Canon Dr Owen Spencer-Thomas, MBE
Spencer-Thomas in 2014
Owen Robert Spencer-Thomas
3 March 1940
|Education||University of London, University of Westminster, University of Cambridge|
|Occupation||Journalist, clergyman, fundraiser|
|Spouse(s)||Margaret (Maggie) Ely (1976-present)|
|Children||Huw, Meg and Gwyn Spencer-Thomas|
|Parent(s)||Ivor and Rosabel|
Owen Robert Spencer-Thomas MBE (born 3 March 1940) is a television and radio news journalist, philanthropist and campaigner for autism and other disabilities. Spencer-Thomas is also an ordained Anglican clergyman. In 2008 Spencer-Thomas was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
After attending Christ Church Cathedral Choir School, Oxford, from the age of eight, he continued his education as a teenager at Ardingly College, Sussex. He studied at the Royal Agricultural College, 1958–1960, in Cirencester and spent several years working on his father's farm in Hertfordshire.
His father, Ivor Spencer-Thomas, farmer and famous inventor, held the feudal barony of Buquhollie and Freswick in Caithness, Scotland. His mother was Alice Rosabel. He married Margaret Ely in 1976; both are members of the high IQ society, British Mensa.
He graduated in sociology at the Polytechnic, Regent Street, where he campaigned to establish its students' union and became its first elected president, a sabbatical post, in 1966. The fledgling union caught the public eye in 1967 when Spencer-Thomas invited the notorious British criminal and escapee, Alfie Hinds, to take part in a college debate to give his controversial views on the flaws in the English legal system and speak about his daring jail breaks from three high security prisons. After the debate Hinds was confronted by another attempt to deprive him of his liberty. During a drink in a nearby pub, he was kidnapped by six students as part of a rag week stunt and frogmarched along a couple of streets to a basement room in the college. Hinds yet again foiled his captors after securing a bunch of keys and turning the lock on them. The ensuing publicity generated considerable interest, trebling the charitable revenue from the rag week activities.
During Spencer-Thomas's time in office, the Students' Union staged many high-profile musical events at The Polytechnic's Portland Hall in Little Titchfield Street. Among the performers were The Animals, Howlin' Wolf and Pink Floyd, some of whom were students at The Polytechnic. Fleetwood Mac recorded their Masters: London Live '68 album there, and Cream invited Jimi Hendrix on stage in the Portland Hall to jam with them in 1966 - Hendrix's first UK performance.
Overseas students fees increase
During his Presidency of the Students’ Union, Spencer-Thomas led a national campaign opposing the British Government's university fees increase for overseas students. In December 1966 the Secretary of State for Education and Science, Anthony Crosland announced the decision to discontinue subsidising British Commonwealth students. These students, many of whom were studying at The Polytechnic, had been entitled to the same state-funded grants for higher education as UK citizens were. In many cases they faced a quadrupling of their fees and would have been forced to abandon their university course and return home.
As one of the leading campaigners, Spencer-Thomas led a day of protest in London and presented a 20,000 strong nationwide petition to The Department of Education and Science (DES) calling on the Government to reverse its controversial decision. The hard-fought student campaign won the support of many university vice-chancellors and college principals. As a consequence of the protest the Government gave funding to the British Council to enable the overseas students who were affected to complete their courses and graduate in the UK.
Spencer-Thomas has worked extensively in television and radio broadcasting as a news journalist. Joining Anglia Television in 1978 as senior reporter on the regional magazine programme About Anglia, he later became news bulletin editor of Anglia News in 1992. He also presented Anglia Television’s late night religious programme Reflections. He has been a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's You and Yours and Sunday programmes and has presented religious and ethics programmes on Thames Television and Southern Television. He has reported for Independent Television News(ITN).
He devised and presented the popular Sounding Brass radio phone-in programme which was later fronted by Gloria Hunniford on BBC Radio 2. His radio biographies included, his acclaimed portrayal in 1978, of the outspoken television personality, panellist and quizmaster, Gilbert Harding. He was one of the early pioneers of the local radio phone-in on BBC Radio London during the 1970s with his own programme Your Call.
Spencer-Thomas compiled and presented the first BBC Radio London Christmas morning special, Christmas Present, with a live line and phone-out to people at work on Christmas Day, an interview with the mother of London's first baby born on Christmas morning, a patchwork of old seasonal favourites, music old and new, and what the children had to say as they opened their Christmas stockings.
In 1977, he produced and presented a documentary for Anglia Television on Olave Baden-Powell, the first World Chief Guide in the scouting movement. Two years earlier he presented a programme for Thames Television on the future use of Church buildings entitled A Multi-purpose Church and interviewed church architect and priest, David Bishop. He was the main presenter/interviewer for the Epilogue series of programmes on HTV in 1985.
