Hawthorne, James Burns (1930–2006), teacher, television producer, and controller of BBC Northern Ireland, was born in Belfast on 27 March 1930, one of identical twin sons of Thomas (Tommy) Hawthorne, who worked in a shoe shop, and his wife, Florence (Florrie) (née Burns). There were two older brothers, both of whom served in the second world war, and an older sister. James (often called Jimmy ) attended Harding Memorial Public Elementary school off the Cregagh Road in Belfast, and then Methodist College, where he won prizes and took part in school plays. He graduated BA from QUB, did a teacher training course in Stranmillis Training College, and was a mathematics teacher in Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, Co. Down, for nine years.
He joined BBC Northern Ireland in 1960, charged with developing schools broadcasting. Northern Ireland's political and educational establishment might have assumed that a mild-mannered mathematics teacher from a protestant background would be unlikely to challenge the existing orthodoxies of Northern Ireland education, but Hawthorne understood that broadcasting could provide radical answers to the always vexed question of what should be taught as history in schools in Northern Ireland. He revolutionised the making of schools programmes. Today and yesterday in Northern Ireland, first broadcast in 1961 for ten to thirteen year old pupils, introduced thousands of children to local archaeology, history, folklore and topics from geography and literature. Even after fifty years, memories of the thrill of recognition and of discovery are still vivid for those who listened to the programmes. History programmes for secondary school pupils were equally successful and equally ground-breaking, and an accompanying lively illustrated book, Two centuries of Irish history (1966) (to be distinguished from the 1888 book of the same title by James Bryce (qv), 1st Viscount Bryce) became an unexpected runaway best seller in the province.
He became producer in charge, BBC Northern Ireland, in 1967 and in 1969 chief assistant. The following year he was seconded to the Hong Kong government as controller of television, with responsibility for overseeing the introduction of colour television. As director of broadcasting, Hong Kong (1972–7), he encountered with aplomb the problems of cultural clashes and attempted political intervention in broadcasting policy. Perhaps Northern Ireland had been a good preparation for such situations, and perhaps in turn his time in Hong Kong provided a useful sense of perspective when he came back to Belfast as controller of BBC Northern Ireland in 1978.
Hawthorne was in charge during some of the most difficult years of the Northern Ireland troubles; the BBC attracted criticism from all sides. Journalists and broadcasters were often accused of encouraging violence by filming in flashpoint areas or even by merely reporting events. He had to deal with personal abuse, and on occasion even threats of physical harm to himself or his family. His wife and children had to spend some months away from Northern Ireland in 1981, when loyalist extremists threatened the family, in protest at the BBC coverage of the IRA hunger strikes. At the same time, news providers came under pressure from successive beleaguered British governments who sometimes inferred or insisted that the state broadcaster had an obligation to help control the news released to the public. Politicians, especially Northern Ireland secretaries of state, such as Roy Mason, tried on several occasions to influence BBC editorial policy and even to bully the generally affable controller, discovering in due course that Hawthorne was not easily bullied. He noted with pride that all overt instances of political interference had been successfully resisted, but he was disappointed that he was not always assured of the unwavering support of senior executives within the BBC. This was evident in the most serious controversy in which his resolve was tested. In the summer of 1985, a BBC producer from London filmed a documentary in the Real lives series, about two bitterly opposed Derry-born politicians, Gregory Campbell of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin. A press preview led to newspaper criticism of what was regarded as an interview with an active member of the IRA, and resulting furious reactions by the British home secretary, Leon Brittan, and the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Hawthorne had decided that the programme was acceptable under existing guidelines, and the board of management concurred; however, the Corporation's board of governors took the unprecedented decision to overrule them and, after viewing the programme, banned it from being aired. Hawthorne offered his resignation, as he felt betrayed by the governors and also believed that the BBC's reputation of impartiality and editorial independence was threatened. Journalists in broadcasting who belonged to the National Union of Journalists held a one-day strike throughout the United Kingdom in support of his position. After a good deal of tension and unpleasantness, as well as reputational damage to the BBC and the government, Hawthorne withdrew his resignation while still maintaining his principles. The programme was eventually broadcast, with a few small changes, some months later.
The controversy led directly to the government ban on interviews with members of proscribed organisations, and probably also to a prestigious award for Hawthorne; the following year (1986) the Royal Television Society awarded him the Cyril Bennett award, citing his 'unyielding strength and determination' in the service of broadcasting. In 1988 he was made a fellow of the society.
Hawthorne took early retirement from the BBC in 1987, after twenty-seven influential years. As well as his work in schools broadcasting, he had pioneered other initiatives: Radio Foyle was set up, the first Irish language broadcasts took place despite strong opposition from loyalists, and he also encouraged important local drama productions. His eloquent and moving presentation at the 1982 Edinburgh International Radio Festival, about the difficulties of deciding how to report terrorist atrocities, was regarded as a landmark speech by those who were present. He published a book on the subject, Reporting violence: lessons from Northern Ireland (1981). In twenty years of active retirement, as well as establishing his own public relations consultancy company, Hawthorne, through membership of a large number of committees and commissions, continued to exert a liberal and humane influence on Northern Ireland public life, particularly in efforts to recognise differing traditions and cultures. He chaired the ground-breaking Cultural Traditions Group in the 1980s, and in 1989 was selected as inaugural chairman of the Community Relations Council (CRC); he led a group which made the CRC presentation to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin in 1995. He was inaugural chairman of the Health Promotion Agency, chairman of the Prison Arts Foundation, a founding member of the Commission for Racial Equality and a member of the Fair Employment Agency and of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities. He was an important founding member of the Ulster History Circle, was involved with the Belfast Literary Society and with Lecale Historical Society. In 1995 he and his family moved into an old mill at Lissara, near Crossgar, Co. Down, which they restored from a ruinous condition.
A series of so-called 'grumpy articles' in the Down Democrat weekly newspaper, published from 2004–06 (and online in his blog, 'Thorny issues'), provides insights into Hawthorne's views on politics and society, and also into his far-from-grumpy personality. His contributions to many aspects of Ulster life were recognised with awards and honours; he was made CBE in 1982, and was granted an honorary doctorate of laws by Queen's University, Belfast, in 1988. In 1993 he was a visiting professor at the University of Ulster.
He and Patricia King married in Belfast in 1958; they had a son and two daughters. Patricia Hawthorne died in 2002, and Jimmy Hawthorne, after a short struggle with cancer, died in Belfast on 7 September 2006.