Alex Thompson on Andrew Colman

So there I was, in my early twenties, far from home, far from competent – and living in Belfast.

The editor who led me through those times was Andrew Colman, editor of the current affairs TV programme Spotlight in Belfast.

The
job took me to the Basque Country investigating IRA/ETA parallels; to
California to look at US investment in Northern Ireland; to Gibraltar
and back to the muralled streets of the hardline political areas of
Northern Ireland. What a learning curve!

Andy was never a drama-queen editor.

In fact it would be hard to describe an editor further from that in demeanour.

When
Loyalist paramilitaries were issuing threats and getting precious over
questions about protection rackets on building sites, Andy was making
difficult calls to assess the nature of the threat and what to do about
it.

Andy was never one for the swift response. Upon new
acquaintance he had the unnerving habit of simply remaining silent
after a query, until he’d worked out what he wanted to say. It could be
unsettling to ask him about a problem, only to have him stare at you.
You got used to it – and valued his answer when it came.

While Andy Colman was my editor and God’s representative on earth, God was John Conway.

He
had the difficult job of pacifying the sectarian political
sensitivities of all around him in Northern Ireland whilst also keeping
the demands of the BBC somehow satisfied.

One night in the
mid-Eighties, so many BBC editorial suits were crammed into the edit
suite that several were out in the corridor craning their necks to
watch the film being played for them.

We’d made a documentary
about the shooting of three IRA members in Gibraltar by the SAS. As the
film rolled, every time some salient moment happened, John Conway would
bark out “new witness” or “new information” to the Londonbased
editorial command who had flown in to view the troublesome documentary.

His
Ulster tones left no-one in doubt that we’d come up with a perfectly
reasonable film, but it would attract an awful lot of flak.

John
Conway sent out a “don’t mess with this” message in extraordinary
fashion that night. Result? The suits had arrived talking about cutting
the film to 15 minutes with a studio debate to follow. They left
talking about transmitting the film uncut, which was what happened.

John
Conway did that, and I shan’t forget it. An editor sticking his neck
out to defend his hack against political pressure from inside and
outside.

Alex Thompson is presenter and chief correspondent, C4 News

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