Chris Cramer obituary

CNN boss and former head of BBC news who was known for his forthright leadership

Chris Cramer, who has died aged 73 of cancer, dominated the world of news broadcasting, becoming head of BBC newsgathering before taking charge of CNN International in 1996.

Yet he cut a very different figure from the usual soft-spoken, polite broadcasting executive. Cramer – everyone called him that – was rough in manner, looked uncomfortable in a suit, at least in his earlier years, and never deferred to anyone. He could be breathtakingly blunt. When someone went to ask him for a pay rise, Cramer stood up and opened the window to the January air. “It’s a cold world out there,” was all he said.

Cramer was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, the son of a policeman. They did not get on. “He didn’t like my clothes, or my language, or my attitudes,” Cramer later reflected. He left school at 17 and was hired by the Portsmouth News. Five years later, when BBC Radio Solent was launched in 1970, he got a job there, and eventually made the move to the BBC in London.

At BBC Television News, Cramer worked his way up to become one of the best bosses BBC News ever had: decisive to the point of brutality, yet never holding grudges. After one argument I stormed out of his office and slammed the door so hard that the glass in it cracked. Fifteen minutes later Cramer came over to me in the newsroom and started chatting as though nothing had happened.

No one could cow him. In 1986 Norman Tebbit, then chairman of the Conservative party, issued a poorly researched attack on the BBC coverage of President Ronald Reagan’s bomb attack on Libya, claiming all sorts of bias. Cramer went into action. With a team, he went through Tebbit’s report line by line, pointing out its errors publicly and forcibly. For once the BBC had stood up for itself.

Soon afterwards a leading QC advised me I had good grounds for suing Tebbit over this report. I told Cramer. “Fine,” he said. “But remember this. Tebbit was blown up by the IRA. He’s a politician, so he could be out on his ear at any moment. You’ve got a nice job for life. Imagine how it’ll look in court: no one will have any sympathy for you.” I took the point.

The following year Tebbit fell out of Margaret Thatcher’s favour and left the cabinet. Cramer, who never forgot anything, said to me, “Your case against Tebbit would probably have come to court about now.”

Despite his abrasiveness, he had an almost fatherly feeling for his staff; especially if they were sent into harm’s way. An incident in his own life marked him permanently. In 1980, when he was still a field producer, he went to the Iranian embassy in London to pick up a visa and was trapped there when a group of terrorists took over the building. After 24 hours Cramer feigned illness, and the hostage-takers allowed him to stagger out of the embassy. He gave the police and army a hugely valuable description of the terrorists and their weaponry.

This experience gave him a particular insight into the perils of reporting. His promotion to head of newsgathering coincided with the start of the far more dangerous era after the end of the cold war, when journalists became particular targets. The BBC, like several other big news organisations, suffered serious losses.

Cramer took the lead in setting up rules and structures to protect news teams in dangerous places. To anyone who complained that the new limitations were irksome, he was forthright. “It’s not you, it’s your wife and kids I’m thinking about,” he told me. “If you think it’s worth getting killed for a story, you’re an idiot.”

In April 1996, after 25 years with the BBC, Cramer headed for Atlanta to became head of CNN International. A lot of us wondered how he would fit into the very different world of American television news. His close friend and successor there, Tony Maddox, said: “To start with, many found him simply terrifying. His razor-sharp wit and super-low bullshit threshold proved a culture shock. But he quickly showed himself to be a formidable operator, and when it really mattered, a very decent, kind man.”

Cramer had a particular gift for spotting and nurturing talent: Richard Sambrook, later head of BBC news, was one of his proteges. Cramer helped to found the International News Safety Institute, dedicated to the safety of journalists, and became its president (2003-12). After 11 years at CNN, he left for the Thomson Reuters organisation, and later headed a video production team at the Wall Street Journal.

It was Cramer’s sympathy for the underdog that made his staff love him as well as respect him. A fellow reporter was being given an unnecessarily hard time by a senior BBC figure, and bumped into Cramer after a major ticking-off. “I’ve got to talk to him about you,” said Cramer, “What shall I say?” “You could point out that there’s a difference between making a mistake because you’re lazy, and making a mistake because you’re desperately trying to get a story on the air.” Cramer grinned. “I already told him that,” he said.

When Chris died, this friend wrote to me: “I would have walked through fire for him.” Many of us at the BBC and CNN felt the same.

Like many journalists, he had a complex private life. After a fleeting first marriage he met Helen Sarkies, who worked at the BBC as a news producer, and they were married in 1982. They had a daughter Hannah, but the marriage ended in the early 1990s, not long before Cramer left Britain and the BBC to join CNN in Atlanta.

There in 2003 he married Nina Human. She survives him, along with a son, Richard, a daughter, Nicolette, and Hannah.

• Christopher Ranville Cramer, journalist, born 3 January 1948; died 16 January 2021

Contributor

John Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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