Alan Hart, who has died aged 75, was a trailblazing foreign correspondent who put himself in the middle of the action and brought viewers closer to the reality of human suffering around the world in the formative days of TV news.
This style helped to make News at Ten a huge success after ITN launched it in 1967 as British television’s first half-hour news programme. ITV was sceptical about taking this amount of time out of its drama and entertainment schedules but, following two nights of “slow” news, it screened an 11-minute report by Hart from Aden, on the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders’ retaking of the Crater district from the rebels. ITN’s editor, Geoffrey Cox, enthused about the “action, tension, danger”, and the programme established itself as a regular in the top 20 ratings.
“We all learned from Alan,” said Michael Nicholson, a fellow ITN reporter, who also became a distinguished war correspondent. “Dodging the bullets – no one did it better. There he was on his belly, pulling himself along the way soldiers do with their elbows, under this enormous crack of machine-gun fire.” Although he felt that some of this was done for the camera, Nicholson added: “We all imitated him to some extent in the years that followed.” Colleagues felt Hart held a high opinion of himself but conceded that he had good reason to.
While covering the six-day war between Israel and its Arab neighbours, Hart was the first television reporter to reach the Suez canal with the Israelis, following their advance through the Sinai desert. Hundreds of Egyptian prisoners of war were seen surrendering on camera.
A year later, Hart achieved another first with his harrowing report of starving children in Biafra during the breakaway state’s war with Nigeria. His film filled all but the last two minutes of News at Ten and alerted the world to the humanitarian disaster.
Switching to current affairs television, he reported for Panorama between 1970 and 1973 before dedicating the rest of his career to campaigning and writing about the Middle East.
Hart was born in Penarth, Glamorgan, to Robert, a commander in the Royal Marines, and Joyce (nee Martin). His pregnant mother had been evacuated to Wales from the family’s home in Maidstone, Kent, during the second world war.
From the age of seven he said he wanted to be a journalist, listening to the BBC’s Radio Newsreel every day and then retreating to his bedroom to speak into his hairbrush “microphone”.
On leaving Maidstone grammar school at 17, Hart became manager of a tea and tobacco estate in Nyasaland (which became Malawi), where the demand for independence from British rule was growing. Seeing an opportunity, he took a reporter’s job on the Nyasaland Times and was a stringer for British newspapers, filing stories on the state of emergency there.
The environment became more dangerous – Hart’s car was firebombed – and he was sacked by the Times after writing an unflattering profile of the nationalist leader Hastings Banda, so he returned to Britain in January 1963 and joined the Telegraph. He soon became bored and sought a job in television.
ITN took him on as a trainee scriptwriter but soon told him to get experience elsewhere. Then, in 1963, after he had worked for BBC television in Southampton for just a few months, he received the call from Geoffrey Cox that took him back to ITN as a reporter. Vietnam was another war he covered during a decade of worldwide turmoil.
In 1970 the BBC lured Hart to Panorama – according to one source, to give other reporters a wake-up call. Hart’s interviewees there included the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, with him asking her: “You are saying that, if ever Israel was in danger of being defeated on the battlefield, it would be prepared to take the region and even the whole world down with it?” She replied: “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.” The following day, the Times urged its readers to accept that Meir was simply stating how any future Israeli government would respond in a doomsday situation.
In 1972 and 1973, Hart also reported for Midweek, another BBC current affairs programme, and, on leaving the BBC, presented and directed the 1975 documentary Five Minutes to Midnight, about global poverty, made by his own production company, World Focus.
Hart claimed that he met the US president Jimmy Carter in 1980, and agreed to help establish communication to kick-start peace talks between the PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Shimon Peres, the opposition leader initially predicted to win the country’s election. However, Menachem Begin was returned to office. Hart also said he was involved in an attempt to arrange exile in Britain for the deposed Shah of Iran in 1979.
Over the years, Hart interviewed Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan and the Egyptian presidents Nasser and Sadat. His books included Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker? (1984) and the three-volume Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews (2009-10).
He made a 2009 documentary, 1948: The Birth of a New Specimen of Human Being, about the creation of Israel.
Hart is survived by his wife, Nicole (nee Smith), whom he married in 1962, and their three children, Chris, Jackie and Susie.
• Alan Hart, journalist and author, born 17 February 1942; died 15 January 2018