An innovative programme producer, Spencer-Thomas recorded two half-hour interview programmes with Kenneth Williams in which the comic actor, who rarely revealed his private life, spoke frankly about his early days and his feelings of loneliness, despondency and underachievement. Carry On Kenneth also featured skilfully chosen clips from the famous Carry On films, in which Williams starred, adding a gentle humour to the probing interview questions. He also edited and produced Radio London's current affairs programme, Quest, from August 1976 until November 1978.
He has interviewed many high-profile figures including comedian Eric Morecambe, pop singer Helen Shapiro, children’s presenter and campaigner Floella Benjamin, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) President Arthur Scargill, Methodist minister and open air preacher at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park Lord Soper and former Prime Minister John Major.
Spencer-Thomas scripted and presented BBC Radio 4's Sunday Morning Worship live from Christ's College Chapel in Cambridge on 21 November 1999. The College Chapel Choir accompanied by the organ and harpist, Laurette Pope, performed music by Benjamin Britten to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King to an audience of over a million listeners. He was one of the contributors to BBC's Pause for Thought and presented a series of weekend broadcasts on social issues on BBC Radio 2. He has been reviewing the daily national newspapers on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire since 2008.
Spencer-Thomas joined Radio London presenter, John Hope, to tell the story and explore the poetry of his cousin, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the World War I Anglican priest known to thousands of soldiers as Woodbine Willie for giving Woodbine cigarettes along with spiritual aid to injured and dying soldiers.
His documentary Underneath the Arches broke tradition by enabling London’s homeless people to tell their own stories without any links from a programme presenter. Instead, he used short clips from catchy music hall songs to establish each location and, with careful editing, the interviewees related their own experiences and introduced each other. The publicity boosted funds for the Crisis at Christmas campaign and brought more volunteers to the charity which used a derelict church in Lambeth to house and feed homeless people during Christmas week each year in the 1970s. The unique presentation of the programme won the UNDA award from the International Catholic Association for Radio and Television for the best UK religious radio programme in 1977.
On 7 January 1993 he capsized a canoe which he had borrowed to film the flood-stricken village of Alconbury Weston, Cambridgeshire. He and his drenched film crew were featured on ITV's It'll Be Alright on the Night, a British television show which consisted of out-takes or bloopers from film and television linked by witty comments and screened on ITV.
Since leaving full time news reporting, Spencer-Thomas has written extensively on news values, citizen journalism, fake news, how social media are changing our daily news and the influence of social media on religious thought. He has spoken regularly on The Influence of Social Media in Everyday Life. In his doctoral acceptance speech at the University of Westminster he warned media students of the danger that "as the media compete in an increasingly tough market, journalists come under greater pressure to compromise their commitment to truth and accuracy."
Philanthropic and humanitarian achievements
Spencer-Thomas has been a long-time volunteer and outspoken advocate for autistic people in the United Kingdom. As father of two sons with autism, he continues to give pastoral care, counselling and practical support to families with autistic children.
Speaking at the University of Westminster in 2010, he said: "...the great irony for me is that although communication has been central to almost all my work, our elder son has severe autism. (He) can neither speak, nor read, nor write. His understanding of the world around him is cruelly constrained and very different from yours or mine." He added: "... despite his lack of language, he is among those who taught me and in his own way encouraged me and my family to campaign for people with autism."
Spencer-Thomas provided a telephone listening service from his home and gave support to families with newly diagnosed children. He set up regular parent meetings with a children's crèche at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, and organised speakers and local conferences to enable isolated parents to learn more about autism, its treatment and the care of people with autism.
Organising the first conference in Cambridgeshire on the now widely acclaimed TEACCH system, he led the way to its adoption in many local schools and centres. This system, founded in 1966 by Eric Schopler at the University of North Carolina, United States, enhances the communication ability of people with autism and similar conditions.
Spencer-Thomas became an advocate acting on behalf of families and negotiating with local authorities the appropriate care and education for their autistic children. He raised £53,000 for a local parent support group, the Cambridgeshire Autistic Society.
He became Founder Chairman of the East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST) in 1991, campaigning widely and raising the public profile and understanding of autism at a time when there was still much ignorance about the condition. The trust undertook a £1.5 million pound fundraising campaign to purchase a redundant old rectory in Stretham. The specially adapted building enabled the Trust to provide the first specialised accommodation and day care provision for adults with autism in Cambridgeshire. The service, which was run and managed in partnership with the National Autistic Society, opened in 1998 and later moved to Manea. The charitable trust merged with Autism Anglia in June 2012. The Trust also pioneered the Enabling Through Information (ETI) project which collated and distributed practical information each month to enable families affected by autism to access appropriate services, was funded in partnership with British Telecom.
