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Giles Smith (Read 699 times)
George Eykyn
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Giles Smith
May 12th, 2023, 9:06am
 
Giles Smith, former ITN Industrial Correspondent and Sports News Presenter, has died aged 78. Giles' career included a spell at BBC radio. In recent years, he was often to be found umpiring at Datchet Cricket Club. Obituary from The Times below.

Giles Smith

ITN industrial correspondent who became as recognisable as the union leaders he grilled during the strikes of the 1970s and ’80s


For well over a decade, from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, Giles Smith was one of the best-known faces on television. It might be supposed that he was a That’s Life presenter or a Coronation Street star but he was, in fact, an industrial correspondent for Independent Television News.

From the 1972 miners’ strike to the Wapping dispute of 1986, it was a period of dramatic industrial turmoil in which both the Heath and Callaghan governments were brought down by walkouts. Margaret Thatcher would probably have fallen too, had she lost to Arthur Scargill in the coal strike of 1984-85.

Union leaders such as Scargill, Jack Jones and Len Murray were as famous and powerful as senior cabinet ministers. And industrial correspondents such as Smith — in effect strike reporters — were more prominent than their colleagues covering politics.

Intriguingly, given his affluent and conservative background, Smith was himself a highly successful trade unionist, as shop steward of the National Union of Journalists at ITN, or “father of the NUJ chapel”, as it is termed.

Born in 1944, Giles Weyland Smith was the son of Hugh Smith, a GP who was among the first troops to land on D-Day, a fortnight after Giles was born. Smith went to Merchant Taylors’ public day school where he excelled at sport and did his A-levels, but shunned going to university. Instead he took a shorthand and typing course, did a stint on the Harrow Observer for £8 a week and became a trainee on the Western Mail in Cardiff.

The young Englishman from the prosperous home counties quickly fell in love with Wales, through regular trips to Cardiff Arms Park as a new golden age unfolded for Welsh rugby, and through immersing himself in the proudly working-class coal and steel communities of the Welsh valleys.

Smith’s most formative moment came in October 1966, when he was 22. One morning in the mining village of Aberfan near Merthyr Tydfil, a huge colliery waste tip slid down the hillside and engulfed several houses and a primary school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Smith’s news editor immediately sent him to Aberfan with the emotionally wrenching order to “knock on doors”. Don’t worry, Smith was told, they’ll invite you in for a cup of tea, and you should just listen.

His flatmate Peter Vincent remembers Smith returning each night “ashen-faced, carrying his thickly coated coal slurry boots to be washed ready for the next day’s return”. Reporting Aberfan affected Smith deeply and helped explain his affinity for working-class people and trade unionism.

Smith was a “good, old-fashioned leftie” but was never rumbled by the government of the daySmith was a “good, old-fashioned leftie” but was never rumbled by the government of the day
Smith was a “good, old-fashioned leftie” but was never rumbled by the government of the day
UPP
He then spent four years on the business news section of The Times, specialising in the car industry, and had a spell with BBC radio, before ITN announced they needed more specialists to cover the labour struggles which increasingly dominated the news.

As the 1973-74 miners’ dispute began, ITN’s industrial editor Peter Sissons appointed Smith as industrial correspondent, and when Sissons became a studio presenter five years later, Smith replaced him as head of ITN’s industrial team. For 15 years, Smith reported from picket lines and factory gate meetings; from late-night negotiations and seaside conferences; from the conciliation service Acas, to “beer and sandwiches” at No 10.

But Thatcher was determined to curb union power, as Smith saw when Trades Union Congress leaders visited Downing Street just after her election.

When Smith sat down in No 10 afterwards to interview her emollient employment secretary Jim Prior, Thatcher burst in, according to Smith years later, and demanded: “Jim, what are you doing?” Prior replied: “Well, I was about to do an interview with ITN.” Thatcher was insistent. “Oh no, you’re not. I’m doing the interviews. Out, out, out,” she cried.

And she “all but pushed Prior out of the room”, Smith said. “I was so flabbergasted,” he recalled. “I could hardly think of a question.”

Thatcher would have no doubt been dismayed had she known Smith was an active trade unionist.

Later in 1979, his skills came to the fore when ITV went off air for 11 weeks as technicians in the ACTT union went on strike demanding a pay rise. Smith’s NUJ members refused to cross ACTT picket lines, so ITN sent them home on full pay, while Smith organised an NUJ hardship fund for ACTT colleagues in dire need.

When the dispute was settled Smith helped to present ITV with the NUJ’s own pay claim, arguing they deserved even more than the ACTT.

Smith never forgot the face of the chief ITV negotiator: “I feared a physical assault or a heart attack, possibly both. But in the end he just shook his head in disbelief, and a few days later gave in.” Smith had learnt his negotiating skills from observing national union leaders. Colleagues speak of his “ability to read the room” — he knew when to stand firm, and when to concede. During one negotiation both sides retired to adjacent rooms and Smith thought ITN managers could hear what his team were saying through the thin wall. So he urged his colleague Phil Moger to pretend to harangue him loudly.

“Giles, it is a rubbish offer,” Moger shouted. “The members won’t buy it. Accept this and there will be resignations!” Struggling not to laugh, Smith gestured at Moger to shout louder. “Just go back to that lot,” Moger screamed, “and tell them to get stuffed!”

The episode showed Smith’s sense of fun — in a TV Who’s Who, Leon Trotsky was his “man I’d most like to meet”. Yet he could be grumpy at times, and distant. As a correspondent he maintained good relations with both sides, without getting too close. “He was amazingly even-handed,” Mark Webster, a former ITN colleague, said. “And though all of us knew he was a good old-fashioned leftie, he was never rumbled by the government of the day.”

By the late 1980s, with unions in decline and industrial stories no longer big news, Smith made a surprise switch to ITN sports correspondent. It looked like a demotion, but after the daily grind of industrial journalism, his new diet of overseas cricket tours, Wimbledon, golf and his beloved rugby must have felt like heaven.

But ITV soon came under the financial cosh and journalists at ITN were forced to accept compulsory redundancies. Smith was among the victims. When NUJ colleagues offered to fight his case, Smith said no — fearing accusations of favourable treatment.

As well as being a qualified cricket umpire, he had a lifelong passion for cricket and sailing — he once sailed across the Atlantic, and he and his partner Sandra Kiely delivered yachts in Greece.

As well as Sandra, he is survived by his former wife Gladwyn, and their three children: Siân, Georgia and Alex.

Towards the end of his career, Smith had returned to Cardiff as a reporter for the Welsh ITV station HTV.

More than a journalist, he sometimes also had to operate a camera and microphones. It was a great contrast to his early TV days when the ACTT would have walked out had any journalist touched a button.


Giles Smith, TV correspondent, was born on May 23, 1944. He died of undisclosed causes on April 5, 2023, aged 78
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