Professor Keith Somerville reviews Robin Lustig’s highly personal memoir, which describes a career spanning more than 40 years, from his childhood as the son of German refugees to interviewing some of the world’s most revered and reviled leaders – from Nelson Mandela to former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadžić.
Talking humanity is what it is all about. No, I haven’t muddled what I’m writing with the name of this website. I’m talking about humanity and professionalism, the qualities that make the best international journalists. Being able to broadcast or write with primary concern for accuracy, balance, compassion and engagement.
If you want an account of journalism and a description of the processes and priorities of news that embody humanity and professionalism, then look no further than Robin Lustig’s ‘Is Anything Happening. My Life as a Newsman’. From the 1970s to the present, he has worked for major British and international news organisations from Reuters to the Observer, BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service’s Newshour programme.
Here I must declare an interest – I know Robin and consider him a good friend. We worked together at Newshour on some of the most important national and international stories of the 1990s and 2000s – 9/11, the death of Princess Diana, the transformation of South Africa from apartheid pariah to rainbow nation and, this is one of Robin’s areas of great expertise and great compassion and balance, the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Throughout my working relationship with him – as editor of the programmes he was presenting – the two words that spring to mind to describe his approach would be professionalism and humanity. As he recounts in his book (p.11), when I woke him (and his ever-patient wife Ruth) in the early hours of 31 August 1997 to tell him Diana was dead and that he needed to present our rolling coverage, I only had to use the minimum of words for him to react. He was in the studio in superfast time and went into what he says, quite rightly, radio journalists termed ‘rolling bollocks’ – wall-to-wall coverage of a story for hours on end, constantly reprising the main points, adding new bits of information and testing reaction and public responses.
On that day, as on many others with stories of far greater human tragedy or international import, Robin was calm. His approach as a presenter was not, as he says himself in the book, of the Jeremy Paxman ‘attack-dog style’ or, to use my description not his, the irascible and interruptive cabbie method of John Humphrys.
He concurs (p.33) with Paxman’s view that when it comes to politicians ‘sometimes, the lying bastards lie’, but he eschewed what he calls the ‘Rottweiler school of interviewing…I preferred to probe rather than thump, and my weapon of choice tended to be a scalpel rather than a machete’. His, he says accurately, was the approach of engendering calm and rational discussion rather than a boxing match with lots of blood but not much enlightenment for the audience.
I enjoyed reading his book for a number of reasons. It brought back memories of several decades covering the events that have shaped the modern world, the camaraderie, humour and competition involved in working as a team. The buzz – even I have to say, as Robin does, on days of tragedy and catastrophe – that you get covering a story at the World Service where we had millions, perhaps tens of millions, hanging on our every word, and so every word had to count and be carefully weighed.
It is a book that every would-be or newly-qualified journalist should read. It sets the scene of the life you will live, the trials and tribulations and the sheer bloody excitement of it all. I teach journalists at the University of Kent’s Centre for Journalism and will hammer at them, in the way Robin didn’t as a presenter with a recalcitrant interviewee, to read and inwardly digest this masterclass in the principles and practice of journalism that the book represents.
Another reason I enjoyed the book is that it has curious parallels with my path to journalism. He went to school near Horsenden Hill, Greenford and I lived about 2 miles down the road at Hanger Lane, and played on the Hill as a child every summer. He lived for a while in Reading (as did I in my early years as a journalist) and went to a state school and a modern university on the south coast (he was at Sussex, I was at Southampton). Neither of us were public school, Oxbridge boys and we got into journalism and progressed on merit not because we had the right background or knew the right people.
There are also some parallels in terms of major stories. As a relatively new journalist he went to Cyprus shortly after the Turkish invasion in July 1974. This was also my first real experience (beyond watching reports of the Vietnam War, Biafra’s Secession from Nigeria and the fight for Bangladesh’s independence) of a breaking story but I was in a far less exalted role than Robin as a Reuter’s reporter. I was working on Saturdays and in school holidays as a messenger boy in the Evening Standard’s newsroom.
On the day of the invasion of Cyprus (made more interesting for me as a 17 year old, as I had a girlfriend at the time whose mother was from Cyprus) I was the rip-and-read boy manning the Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France Presse teleprinters. As soon as anything came up on Cyprus I had to wait for the end of the report, rip it along the serrated edge of the teleprinter and rush it over to the chief foreign news sub. Surprisingly, none of the journalists took exception to me slowing to have a quick read. It’s where I learned to read fast and upside down, a skill later to be deployed when reporting from Africa.
I could list many other ways in which I shadowed Robin’s career – including early working assignments in Africa and periods (me at Monitoring and Robin at The Observer) observing events in the Middle East – the Iran hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War, the Camp David process, the war in Lebanon. In all these, Robin was at the sharp end, while I was monitoring from a mansion at Caversham.
Throughout his book, which is written in characteristic modest and gentle style, what comes through is Robin’s immense pride in what he did and what he achieved. A pride that all truly professional journalists have.
I could go on and on – perhaps already have – but the book brings back the excitement of covering the stories and the pleasure in working, most of the time, with professional and committed colleagues (most were committed to journalism, a few others should have been committed for sojourns in places of quiet meditation or even at Her Majesty’s Pleasure). I will finish with a passage Robin wrote and one that I will repeat regularly to my students: ‘Journalism does not reflect the world in which we live. What it does reflect is only those events that journalists think are interesting, and likely to be of interest to the people who are their target consumers. And as the business models of news organisations come under increasing strain, journalism is further restricted to those stories that can be covered with ever-narrowing budgetary constraints’ (p. 378).
Professor Keith Somerville teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent and is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. He is the author of the recently published ‘Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent’ and ‘Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa’.