Richard Lindley, who has died from heart disease aged 83, was the first western television journalist to interview Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator brought into the world’s spotlight following the Israeli air strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. “He was just like all the pictures of Joseph Stalin, full of smiles and charms,” Lindley recalled of his BBC Panorama programme, broadcast a month after the air strike. “He had a gang of little kids running around for him. Obviously, we know now he was a murderous man, an awfully violent man who was responsible for so many deaths.”
By then, Lindley was a seasoned foreign correspondent, having spent nearly a decade with Panorama, but he had approached his early assignments at ITN (1964-72) for ITV news and current affairs programmes with some trepidation.
He compared covering events in what was then Rhodesia following the 1965 unilateral declaration of independence by its prime minister, Ian Smith, with his days as a second lieutenant leading a platoon through the Malayan jungle during national service. “Somehow, I managed to convert a potentially paralysing fear of failure into action,” he said. “And it’s been the same on every story I’ve ever covered. I always have to use my fear of failure as the spur to get me out and about in an effort to survive the latest test.”
The tests were many, high-profile and sometimes shocking. During the Biafran war in eastern Nigeria (1967-70) he was a familiar figure – tall and slim, reporting the horrors with a cut-glass English home counties accent – as gunfire raged around him and, away from the action, telling the stories of the conflict’s young orphans. As one of the first journalists to enter the conquered Biafran territory at the end of the civil war, he interviewed Igbo women who claimed to have been raped by federal soldiers.
Later in Dhaka, at the end of the fighting between India and Pakistan that saw the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Lindley showed a quality that marked him apart from some of his war correspondent colleagues.
Presented with the chance to shoot exclusive television pictures of a guerrilla leader having prisoners tortured, he and his team walked away, fearing that their presence was encouraging the violence. Two stills photographers who captured the subsequent bayoneting to death of the prisoners won a Pulitzer prize, while ITN had no coverage of the shocking climax. This moral awareness, along with his modesty, reserved manner and integrity, made Lindley revered by those who worked with him.
Yemen, Vietnam and the six-day war between Israel and its Arab neighbours were among his other battlegrounds before he left ITN in 1973 to join the BBC and Panorama, where he would remain for the next 15 years.
As a reporter, he was in Iran in 1973 examining the Shah’s arms spending and, six years later, covering the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. At home he examined race relations in 1977 and nuclear power in 1979, and interviewed Margaret Thatcher shortly after the start of the Falklands war in 1982. When he took over as presenter of Panorama that year, one TV critic described Lindley as “a cross between Barry Norman and Sir Alec Douglas-Home”.
Rhodesia and its transformation into Zimbabwe spanned much of his television career. For Panorama he interviewed in 1975 a white farmer and black barrister, asking whether all the races could ever live together, before returning five years later to look at the prospects for the country after independence. He was back there again in 1992 for ITV’s current affairs programme This Week, reporting on the establishment of an Afrikaner whites-only homeland in the North Western Cape.
Richard was born in Winchester, Hampshire, to Guy Lindley, an army lieutenant colonel, and Penelope (nee Hatchell). He was educated at Bedford school and served with the Royal Hampshire regiment in what was then Malaya during the so-called emergency – the war between Commonwealth forces and guerrillas fighting for liberation – which led him to question authority. While studying English literature at Queens’ College, Cambridge, he chaired the film society.
He began his career making commercials as a producer for the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding (1960-62), then worked for the ITV company ABC as a writer and reporter on the religious show The Sunday Break until 1964. He was also a reporter and presenter with Southern Television (1963-64).
At ITN one of his lighter assignments was interviewing the Beatles on their 1966 tour of the US, after Christian groups protested against John Lennon’s assertion that the group were more popular than Jesus. “When we say anything like that, we don’t say it to be offensive,” Paul McCartney told Lindley.
When News at Ten was launched as television’s first half-hour news programme in 1967, he was one of ITN’s four correspondents roaming the world, alongside Sandy Gall, Alan Hart and John Edwards.
While at the BBC, he also presented Saturday Briefing (1982-83) and the news review This Week Next Week (1988-89). He returned to ITV as a reporter on This Week (1989-92), presented the ITN World News on cable and satellite (1992-94) and made special reports for News at Ten (1995-99).
Lindley had a brief period (1988-89) at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, commercial television’s regulator, as senior programme officer, checking that factual output met the guidelines for impartiality. He wrote two books about his former employers, Panorama: 50 Years of Pride and Paranoia (2002) and And Finally … ? The News from ITN (2005).
He was appointed MBE in 2017. A year earlier he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease; his death came a month after sustaining multiple injuries when he was run over by a lorry.
Lindley’s first marriage, to Clare Fehrsen in 1976, ended in divorce 10 years later. He is survived by their children, Tom and Jo, by his second wife, Carole Stone, a former producer of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions?, whom he married in 1999, and by his sister, Caroline.
Robin Denselow writes: I first met Richard Lindley when I was working as a producer on Panorama in the programme’s glory days in the late 1970s. The office was packed with reporters of great talent, and often even greater ego, and Richard stood out among them as something of an old-fashioned gentleman, who managed to match dignity and coolth with journalistic skill and quiet bravery.
In 1975, during the Angolan civil war, we had been filming on the front line when we were arrested as spies by the ruling MPLA party. Held in a cramped schoolroom, we were told, at gunpoint, that “tomorrow will be very bad for you” – and then forced to clean out the blocked toilets with our hands. Richard led the crew in singing spirituals as we worked.
Four years later we were in Rhodesia, trying to uncover the realities of the liberation war. Using a rather large “hidden camera”, we met ZAPU fighters out in the bush, and then spent time in a camp of American ex-Vietnam mercenaries fighting for Ian Smith, who were using fake “freedom fighters” to carry out atrocities to discredit the true “boys in the bush”.
We managed to get the film home safely, and after it was broadcast I received a letter – which still holds pride of place in my toilet – telling me I was banned from Rhodesia, and that “this decision follows your recent visit to this country with Mr Richard Lindley”.
• Richard Howard Charles Lindley, television journalist, born 25 April 1936; died 6 November 2019