Obituary: Ray Fitzwalter, investigative journalist and TV executive

Ray Fitzwalter, investigative journalist was fearless on World in Action. Picture: Contributed
Ray Fitzwalter, investigative journalist was fearless on World in Action. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 21 February 1944, in Bury, Lancashire. Died: 4 April 2016, in Bury, Lancashire, aged 72.

Ray Fitzwalter had the investigative journalist’s dogged determination that made him firmly at home on ITV’s legendary current affairs programme World in Action, whose motto was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. He spent 23 years on the hard-hitting series, first as a researcher, then editor and, finally, executive producer.

Joining Manchester-based Granada Television in 1970 after writing in the Bradford Telegraph & Argus about the business dealings of John Poulson with local councillors and council officials, civil servants and MPs, he continued to pursue the corrupt Yorkshire architect who used bribes to win contracts.

However, World in Action’s uncompromising zeal in reporting such stories frequently brought it into conflict with both the political and TV establishments. When Fitzwalter made an episode titled The Friends and Influence of John L Poulson in 1973, the Independent Broadcasting Authority – then the regulator for commercial television – banned the programme.

“It demonstrated that there was corruption at every level of government in Britain,” said Fitzwalter in a 2013 TV interview. “The broadcasting authority refused to accept or believe this.” However, when Granada – the dissident in the ITV system – broadcast a blank screen, the IBA relented and, with changes that included the title switching to The Rise and Fall of John Poulson, the documentary was televised. A year later, the architect was jailed for seven years after a court heard evidence of corruption involving 23 local authorities and 300 individuals, and dealings that included a winter sports centre in Aviemore.

By then, the scandal had already led to the resignation of Reginald Maudling, Home Secretary in Edward Heath’s Conservative government, because of his associations with Poulson. A follow-up World in Action programme made by Fitzwalter in 1974 revealed Maudling’s role while in office in enabling Poulson to secure a contract for a hospital in Malta. Like the series, Fitzwalter had a sense of humour alongside the “serious, worthy” persona and said later: “I’m afraid Mr Maudling was a very naughty boy!”

On being made World in Action editor in 1976, then executive producer from 1987 to 1993 (when he was Granada’s head of current affairs), Fitzwalter brought hundreds of documentaries with issues of public interest into millions of viewers’ homes, but the biggest impact came from those about the Birmingham Six, the alleged IRA bombers who received life sentences for killing 24 people in two pubs in 1974. It proved to be one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history and, in 1985, Fitzwalter commissioned the first of four programmes that aided their acquittal. They questioned the forensic evidence, revealed that the police had been given other names of suspects and even featured an interview with someone claiming to be the real bomber.

In 1991, a year after the World in Action team’s drama-documentary Who Bombed Birmingham?, the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions. Alongside a campaign by journalist and Labour MP Chris Mullin – who worked on some of the programmes – the six years invested by Fitzwalter proved that television had the power to effect change.

Raymond Alan Fitzwalter was born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1944, the son of Robert, a factory worker, and Lucy (née Fox), a seamstress, and attended the city’s Derby High School.

He read economics at the London School of Economics before joining the Bradford Telegraph & Argus as a trainee reporter in 1965. After becoming deputy news editor three years later, he did investigative journalism in his spare time.

Fitzwalter’s reporting on Poulson won him the 1969 IPC Young Journalist of the Year Award and he joined Granada Television a year later. His early World in Action documentaries included accounts of the human suffering during the Bangladesh war and a day in the life of a Thalidomide victim.

During his editorship, a stream of major issues were aired, from sanctions busting in Rhodesia and a pre-Downing Street Margaret Thatcher telling the programme that she was “afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture” to Manchester United chairman Louis Edwards being accused of making illegal payments to secure young players and supplying local schools with meat unfit for human consumption through his wholesale butcher’s. The latter, for a TV company based in the same city as the mighty football club, was an example of the fearlessness for which the programme was revered.

However, a greater threat to Granada came when a 1980 World in Action programme commissioned by Fitzwalter, against the background of a national steel strike, revealed leaked documents showing key aspects of the British Steel Corporation’s case to be untrue and evidence of government pressure bringing about the industrial action. When Granada refused to reveal the identity of the mole, the BSC pursued court action as far as the Law Lords and the company was threatened with huge fines and the imprisonment of its top executives. This was averted only when a new BSC chairman decided not to continue the action.

As Granada’s head of current affairs, Fitzwalter was responsible for World in Action, the drama-documentary Thatcher: The Final Days and other programmes such as the long-running What the Papers Say.

He left Granada in 1993 – five years before World in Action was axed by ITV – and set up his own independent production company, Ray Fitzwalter Associates. Among its many documentaries were Grandad Is a Football Hooligan, a 1996 investigation into English fans abroad, and the Manhunt series, which notably included a 1999 programme on the Yorkshire Ripper.

Fitzwalter chaired the Campaign for Quality Television and rued what he saw as the demise of public-service TV in his 2008 book The Dream That Died: The Rise & Fall of ITV. With David Taylor, he also wrote Web of Corruption (1981), the story of the Poulson affair. In 1991, he was presented with Bafta’s Desmond Davis Award for his services to television and, two years later, made a fellow of the Royal Television Society.

Fitzwalter’s 1966 marriage to Mary Towman ended in divorce after 25 years. He is survived by their two sons, Stephen and Matthew, and one daughter, Kathryn, and his second wife, current affairs producer Luise Nandy, whom he married in 1994.