IN FOCUS | Jeremy Thompson: 'I'm never surprised at anything that ever happens here'

2018-03-05 11:50
Former Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (left) with Jeremy Thompson at the launch of his autobiography, Breaking News, in Cape Town. (Picture: Supplied)

Former Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (left) with Jeremy Thompson at the launch of his autobiography, Breaking News, in Cape Town. (Picture: Supplied)

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Perhaps it's his booming voice or intimidating physique, or perhaps it's the authority with which he weaves together a story, but when Jeremy Thompson speaks, people tend to listen.

At a trendy coffee shop in Green Point, Cape Town, he sits down after waving off his wife, Lynn, who kept me company while he quickly went to the bathroom, to do shopping for the dinner guests they're having over later in the week.

With the confidence and relaxed poise of a man who has had the mic for nearly 50 years, the former anchor of Sky News' evening news programme Breaking News launches into a soliloquy on some of the big stories he covered over the years, to answer my question about where he's been living since his retirement in 2016.

It's about three minutes into our interview when I realise I'll have to interrupt him if I'm going to get a word in.

Thompson, 70, is in South Africa to promote his autobiography, Breaking News. It is a rollercoaster account of the big stories he covered over the span of his career as a journalist, from the Yorkshire Ripper to Tiananmen Square and South Africa's first democratic election, before it finally came to an end with the election of US President Donald Trump.

"I had a deal with Sky News chief John Ryley that he would tell me when I was getting too old and wrinkly to be on telly and I would tell him if I lost my appetite for news," he says with a chuckle. "It just so happened that the time came with the last US election, which ended up being much bigger than we thought."

Thompson is very much at home in South Africa, having spent four years here in the early half of the 1990s, covering the tumultuous transition to democracy. As the man who established Sky's Africa bureau from Johannesburg, and unlike many modern news anchors, he reported from the frontlines, often finding himself dodging bullets in hostile environments.

"Covering the first half of the '90s in South Africa was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my career. It was the most complete, satisfying and dramatic story I did," he says. "To witness how many times it [the peaceful transition] nearly failed and to see South Africa almost falling over the finish line in '94 was one of the most extraordinary things. I've got the dirt of South Africa under my finger nails and I lived it alongside its people, so it's something that's far closer to me than any other story."

Jeremy Thompson with former president Nelson Mandela on the 4th anniversary of his release from prison on Robben Island. (Picture: Supplied)

Today, almost twelve years after covering the 1995 Rugby World Cup officially brought his tenure as Sky's Africa correspondent to an end, he still gets cornered in Woolies for selfies with adoring fans. Although he doesn't mind it, celebrity was never a motivating factor in his career.

"Being on telly is an extraordinary thing, but it's not what I set out to do. Many young people say they want to do what I do and when I ask what that is, they say they want to be on telly. And then they scoff when they hear it took me 30 years to get where I was in the end," he says. "These days you can be a senior in the newsroom in a matter of months. I think it puts a lot of pressure on young journalists."

But the role of the traditional newsman is being challenged by the fast pace of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, and undermined by the phenomenon of fake news, something Trump regularly accuses mainstream news journalists of. With all of this clutter in our news feeds and on the airwaves, Thompson believes the onus falls on journalists even more to be the guiding beacon of the truth amidst the very confusing picture the public is currently getting about the world.

"It's a huge battle for mainstream journalists to win back the trust of the public," he says, with raised eyebrows.

"It's almost as if breaking news has been overtaken by the speed of social media and fake news. I wonder whether breaking news might start slowing down, because to win back trust the onus will be more than ever before to check and double check, so that we can convince people we really are telling the truth, and being balanced and impartial."

'An endless rollercoaster'

For a long time, Thompson served as that very beacon of truth for South Africans, who came to trust and respect him, and to whom he could provide some comfort in difficult times.

"This has always been a splendidly dramatic country that loves its highs and lows. I always found it to be an endless rollercoaster, which made it even more compelling to cover it as a journalist," he says.

"Having seen everything through the early half of the 90s, I'm never surprised at anything that ever happens here."

Needless to say, he is hopeful about the future of South Africa.

"I regard myself to be a natural optimist with a healthy professional and personal dose of scepticism," he says. "The world is endlessly disappointing, but it's also endlessly exciting and there is a huge amount of hope and optimism around every corner. You just have to look at South Africa's history to see this."

Read more on:    news  |  journalism

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