Hanna, Vincent Leo (1939–97), broadcaster, was born 9 August 1939 at Falls Road, Belfast, eldest among five children of Frank Hanna (qv), solicitor and Labour MP. Educated at QUB, TCD, and Harvard University, he was admitted as a solicitor in 1964 and practised in his family's law firm in Belfast, where he specialised in industrial-injury and civil-rights cases. Through the 1960s he wrote periodic articles as a freelance journalist and enjoyed a serious hobby as a folksinger before he travelled to London (1970) to pursue a course at the London School of Economics. There his freelance articles were spotted by Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times, and he joined that paper as reporter on industrial relations. He became immediately immersed in journalism and entirely abandoned his legal career. His expertise brought regular television appearances and in 1973 he joined the BBC's current affairs department, working firstly for ‘Tonight’ and then for the newly founded ‘Newsnight’.
If ‘Newsnight’ brought him to wide public attention, it was his coverage of over fifty by-elections for which he was best known. His trademark offbeat films of candidates pursuing votes brought a whole new dimension to election reporting and helped transform by-elections from obscure, ill-attended political footnotes to national media events. His sarcastic, often hilarious, and always intriguing reports infuriated politicians, particularly those whom he ridiculed, and MPs used the house of commons and the national media to complain that he was using by-elections as Nero used the Roman games – for his own amusement. He constantly cited H. L. Mencken's dictum that a journalist's attitude to a politician should be akin to a dog's attitude to a lamp-post, and his by-election coverage gave full vent to this view. His innovative films were further supplemented by his pioneering use of the TV exit poll. Such was his association with by-elections that for the popular period sitcom, ‘Blackadder’, he was asked to play an eighteenth-century incarnation of himself in the ‘Rotten borough’ episode.
His involvement with the trade-union movement was passionate. He was active in the National Union of Journalists, was chairman of its broadcasting section during the disputes of the 1970s, and was a determined champion of the trade union movement, acting as a successful vote-gatherer in numerous disputes. In 1985 he led a one-day strike in protest at the decision to shelve a showing of a ‘Real lives’ documentary featuring Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin. This and other internal union causes brought him into conflict with BBC management, and he left the station in 1987 to found his own television production company, Viewpoint Productions, which up to late 1990 had strong links to the Amalgamated Engineering Union. The company made a series on trade-union and employment affairs for Channel 4, as well as corporate videos. He served too as image consultant for the National Union of Teachers and various urban councils. His companies were later to run into financial trouble and he was banned from serving as a company director for a number of years. He returned to television, co-presenting ‘A week in politics’ on Channel 4 and presenting ‘Midnight special’. On the launch of BBC Radio 5 (1994), he presented the ‘After hours’ show, revelling in the free rein he was given. He also presented Radio 4's ‘Medium wave’ and guest presented a range of other shows.
His broadcasting style saw him expose the foibles of politics through ferocious needling and a sharp tongue. He was disliked by some colleagues who saw him as arrogant, but revered by others who aped his style with alacrity. Immoderate in everything from work to food and drink, he delighted in argument and abhorred laziness. He was an ardent francophile and kept a home in the Loire Valley. A passionate sports lover, he contributed a sports column to the Guardian and was writing a book on Manchester United's ‘Busby babes’ at the time of his death. After the annulment of his first marriage, he married (1975) Joan, daughter of Lord Fitt (Gerry Fitt (qv)); they had two daughters. He suffered a fatal heart attack while in Belfast presenting the BBC Radio Ulster show ‘Talkback’ on 22 July 1997.