Few journalists symbolised the BBC in its relatively recent glory days like my friend Bill Turnbull, who died last week aged 66 after a valiant battle with cancer. I was allowed to regularly review the papers during most of his 15 years presenting the BBC Breakfast show and he was always unflappable, fair-minded and charming.
The obituaries said Bill stepped down from Breakfast after the show moved to Salford in 2012, but, true professional that he always was, he uncomplainingly packed his bags and headed up to the corporation’s new northern hub and continued presenting the show until 2015, when the official explanation for his resignation was he wanted to spend more time with his family.
I knew how much Bill had loved presenting the show and had phoned him to ask him why he was really leaving. He’d laughed and said off-the-record that he was “sick of the constant voices I hear in my head”, which I’d taken as a reference to the show’s top brass who’d occasionally see fit to caution him through his earpiece about what he was saying on-air.
It’s certainly true that the Bill I’d counted as a friend was growing disillusioned with the stranglehold the Tory government was beginning to have on the show – he parted company with the BBC five months before the Brexit vote – and the final paper reviews I did with him were rather strained affairs with a lot of prior briefing from minions on the show, urging me to “keep it light and stay off politics”.
It’s significant how many of Bill’s Breakfast contemporaries were also choosing to leave during this period. These of course included his long-time co-host Susannah Reid, who headed off to GMTV, where she could fearlessly hold the government to account.
Other occasional co-hosts and friends who stayed on found themselves getting into trouble for supposedly “misspeaking” about politics, such as Steph McGovern, who was required to apologise to Boris Johnson after she said in public she was proud to be “girlie swot”, a reference to a misogynistic comment Johnson had made about David Cameron.
Bill belonged to a generation of BBC journalists who never spoke about their political allegiances, but I’d always reckoned him to be an old-fashioned One Nation Tory. He’d little time for his fellow Old Etonian Boris Johnson – Bill was the generation before him there – and some years after he’d left the BBC he raised eyebrows when he spoke on Twitter about how Johnson was “sinking ever lower”.
He’d been appalled last year at how Johnson, as host of the Cop26 climate change conference, had sat unmasked and dozing beside the attentive 72-year-old secretary general of the United Nations and the 95-year-old Sir David Attenborough.
Bill was predictably no supporter of Brexit, not least because he could see the impact it would have on his much-loved hobby, bee-keeping. It made the transportation of bees across the border with Europe highly problematical and he was aghast when George Eustice, as environment secretary, approved the use of thiamethoxam, a highly toxic pesticide that kills bees.