Sunday, 11 March 2018

Robin Lustig - Is Anything Happening?

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Robin Lustig
Photo: Richard Wilcocks
Robin Lustig lived up to all expectations, especially for those of us in the audience who had read his compelling memoir in advance. It is difficult to improve on the accurate descriptions of it in the quotes printed on the dust jacket, which come from people who know what they are dealing with. Richard Sambrook, for example, Cardiff University Professor of Journalism, describes the author as ‘intelligent, shrewd, witty, civilised and great company’. Quite so. This was the man we saw in front of us in the historic Leeds Library on Saturday afternoon, amongst gleaming oak panels and myriads of books.

So why write another one? Lustig explained. He is reassuringly old-fashioned at the same time as au fait with what is happening in the world at this moment. His experiences are important in the history of journalism, sometimes exemplary. Beginning with the news agency Reuters, he moved to The Observer for twelve years, then signed up with the BBC, presenting The World Tonight, Newsstand, Stop Press and File on 4 for Radio 4, and Newshour on the BBC World Service. In 2013, he received the Charles Wheeler award for outstanding contributions to broadcast journalism. Surely worth preserving in a book.

The ‘craggy-faced, white-haired’ Charles Wheeler was one of his role models, ‘whose integrity and professionalism exemplified all that is good about journalism’ and who was at various times a presenter for Newsnight and Panorama. His other role model was William Boot, protagonist in Evelyn Waugh’s comic novel Scoop, who is sent overseas by mistake to report on a war he knows nothing about. Lustig thinks that he had more in common with Boot, and his anecdotes show that he might be right, that he is not taking a consciously self-deprecatory stance. His memoir is largely about a time before the internet and smart phones, when a foreign correspondent’s first task was to find a public phone, often in a hotel, to make sure that stories of about two hundred words could be dictated to someone back in London. He still relishes the occasions when he beat other correspondents by getting to the hotel’s apparatus first to make sure a crucial story appeared first in Britain.

He gave us insights into what it was like when the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989: at first it was not clear that the pickaxes and sledgehammers were just about to come out, because the momentous event was preceded simply by a garbled announcement from an announcer on East German television that citizens were now free to cross from East to West. Lustig attempted to cover the event from an obvious standpoint - the top of the television tower on the edge of Alexanderplatz in Berlin-Mitte. Just about every correspondent and media crew from around the world, and assorted others, had the same idea, so his report was made in the middle of a cacophony of voices, cheering and singing. On another occasion, during an election in Pakistan, the hotel driver was ferrying him around Karachi when the car was shot up, flying glass injuring him. The perpetrators of the attack later apologised (‘We didn’t know you were from the BBC’) and the driver expressed his shock, because he usually just took guests to the airport.

He was ‘controversial’ when he spoke about his time based in Jerusalem, though I would think that just about any report or opinion from Israel might count as controversial, either by what is said or what is left out, because of the all-consuming passions which tend to take over. Lustig was there for some time in the eighties, covering plenty of what was happening. He reported from Lebanon, interviewed Israelis and Palestinians of all extremes and none, described his run-ins with military censors and related how the first thing people asked him when he told them his name was ‘Are you Jewish?’ He was not sure how to reply because although his parents managed to escape from the Nazis, they were not religious. He did, however, marry a woman who wanted a ceremony in a synagogue, which he agreed to, even though he was not acquainted with such places. The rabbi asked him if he could prove that his mother was Jewish. He could. He produced her old German passport from when the Nazis were in power, helpfully inscribed with a prominent J for Jude. He made the point that most Jews in the world do not live in Israel, and that the creation of the State of Israel in May, 1948 was ‘probably a mistake’. Read the book!

The final part of his talk was about the threats to newspapers and to serious journalism today. The paying readership of most papers is a fraction of what it was a decade or two ago. He took a straw poll. Yes, a majority sometimes got the news and various features from their iPad or smartphone. Few bought a paper every day. Journalists and other staff were being discarded all over the place. One solution was to subscribe to online versions of the press. The readers should pay for what they are getting. The BBC is outpaced by Netflix in terms of finance, and it is essential to support it, in spite of its faults. We should be very wary of fake news. He gave us a few worrying examples. We nodded in agreement with him: the audience at question time was with him as near-completely as made no difference.

Is Anything Happening? (2017) by Robin Lustig. Biteback Publishing Ltd.

Audience Comments

Very interesting and entertainingly presented

First class in content and deliver.  Also well organised

Excellent, informative, entertaining talk

Really interesting - thought-provoking and made you realise the value of serious journalism

V interesting.  Enjoyed the width of subject

Excellent talk, thank you very much for organising it!  Will be definitely looking out again for your talks!

Perfect. Journalist describing journalism

Excellent.  Very entertaining but also informative and inspiring

Interesting, informative and entertaining

Very stimulating and interesting, especially as my son works for BBC News – is it like that for him?  Robin sounds exactly the same as when I listened to 'The World Tonight', usually in my bath.  Still his broadcasts

I learnt a lot about the way journalism and the BBC work.  Very informative

Delightfully interesting and entertaining talk

Very interesting.  Good speaker

A great event, v interesting and insightful discussion & a wonderful venue

Fascinating, entertaining and well worth coming to.  Thank you

Insightful, entertaining talk from an excellent speaker

Excellent afternoon!

Very interesting.  Really enjoyed it.  Missed the beginning because I went to the Leeds City Library – I never even knew this library existed!  It's an amazing place.  Love it

Very interesting, informative and entertaining

Absolutely excellent!

Really enjoyed this!

The event was very good.  Your publicity is strange!  Your brochure says this is the last year but yet you ask for donations for future events

Ed:  we still have the majority of the 2018 programme to deliver, as well as plenty of future one-off 'Between the Lines' events

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