BBC Look North’s John Cundy is to retire after a career spanning half a century during which time he’s covered some of the nation’s biggest stories. Chris Bond met him.
John Cundy vividly remembers the moment he heard that the police had finally caught their man – the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe.
Cundy was news editor at BBC Radio Leeds at the time. “It was tea time on a Sunday evening and I’d come into the front room and saw the ITN news saying the police had made a breakthrough in the case and I thought ‘Gosh, this is it’.
“I flew into the office and it was about three hours before we knew what was going on because we’d been told there’d been an arrest in Sheffield but we had no idea who this guy was. Was he in Sheffield in custody, or was he in Leeds? Then suddenly we were told to go to Dewsbury Police Station and it all took off from there.”
The Yorkshire Ripper case cast a dark shadow over the country during the late 1970s when women, especially those in towns and cities across the North, feared going out alone.
“I remember saying to my wife as we were driving back to Yorkshire one time that I wanted to be there the day they got the Ripper. I was absolutely hell-bent on this,” says Cundy. “This bogey man had been attacking women and murdering them.
“There’d been 13 cases over the best part of six years and out on the streets women were frightened to go out on their own, because the Ripper could have been anybody.”
Cundy has covered plenty of momentous stories during a career spanning more than half a century and this week he announced that he plans to retire in January to coincide with his 70th birthday.
“Your mobility out on stories gets tougher so in terms of health and longevity of service it felt like it was more than time to go,” he says, explaining his decision.
He has spent the past 26 years working for BBC Look North where he’s become known to viewers as a straight-talking crime correspondent. But it was in newspapers, rather than on TV, where he honed his journalistic craft working as a cub reporter at the Warrington Guardian back in 1965.
“I wrote to every weekly newspaper in a 20-mile radius of Liverpool where I lived and only got two replies. One was printed upside down (I won’t say which paper that was) saying they had no vacancies and the only positive one was the Warrington Guardian.”
He spent three-and-a-half years working at the paper and says it was a “fantastic” grounding. “I must have written hundreds of obituaries because that was the big thing, everybody bought the Warrington Guardian on a Friday to see who had died, and I must have written an equal number of wedding reports.”
Accuracy then, as it is today, was the watchword. “You had to get everything absolutely right because people wouldn’t ring up and complain if there was something out of place they’d come to the front counter and shout at you. So you learned the hard way.”
Cundy came to work in Yorkshire in 1980, spending 11 years at BBC Radio Leeds before joining the Look North team. “I never had any aspirations to do television but I was pushed into being the very first regional bi-media correspondent and since then I’ve been out on the road,” he says.
In 2001 he was the only BBC journalist reporting live as rioting erupted on Bradford’s streets. “I’d been out with a cameraman all day. Tensions were very high in Bradford because one of the right-wing extremist groups were going to hold a rally and there was a huge stand-off with anti-Nazi protesters.”
In the end this went off without serious incident but later when they were back in the studio putting together a package for the early evening news, reports began filtering in of trouble on the city’s streets so they headed back out.
“The police drove the protesters out of Bradford city centre and from then on there was eight hours of riots,” he says. “It was like a war zone. We had to stand behind police lines because petrol bombs were being thrown and the rioters were setting fire to cars and pushing them down the hill.
“I described it as a ‘Battle for White Abbey Road’ and it resulted in something like 450 people being prosecuted, with many turned in by their own mothers and fathers who were appalled by the actions of these youths. It was by common consent the worst mainland riots in the UK for 25 years and the repercussions from all that went on for a long time.”
Cundy also witnessed the Hillsborough tragedy unfold in 1989, though he was in the Leppings Lane end on that fateful day not as a reporter but a lifelong Liverpool fan. “I’d been to a match the previous year at Hillsborough and stood behind the goal in the centre of the Leppings Lane end and the view was terrible, so I thought ‘I’m not standing there again’. On the day of the semi-final a group of friends came over from Liverpool and we all had tickets for the Leppings Lane end but it didn’t tell you where to go.”
He told his friends not to stand behind the goal because they would struggle to see the action so instead they stood in one of the side pens. “At 2.40pm we said to ourselves, ‘Where is everybody?’ because there were great acres of space. Little did we know they were all being herded into the middle.”
As the carnage unfolded and the match was stopped he and his friends left the ground and made their way home. “It was one of those things where you’re so close to the wood you can’t see the trees. We thought that people must have been hurt but we had no idea at all that so many people had died,” he says.
“These were pre-mobile phone days so I couldn’t call my wife to let her know I was safe and all the public phone boxes were jammed because everyone wanted to ring home.”
When he finally got there he found one of his sons, James, then aged nine, sitting on the pavement outside his house with his head in his hands. “I asked him what was the matter and he said, ‘I didn’t know if you were going to come home, dad.’” He has covered countless stories down the years but says this is a day he cannot forget.
Looking back at his career, Cundy says the media industry has changed beyond all recognition from his early days when newspapers were still printed on a hot metal press. “It’s totally different. Daily newspapers have become weeklies in some cases and we’ve had the advance of social media.”
As a crime correspondent he’s seen the emergence of DNA evidence that has helped solve longstanding cases, like that of murdered schoolgirl Lesley Molseed, and unmask Wearside Jack – the man who deceived police during the Ripper case.
For all these changes he believes that good journalism remains vitally important. “This week we’ve had all these revelations over the Paradise Papers and that has to be done by journalists.
“For me it’s the story that counts, rather than being the first person to send out a tweet. It’s about telling a story and that’s how I’ve always regarded myself – as a storyteller.”
John Cundy - in profile
John Cundy started out as a journalist on the Warrington Guardian in 1965. He went on to work at the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo, before joining BBC Radio Merseyside in 1974 as a news producer.
After working as a duty editor at BBC Radio Scotland he moved to Yorkshire in 1980, spending 11 years as news editor at Radio Leeds.
John joined Look North as community affairs correspondent in 1991. He made his reputation as crime correspondent, covering some of the biggest stories in Yorkshire’s history, including the murder of PC Sharon Beshenivsky, the search for Shannon Matthews and the Bradford riots in 2001.
His reporting that night was recognised by the Royal Television Society.