On one occasion Spencer-Thomas publicly challenged a tabloid newspaper columnist who had argued that if some children diagnosed with autism were stuck “up to their necks in a vat full of warm sewage for 10 hours they would soon learn some manners”.
EAST and other autism charities were besieged by phone calls from distressed parents following the article by Dr Vernon Coleman, a former general practitioner who was renowned for his outspoken views in his agony uncle column ‘’Casebook’’ in the Sunday People. Spencer-Thomas, whose elder son has severe autism, condemned Coleman’s remarks as “irresponsible, medically unsound and deeply hurtful” to families that had a child with autism. Coleman had also claimed that diagnoses of hyperactivity and autism were “misused by middle-class, aspirational parents to excuse the behaviour of their obnoxious children.” Spencer-Thomas challenged Coleman to spend 24 hours caring for his son in the presence of fully trained carers who understood the devastating and debilitating effects of autism. Coleman declined to take up the challenge and refused to withdraw his remarks. But Spencer-Thomas had the last word when he referred the matter to the Press Complaints Commission and the newspaper’s editor, Bridget Rowe, printed an apology.
As well as campaigning and giving practical support to families with disabled children, Spencer-Thomas headed several successful major charity appeals. A keen cross country runner, he raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for mental health charities. During his time with EAST, he established the first specialised accommodation and daycare for adults with autism in Cambridgeshire. During the ten-year fundraising appeal, Spencer-Thomas raised 1.5 million pounds and gave nearly 1,400 talks to schools, clubs and societies on autism awareness. He raised a further £400,000 to assist with the provision of a day centre for adults with autism. He served on the National Autistic Society (NAS) Council from 1996 until 2002 and was a member of their Service Accreditation Team helping to maintain a service of excellence throughout the network.
Other voluntary work
Under the 1989 Children Act, Cambridgeshire Social Services appointed Spencer-Thomas as their first Independent Visitor - another voluntary appointment in which he gave support to disabled children and their families and monitored their statutory services.
He established an educational trust in 1996, which gives grants to gifted children and young people who need additional support for their studies. The Willow Trust has supported children in both state and private education and has also supported both graduate and undergraduate students.
From 1994 until 1997 he has served on the Council of the Old Rectory School, Brettenham, Suffolk, which specialises in teaching children with dyslexia. He continues to raise funds for a range of other charities.
Spencer-Thomas campaigns regularly for improved traffic regulations in Cambridge.
Spencer-Thomas was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2008 New Year Honours. He was invested by HM Queen Elizabeth II on 4 March at Buckingham Palace for services to the Church of England and to the community in Cambridgeshire.
Spencer-Thomas was installed as an Honorary Canon at Ely Cathedral in 2004 by the Bishop of Ely, Dr Anthony Russell in recognition of the contribution he made to the life and work of the church.
He won the Ian Nicol Award for Health Promotion in Cambridgeshire after leading a team which pioneered and produced The Enabling Through Information Project, an initiative which empowered parents to share information and access appropriate services on behalf of their disabled children.
University and Anglican Church appointments
He served his curacy at St Luke's Church, Redcliffe Square, Kensington from 1972. During this time he was a lecturer in comparative religions at the Fulham and South Kensington Institute. In 1976 he was appointed Director of the London Churches Radio Workshop and producer at BBC Radio London. He was one of the early pioneers of the non-stipendiary ministry in the Church of England, assisting fellow clergy with services and pastoral work. He was appointed as a non-stipendiary minister in London in 1976 and continued in that capacity when he later moved to Cambridge to assist in the Parish of the Ascension. He became Director of Communications and Bishop's Press Officer for the Diocese of Ely in 2002. He was Editor of the monthly journal, Ely Ensign, from February 2002 until December 2006. In 2011 he retired from this post and now works as a freelance broadcaster, trainer and media consultant.
During the Lent Term 2005, he was Acting Dean of Clare College, and in 2006 was Acting Dean of Trinity Hall. In the summer of 2007 he undertook the chaplaincy at St Catharine's College, in the University of Cambridge for a term.
He has written extensively on News Values. His work on News Values and The Influence of Social Media on News Gathering has been incorporated in the Journalism syllabus at the University of Zagreb and at the University of Juba in South Sudan since 2016.
His published sermons were selected as data which analysed the changing sermon style in English and were among ten late 20th century authors whose sermons were compared with earlier writers from previous centuries. The study demonstrated that preachers were increasingly abandoning the more ornamented rhetorical style in favour of plain English. The research on Style evolution in the English sermon was undertaken at the University of Santiago de Compostela in linguistic science research and traced changing content and presentation of sermons over four centuries.
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