to join British forces on board HMS Hermes sailing from Portsmouth. Soon however, he found himself in direct conflict over the censorship British authorities applied to his reports. In exasperation, Nicholson sent a radio message to ITN telling them that his reports were being censored and to make this clear when they were broadcast. In the event, his censor deleted the word “censored” from his message, turning it into gobbledegook.

On 22 May 1982, the pooled account of the British landings in the South Atlantic was broadcast, “The Union Jack flies again on the Falkland Islands. They did it by moonlight, silently and successfully. They landed in their thousands.” Later he was at pains to point out that war on the TV screens was a highly sanitised version of reality. “Because of editorial censorship so much of the world’s atrocities are well-kept secrets,” he declared.

Nicholson then spent four years as a studio-bound newscaster, before joining Channel 4 News as their Washington correspondent, but returned to ITN as senior foreign correspondent in 1989, covering the first Gulf war and the Balkan conflict in 1992.

While reporting on the war, he did a piece about children being trapped by shelling in the Bosnian capital; here he met a nine-year-old orphaned girl, Natasha Mihaljcic and gained notoriety for smuggling her out of Sarajevo and back to the UK, where he adopted her. Nicholson went on to write a book about the events, which was used as the inspiration for the 1997 Hollywood film ‘Welcome To Sarajevo’.

Between 1998 and 2009 he was a reporter and presenter on ITV’s Tonight programme and was in Iraq to witness the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad in 2003, before retiring to his Georgian farmhouse in Surrey. Nicholson wrote a number of books, including his own memoir, three political thrillers, factual war correspondent accounts and his most recent, a historical novel Dark Rosaleen’(2015) about British complicity in the mass starvation that followed the 1845 famine in Ireland.

Nicholson married Diana Slater (1967), whom he had met at Leicester; they had two sons, Tom and William, as well as their adopted daughters, Natasha and Ana – he had rescued her from the streets of Sao Paulo and brought her to the UK for adoption.

MARTIN CHILDS