John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29th 1917, in 1961 he became the 35th President of the United States and two years later on22nd November 1963 he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
They say that everyone remembers where they were the day that John F Kennedy was shot and I can confirm that my very first consciousness of world news events was my news awareness watershed.
It was early evening, I was at home, mum and dad were round at a neighbour’s house, and I was watching the television. It was a Friday night so I had probably been watching Crackerjack on the BBC with Aemonn Andrews. Crackerjack finished at a quarter to six and after that came the news programmes which held no particular interest for me and in any case it was a little too early for news of the shooting to be breaking in England.
Kennedy was shot at half past twelve Dallas time, which was half past six in the United Kingdom. On BBC television, the six o’clock News finished at ten past six. It had been a quiet day; there had been the results of the Dundee West by-election, the announcement of the architect appointed to design the new National Theatre and the departure from the United Kingdom of the new Miss World, Carol Crawford, who was returning to Jamaica. News bulletins were different in the early 1960s and ten minutes was generally considered more than enough to report the events of a very ordinary sort of day in 1963. It was not until 1967 that the half hour evening bulletin ‘News at Ten’ was introduced and even then some television big-wigs were sceptical.
At seven o’clock I would probably have been watching the game show ‘Take Your Pick’ with Michael Miles but ten minutes into the show, it was interrupted for ITN’s first ever newsflash. Kennedy had been shot. On the BBC, ‘Points of View’, presented by Robert Robinson, was interrupted at approximately the same time and having nothing to watch of any particular interest to me I turned the television off and probably looked for some sort of mischief appropriate for a nine year old boy left at home alone like circumnavigating the living room using only the furniture and without stepping on the floor, which was always one of my favourites.
Soon after this mum and dad returned home in a bit of a fluster and I didn’t know what could be the matter. Dad demanded to know why I had turned off the television which was a bit confusing because he didn’t really like us having it on all that much and would always turn it off the minute he thought we weren’t giving it our full attention.
After the first BBC newsflash, ‘Tonight’ came on, but it was ended early when at half past seven the programme was interrupted with the updated news that Kennedy had been shot in the head and that his condition was critical. A few seconds later a phone rang, the newsreader took the call in front of the viewers with an appropriately solemn face and finally said “we regret to announce that President Kennedy is dead.”
After that the BBC didn’t really have a clue what to do next and what viewers got was the television continuity screen, a revolving globe, for twenty minutes or so that was punctuated by three brief bulletins read by the newsreader. My parent’s reaction to the news took me by surprise and the event was a significant moment in my young life because subsequently I was always aware of the news after that. This was a transitional moment when I left the age of innocence behind.
The death of Kennedy was an important event in news coverage because the World was receiving the news for the first time as it was happening. Almost a hundred years earlier, in April 1865, Abraham Lincoln was the first United States President to be assassinated and that news would have taken weeks to reach the United Kingdom because the first successful transatlantic telephone cable wasn’t completed until July 1866.
Receiving transatlantic news in 1963 was still somewhat difficult however and Telstar, launched in 1962 was undergoing complicated repairs at the time and not transmitting so eventually the television stations reverted to their scheduled programming and the BBC continued with Harry Worth and Dr Finlay’s Casebook and the ITV showed an episode of Emergency Ward 10, which was a sort of 1960’s Casualty.
Considering the matter of news awareness has made me think about all of the newsworthy events that occurred during that first few years of my life when I was sublimely oblivious to what was happening in the World. Lots of momentous things were going on of course it was just that they were not registering on my personal news alert sensor that was only kicked into life the day that John F Kennedy died.