How UK’s first black TV reporter blazed trail – even interviewing Saddam Hussein

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Her big interviews and showbiz friends are as striking as Barbara Blake Hannah’s incredible career.

Harold Wilson, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Michael Caine and Sammy Davis Junior were among the stellar names to get a grilling by the journalist who was friendly with Lord Lichfield and worked with former This Is Your Life presenter Eamonn Andrews.

At 79, Barbara is now hailed for her pioneering influence on the UK media, blazing a trail for the likes of Trevor McDonald and Moira Stewart to follow.

At 27, in 1968, she became the UK’s first black on-screen TV news journalist.

Back then she was an on-camera reporter for daily evening show Today With Eamonn Andrews on Thames TV.

“Eamonn was lovely,” she told The Mirror, “Really, really lovely. We journalists went out and did our stories and as the host he would do the key interviews.

“The wonderful thing about the show is that people who were children at the time still tell me that their parents would tell them to come in and watch me.”

Barbara’s stay at Thames TV was infamously cut short by the racist reaction she received.

“Looking back on it now, I don’t think there were that many people objecting, but the few were was a good excuse for a lady producer there not to continue my contract.

“If anyone was racist, it was probably her.”

Another notable dissenter was Enoch Powell.

“I went back to the studio one night in Birmingham,” Barbara, who now lives in Jamaica, explained.

“Everything was closed down. Most of the staff had gone home.

“They told me they’d had a live interview with Enoch Powell but that it wouldn’t have happened unless I wasn’t there.

“I had to stay at the YWCA in those days as no hotel would give me a room.

“I’m just glad that what happened to me will play a role in shaping the future.”

“I’ve had so many young black journalists, especially women, get in touch with me over the years saying: ‘We’ve read about you, we heard your history and you inspire us, you’re a pioneer.’

“They are all my children. I am just so thrilled to meet them now.”

A devout Rastafarian, she gives the credit for the esteem in which she is now held by the British media to her spiritual leader Jah.

“The Bible Psalm says: ‘I will make you a joyful mother of children’,” she said. Jah has really done that with all the children from the UK that he has given me.”

Barbara, who went on to work on the BBC documentary Man Alive, has given her name to a new British Journalism Award backed by media bible Press Gazette to inspire young journalists to break down barriers as she did.

“This award is opening up a door 50 years later,” she said. “I remember Sir Jeremy Isaacs, who was the head of Channel 4 when it was starting in 1982, had become a good friend of mine.”

“We had lunch and I would say: ‘Hey, Jeremy, nobody’s replaced me. I mean, what’s happening with British media?’

“And he said: ‘Okay, make a film about it, Barbara.’

“That’s how I got to do ‘Race. Rhetoric, Rastafari’. And that was 10 years after I’d left in 1972.

“And now here we are in 2020 with the doors just opening. Things that I’d said in ’82 are only just now beginning to happen.

“I remember interviewing Joan Bakewell as part of that movie and she herself said: ‘Yes, Barbara. It’s time we did something about it,” – and that was 1982.

“Now here we are today, but it just seems like yesterday. The door is just opening.”

She believes George Floyd’s death in April was pivotal in changing the media landscape.

“Everything couldn’t continue the way it was,” she said. “The protests afterwards with white people marching with black people in Trafalgar Squre were so emotional.

“I remember being on a bus in Trafalgar Square as a journalist in 1965.

“I was on my way to House of Commons from Fleet Street for a debate on racism at the time of Rhodesia leader Ian Smith’s Universal Declaration of Independence and Rhodesia House was in Trafalgar Square.

“The anger I saw that day was horrendous. People saw me on the bus and hurled abuse at me.

“To see more white kids than black in Trafalgar Square decades later, holding signs and protesting over George Floyd’s death brought tears of happiness to my eyes.

“That’s why this is the most important Black History Month we have ever had.

“Many white people will become involved, even out of curiosity, for the first time. They’ll hear names mentioned that they’ve never heard before, like Franz Fanon, Marcus Garvey and Eric Williams.

“In the first few years after I came back from England. I wouldn’t speak to anybody white. I was so angry with why the racism I suffered.

