Obituary: Peter Donaldson, news reader and presenter

Born: 23 August, 1945, in Cairo. Died: 3 November, 2015, in Sussex, aged 70.

Peter Donaldson, news reader regarded by many as the voice of Radio 4. Picture: BBC
Peter Donaldson, news reader regarded by many as the voice of Radio 4. Picture: BBC

Peter Donaldson was a newsreader on BBC radio 4 for 40 years and earned the admiration and respect of the listening public and his colleagues. Donaldson represented the best in Radio 4 and was meticulous with pronunciation and his microphone technique was flawless. His delivery – rich, calm and precise – was matched by his ability to adapt his tone of voice to suit the item in the news: there was an authority and correctness about everything Donaldson did on air.

Jim Naughty, a colleague on the Today programme, spoke of his friend to The Scotsman yesterday: “Peter was the voice of Radio 4 not simply because he read the news authoritatively, without theatricality, but because he epitomised what radio can be for the listener – a friend in the corner of the room, and a companion.

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“I remember sitting with him through the day of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, on the morning he announced Diana’s death, and through many hundreds of news bulletins, and he was always a mixture of utter professionalism with a sense of fun ever-ready to bubble up when he got the chance. He was devoted to the job that Radio 4 tries to do.”

That clarity and authority was recognised in 2005 when, it has now been revealed from the National Archive, in the event of a nuclear attack Donaldson had been chosen to read the news bulletins. In suitably sombre voice he recorded a dummy for posterity: “This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked by nuclear weapons. Stay tuned to this wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own homes.”

Peter Donaldson was born in Cairo but the family moved to Cyprus in 1952. He was educated in Suffolk and after a few years working in the theatre – which gave him a lifelong love of the English language – he applied to the BBC and was auditioned and posted to their Middle East stations.

In 1970 Donaldson returned to London and joined Radio 2 as a news reader. In 1973 he joined Radio 4 and was promoted to chief announcer in 1988. Donaldson was to remain a central figure in the news department at Broadcasting House until he retired in July 2005. He worked long hours and often presented the news bulletins throughout the Christmas period.

He remained with the corporation as a freelance until he finally stepped down after reading the midnight news on 31 December, 2012. In his time with the corporation he held the post of chief announcer and head of continuity. It was a position he filled with unerring dedication and expertise. Donaldson’s admiration for and love of the traditions of Radio 4 were absolute. He did not care for tampering by the authorities and fought to preserve the station’s identity.

His time as newsreader with the Today programme saw him at his most influential. Once the new director general, Greg Dyke, had sent round a missive that they should “cut the crap” from BBC bulletins. Donaldson threw his copy of it in the bin and promptly sent an e-mail to the DG: “Taken your advice – and cut the crap.”

He then informed Ariel, the BBC’s in-house newspaper, to ensure his action was known throughout the organisation. He was in typically uncompromising mood when he was asked to present a programme before Today called Up To The Hour.

Donaldson did not care for the programme’s format and deliberately gave his name incorrectly and then continued: “This is Donald Peterson to take you Up to the Hour, drive you out to work or send you round the dial to Radio 2. And if you’re staying, you’re very brave.”

Many thought he would be sacked on the spot but the Today team made it known they would stand by Donaldson such was their esteem for him. As Jim Naughty recalled: “The then controller of Radio 4, Ian McIntyre, made an ignominious retreat.”

Donaldson had a delightfully mischievous streak in his nature but it was always done with a smile and a desire to keep Radio 4 up to the mark. He was seldom thrown by the in-studio antics of his colleagues, such as when a Today announcer set fire to the Shipping Forecast as Donaldson was reading it. As the flames spread Donaldson breathlessly rushed through the entire forecast with matchless precision.

The BBC’s cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew maintains that Donaldson did the forecast at breakneck speed during a Test Match: “Peter was a cricket fan,” Agnew recalled. He did make the occasional slip – he referred to the White House as the White Horse, his local pub in Sussex.

On his retirement Donaldson looked back on his career with a sense of enthusiastic satisfaction. “It was fun. Still is fun,” he said. “The new technology is different but the fun remains: the adrenalin flows and the armpits still tingle for a live broadcast.”

John Boundy, former head of arts on Radio 4, told The Scotsman: “Peter was a character and never afraid to speak out. He was one of the Old School and I doubt we will see his like again. Peter was generous with his time and advice for young recruits to the newsroom.

“His criticisms were helpful and friendly: he was a generous-hearted man. Peter often rang me late afternoon and said, ‘I’m in the Yorkshire Grey, fancy a pint?’ He had a rich fund of stories and was particularly partial to 15-year-old malts. ”

Donaldson was a stalwart BBC man and was rightly known as “The Voice of Radio 4”. It was his composure and unflappability that many recall with admiration. Whether it was sad news such as the death of the Labour leader, John Smith or that a pigeon had been held under armed police guard in India, suspected of spying for Pakistan, Donaldson treated each and every item with sincerity and decorum.

Peter was always seen with his black Labrador-cross-collie, Ghillie, at his side.

Peter Donaldson is survived by his wife Aileen, daughter Emma, sons Jamie and Bin, and grandson Jack.