Chris Cramer: Newsman and Oarsman

Christopher Ranville Cramer died of cancer on 16 January at the age of 73.

22 January 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch remembers a fellow member of Auriol Kensington Rowing Club.

For a man who was always very much in control, it is strange that Chris Cramer got into journalism almost by accident. He had seemed destined to go into the family trade of soldiering but, after his father turned down a semi-retirement job as a trainee local reporter on the Petersfield Post, Cramer junior took the role and eventually became Head of Newsgathering at the BBC. In 1996, he left this peculiarly British institution to take charge of the very American CNN (Cable News Network) International. When he announced this move, an anonymous colleague at the BBC sent him 30 pieces of silver in the form of a roll of 20p coins; Chris reckoned that he was £6 to the good and headed for Atlanta. After eleven very successful years at CNN, he went on to work in senior positions for the Thompson Reuters news service and The Wall Street Journal.

A pivotal moment in a very full life came in 1980 while Chris was still at the BBC. He was in Iran’s London embassy obtaining a travel visa when the building was taken over by gunmen opposed to Ayatollah Khomeini; Chris and 24 others were held hostage. He was released on health grounds on the second day of the six-day siege and was able to give valuable information to the Special Air Service soldiers who were preparing to storm the embassy. Afterwards, he felt guilty having got out early even though there was no resentment from the rest of the hostages about this.

Chris pictured following his release from the so-called Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980. The building is shown partly ablaze as special forces freed the hostages.

Chris did not take up the offer of psychiatric counselling following the siege, but he later believed that he had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. He used this experience to improve the training, equipment and counselling given to journalists on dangerous assignments, things that had previously been given little thought.

Chris and fellow hostage, Sim Harris, wrote a book on their experiences during and after the Iranian Embassy Siege.

In September 1996, shortly after he had arrived in Atlanta to work for CNN, Chris published an article titled “Goodbye Auriol, Hello Atlanta” in the then Amateur Rowing Association’s Regatta magazine. It told the story of his rowing career so far.

Chris claimed that his early rowing was limited to ‘a couple of outings in fixed seat galleys at Southsea’. However, in 1991, at the age of 43, he signed on for a rowing course at Barn Elms, the local council run school and community boathouse based on the Surrey bank between Putney and Hammersmith in West London.

(Barn Elms’s) tuition – and the fun we had – gave me a form of pastime solitary jogging and the occasional workout failed to satisfy. The fact that I fell in the Thames the odd time while sculling did nothing to dampen my spirits.

After two years at Barn Elms, Chris felt that he was ready for the big time – the Auriol Kensington veterans (masters) in Hammersmith.

In 1993 I plucked up courage and approached Auriol Kensington, full of awe for the real thing. After the first workout in the clubhouse bar I was welcomed with open arms and closed wallets! Since then I have discovered that veteran rowing is a true social leveller. As one AK luminary told me in the first few weeks: ‘We don’t give a toss how fit you are Chris,’ he opined. ‘Without the amount of drink consumed by the veterans there would be no club and no rowing’.

In defence of my club, I should point out that today the AK vets’ fitness is higher – and the club’s bar profits are lower – than 28 years ago.

In 1994 I reached what may well be my rowing heights when I (rowed) in the Fours Head. My recollection is that we finished second to last in a field of four hundred boats although my personal view is that we peaked too early and may well have overtrained. It was not a view shared by the club captain who sulked for a few weeks after that.

Chris also raced in an AK veterans eight at Molesey Regatta:

It was a fantastic day marred only by the fact that… we drove that eight under a low bridge on the way back and reduced it to four rather than two sections. The club captain continued his sulking.

My main memory of Chris around this time is in 1995 when he took part in the AK Veterans’ annual three-day row from Hammersmith to Henley, which I coxed.

(It was) a remarkable trip through rural England when veteran men battle with the elements and the locks on the way to the Henley Regatta. It is a trip that memories are made of with the added benefit that one can claim to one’s grandchildren that ‘I rowed at (to) Henley’.

When we got to Henley, Chris offered me a ride back to London in a large chauffeur-driven BBC car complete with a telephone. It was very impressive though I was now more aware of how my television license fee was spent.

The Thames at Hammersmith (top) and the Chattahoochee at Roswell, near Atlanta (below).

Chris also wrote about his rowing in the U.S., comparing Auriol to Atlanta.

There is one big difference between Auriol Kensington RC and my new club, the Atlanta Rowing Club – the new one does not have a bar in the clubhouse. When I inquired of the club captain whether or not this was just an oversight he scowled and suggested that scullers in North America take the sport more seriously than the Brits… 

…the River Chattahoochee, just outside of Atlanta, is an idyllic six mile stretch of fast-flowing water with rapids at each end to concentrate the mind….

My ambition is to get Ted [Turner, the founder of CNN] to join me in a double scull for the occasional Sunday outing (and) to convince my new club that lifting beer kegs can be good exercise – with the ultimate reward at the end of each session.

Eleven years after Chris published his article in Regatta, the American magazine, Rowing News, wrote a piece on his passion for rowing, just at the time that he was preparing to leave CNN:

Based in Atlanta, Ga., Cramer religiously gets out on the Chattahoochee River to row in a single or double twice during each week and on weekends; and he will soon have plenty more time to do so. After 11 years at CNN, Cramer is retiring from his high-level post, and although he’s unsure what his next career move will be, he is sure that he’ll be spending more time on the water. ‘My ambition is to leave my Blackberry pager on the river bank and improve my pretty ghastly technique…’

In 1998, on behalf of CNN, Chris (left) accepted the ‘Freedom of Speech’ award, one of the four annual awards given to those who have demonstrated a commitment to the Four Freedoms that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt held as essential to democracy: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Bishop Desmond Tutu (centre) received that year’s ‘Freedom of Religion’ award.

Following Chris’s death, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, wrote:

A tough, assertive, loyal, funny man with a remarkable ability to make exactly the right judgements.

Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor, agreed:

He was a giant of our business. When a big story broke, we all felt in safe hands with Cramer in charge. He was a tough bugger but also kind and decent.

Christopher Ranville Cramer, born 3 January 1948, died 16 January 2021.

3 comments

  1. I remember, A few months after the siege and the dust had settled (!) Sim Harris was asked what he had learned from his experience as a hostage. His reply ?
    “ I should have got myself an Agent !”

  2. Dear Tim,

    I enjoyed this article on Chris Cramer and was intrigued by his reference to rowing at Southsea (Nick and I were/are both members of Southsea Rowing club) so I looked him up and wikipedia says he joined the Portsmouth Evening News, as does a bbc obituary, whereas you mention the Petesfield Post. – which I had never heard of. Perhaps he worked for both?

    Jane

  3. Jane,

    This information came from a long interview that Chris gave to ‘The Times’ in 1998. He no doubt worked for many publications as he rose from trainee reporter to senior posts at the BBC and CNN (part of the journey included hospital radio in Portsmouth – ‘Chris Cramer’s Laugh-In’). The ‘Petersfield Post’ still exists, it says it is ‘Petersfield and East Hampshire’s local weekly newspaper, established since 1883’.

    Tim

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