David Sells (1941-1943)

Died on 6th February 2020, aged 91

The following obituary was published in The Guardian on 11th March 2020, written by his former colleague, Tim Llewellyn.

David Sells, who has died aged 91, was one of the most informed and erudite BBC foreign correspondents of his generation. His BBC career spanned 40 years, 26 of them for Newsnight, that “salon des refusés”, as another of its original stalwarts, John Tusa, described it.

David was in it from the beginning, sending sparely written, incisive films from the Middle East and North Africa and across Europe. His special interest was Poland, where he had started with the Reuters news agency in the mid-1950s and where, for Newsnight, he soon discovered the precursors of the Solidarity Movement.

George Carey, the producer who created Newsnight and launched it in 1980, said: “David stood out immediately as someone who wrote brilliantly and understood the world; he had wisdom and a dry sense of humour. He epitomised the reporter who would say more than the usual ‘on the one hand, on the other...’ He applied judgment, not an opinion.”

Born in Birmingham, David was the son of James Sells, a businessman, and his wife, Anne (nee Hills). He was educated at King Edward’s School and Merchant Taylors’, did national service in the Royal Navy and studied modern languages at Lincoln College, Oxford.

In the early 50s, he joined Reuters, his first posting Rome, where with characteristic urbanity he convinced a contessa-like landlady that he was a more suitable candidate for an apartment near the Spanish Steps than was Orson Welles. He went on to Warsaw (he learned Polish), Bonn and Brussels, then in 1966 was recruited as a BBC reporter, serving radio, which he loved, and TV.

In 1971, David was posted as TV Middle East correspondent to Beirut, where I first met him, beginning a friendship that was to last 40 years. My first memory of him is his warning young reporters gathered in his BBC flat, during the first months of the civil war, not to romanticise revolutionaries with rifles, with whom Beirut was at that time replete.

In 1976, he returned to London and after an unsettled spell in BBC News joined the infant Newsnight as an overseas adventurer. To wherever dispatched, David was always immaculate in suit and tie or safari jacket, anything but conventional with his pointed writing and penetrating eye. His television reporting philosophy might best be described as “show, not tell”.

For a while, in the late 80s and early 90s, he was one of the team of presenters at Radio 4’s World Tonight, though a nervous radio management found some of his asides a little too sharp and from 1992 to 2006 David concentrated on Newsnight.

David held counterintuitive views that were reflected but not stated on air: “Just because the Serbs are bastards doesn’t mean they haven’t a case,” he said during the Balkans conflict of the 90s. “It’s not whether or not Israel has a right to exist; it does exist.” He was a friend and fellow journalist who was better to listen to and learn from than argue with.

He is survived by his two sons, Adrian and Christopher, from his marriage to Pauline, which ended in divorce, and a granddaughter, Georgina.

The following is a transcript of the tribute to David Sells on Newsnight on 7th February 2020, delivered by Mark Urban, the long-time foreign and war correspondent on the show.

The full tribute can be found here.

We do need to impact some sad news to long-term viewers of the programme; David Sells has died. He reported on the very first Newsnight forty years ago last week, criss-crossing the world for more than a quarter of a century for Newsnight.

David had been a correspondent for Reuters News Agency before he came to the BBC, steeped in bygone traditions of telegrams, smoky news rooms and film reports literally edited with razor blades and Sellotape.

To me as a rookie, he gave invaluable advice. “Never run to the studio; you would appear flustered!” “Always take a newspaper into the studio with you; if all else fails, at least you will have something to talk about.” And perhaps most importantly given all the wars we both covered, “The hotter the pictures are, the cooler your script must be.”

We leave you with a few moments from his great Newsnight career. Good night, David!


Return to Obituaries