“But that’s past. I judge my white friends not by their colour, but by their love.”

Two examples sum up the day-to-day abuse that Barbara came to expect in England.

“I was at a party when a glass broke and a piece flew up and cut me,” she said.

“A woman pointed to my blood and said: ‘Oh it’s red!’

“I was just so shocked. It was as if she thought that if my skin was brown, my blood would be a different colour too.

“Maybe she thought, like a cockroach, that if we bleed white stuff comes out!

“But that’s just one example. I could go into a shop, order a sandwich to be made and realise from the way that the two sandwich makers behaved that I was better off saying: ‘Never mind’ and leaving because they’d have spat in it before giving it to me.

“You’d buy lunch instead at the Indian restaurant instead because you know the Indian man is not going to spit in your food.

“Or you buy your already wrapped sandwiches to take away.”

Mum Veronica divorced dad Eyrell ‘Evon’ Blake when Barbara was just four. But she followed her father into the media.

Evon co-founded Spotlight magazine in 1940, the Jamaican Press Association in 1943 and the publication New Day in 1956. It was there that Barbara landed her first job in the industry.

Barbara would go on to work in PR for the Jamaican government before moving into print journalism in the UK.

“I called up The Sunday Times and asked if I could do a story on Jamaican food for their foods of the world series,” she said.

“They agreed and that was my way in. I interviewed Sammy Davis, Jr. who was filming at Pinewood, also Jacqueline Suzanne, who wrote Valley Of The Dolls.

“Then Cosmopolitan was a big thing. Germaine Greer was a good friend of mine and the women’s movement was just as important to me as the Black Power movement. So I wrote for Cosmopolitan.

“I wrote a couple articles for Queen magazine too. I’d gotten to know of them during my PR days for Jamaica. Patrick Lichfield was doing the photos for the magazine and we’d become great friends.

“Around that time The Sunday Times did an issue asking: ‘What Is Beauty’. They wanted different people to give their answer.

“Don Mccullen, who was the world’s leading war photographer, chose me and photographed me in Patrick’s apartment.

“But I was a journalist, good heavens. I AM a journalist. I wanted to write.

Barbara’s brush with Saddam Hussein is described in her memoir Growing Up – Dawta of Jah.

“I met an Israeli who’d made a film about the Palestinian cause which I knew something about. I was so interested in interviewing him, that he arranged for me to be invited to a Palestinian Film festival in Iraq.

“That’s how I got to Baghdad. It was a lovely, lovely city. A lovely place to be. I was so impressed.

“Saddam Hussein was president and at one point, we were all taken to his palace, all of the journalists, and allowed to interview him. They made me ask the first question.

“I should have told him no and let somebody else go but I took the opportunity and asked him the first question.

“The night before it was all ending, there was a huge event. Gina Lollobrigida was one of the guests along with Vanessa Redgrave. We were the three female guests.

“Someone came over to our table and said: ‘Saddam wants you to come and sit on his platform.’

“I turned to the young lady and said: ‘Let’s go’ and she said, No, no, no. It’s only you alone.’ But I said: “No, no. I’m not going without you!” I was in my full feminists mode.

“My son has since said to me: ‘No, Mommy, it’s good that you didn’t because there’d be a photo of you sitting beside Saddam Hussein and that would not be good to be in your history.”

Spanish-speaking Barbara impressed Castro with her direct interviewing style but things didn’t go as well with Harold Wilson.

“I interviewed him when I was when I was in Jamaica. They had a Commonwealth Prime Ministers conference there and I got to interview him for Jamaican television.

“I was very rude to him because I asked him about Ian Smith’s Declaration of Independence in Rhodesia. He was very annoyed but he was just Prime Ministerial.”

As for her future plans, evergreen Barbara remains ambitious.

“I want to make a feature film,” she said. “based on Bob Marley, who was another of my friends.”

Are there still any big interviews that have so far escaped her?

“The American civil rights activist Angela Davis,” Barbara said. “She is my heroine. I could never compare myself to her. But I’d have loved to have sat down with her.”

There’s still time.