Breaking news on Jan’s new flightpath

Jan Leeming pictured in the cockpit the Nimrod at the Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington, York
Jan Leeming pictured in the cockpit the Nimrod at the Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington, York
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Jan Leeming was one of the best known faces in Britain in 1982 when the Falklands War broke out. The bulletins she read on the BBC transfixed us in a way which a young audience of today would find it hard to imagine.

There was no rolling news – it would be another ten years before that innovation – to keep us up to date from the South Atlantic. There was no internet to browse, no startling personal revelations on Twitter.

We had to wait for the news to be delivered and when it was we were probably hearing it for the first time. It wasn’t just filling in the context for facts we already knew from an ever-present 24-hour news cycle.

So if those facts were shocking, the figure who relayed them became a fixture in people’s heads, part of a television moment many will never forget.

The national news presenters of those days did not get the showbiz treatment many of their successors receive today. But they were far better known to the public, if only for the fact that there were far fewer of them. Jan’s appointment was in 1980.

“You didn’t get paid much in those days,” she says. “I was lent by radio to TV – they didn’t tell me. It was a one-year contract. Richard Baker was on a sabbatical.

“I read eleven bulletins at the weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday night.”

The start of the war coincided with the introduction of a significant new piece of camera kit. Electronic Newsgathering (ENG) was in its infancy and it was the new electronic image which delivered to our front rooms the startling immediacy of the war zone. This was to be the first war in which an electronic camera came to be relied upon, rather than film. It also meant that the news presenters in the studio had to adjust to faster changes in their scripts while they were on air.

“You had to be quick on your feet,” says Jan. ““I think the news in those days was simpler and more direct. There were only about ten of us newsreaders spread across the national channels and people have subsequently said to me, ‘we trusted you’. Richard Baker, Kenneth Kendall, they could project an emotion through the voice just by a pause.

“I was in my forties and I was one of the younger ones.”

By today’s standards, media coverage of the Falklands War was tightly controlled. The public face of the Ministry of Defence, or rather its stonewaller in chief, was one of the civil servants in the department called Ian McDonald.

He was under instructions to deliver his televised press briefings slowly, so the foreign journalists present could keep up. To the viewers at at home they just sounded funereal.

This style of presentation came to grief once a war, whose outcome the gung-ho tabloids had presented as a foregone conclusion, turned nasty. When the news was especially grim this grey civil servant seemed to become the embodiment of disaster. For example when announcing that the destroyer HMS Sheffield had been set on fire and the order had been given to abandon ship.

More memorable were the words of the late BBC reporter Brian Hanrahan who travelled with the Task Force. “...I’m not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back..”

His famous quote showed how a journalist using his wits could still give an objective account of events without compromising his position as what later became termed an “embedded” reporter.

For many of us, it was the first time we’d heard that chilling word, Exocet. It turned out to be a missile built by the French which had sold to the Argentines.

The AM 39 air-to-sea version was proved the be particulalrly lethal. It was designed to skim the sea to avoid radar detection and was also equipped with its own radar to guide it to the target.

A recent investigation by the BBC documentary series Document discovered that the French, our allies in the Falklands war, had a technical team out in Argentina when the fighting began.

It was this team which provided the secret algorithms to enable the Exocets – which were not really operational when war broke out – to work. Two of these missiles fired from a Super-Etendard fighter bomber did for HMS Sheffield.

Did reading the Falklands news give Jan special difficulties? “If it’s something horrible you just go into overdrive,” she says. “It’s after you come off air that you feel the impact personally.

“Seven years of reading out bad news – good news does not sell – is not nice.”

She had started doing it in Australia where she was the first woman news reader on television in Sydney in 1963. After coming back home in 1966, initially to Granada in Manchester, she went on to be twice voted the news reader of the year.

Jan turned 70 at the beginning of this year and for some time she has been engaged in something more congenial. She is an aviation enthusiast, a subject she has always found romantic.

During her news reading days in the early 1980s she was invited to take the controls of a Bulldog trainer at her namesake RAF station at Leeming in North Yorkshire. Not long after, at RAF Scampton, she went through the sound barrier in a Hawker Hunter with the Red Arrows display team. “After the birth of my son, it was the most amazing thing in my life.”

In her 60s she did a wing walk on behalf of the RAF benevolent fund and her appearance on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here involved a parachute jump.

Her home is near Deal in Kent, a part of the country known to the RAF during the Battle of Britain as Hellfire Corner. Not far from where she lives is the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel le Ferne, to which she has given her support.

It was from her friend Sue, who lives at Barwick in Elmet near Leeds, who she made the first link in a chain of events which brought Jan.

“Sue is my oldest friend,” says Jan. “We shared a cottage in Sale when she worked as a PA at Granada and she is godmother to my son. She heard about some event to do with the Free French in the war and thought I’d be interested.”

This was at the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington, east of York and it chimed in with a detective trail Jan had been following for some time.

The Battle of Britain memorial near her home includes the names of 13 Free French pilots. Her grandmother was Huguenot by descent and this prompted Jan to sponsor those French names. This drew her into the story of their their role in the Battle of Britain which she decided needed further investigation.

One of the pilots in particular, Rene Mouchotte, has been revealed by her research as as an unsung hero.

Jan contacted Ian Reed, the director of the Yorkshire Air Museum, about her work and was invited to Elvington. Collaboration between the two has led to the discovery of unseen historic footage of Rene Mouchotte and this fascinating detective story is now a documentary film in progress.

Jan and Ian Reed have also obtained the British medals Rene Mouchotte was awarded, but never received, following his death in action. The French government is involved arranging a special event in Paris where the medals will be presented to the hero’s sister, aged 101.

Jan has also been made vice president of the Allied Air Forces Memorial at Elvington and expects to be up here much more often. “It’s a long drive,” she says.

“But if I commit to something I do it well.”

Yorkshire Air Museum’s Falklands 30th Anniversary Thunder Day, Sunday, April 1. 01904 608595