I was the BBC's Australia correspondent in 1974, when Cyclone Tracy roared into the northern city of Darwin, ripping up houses and killing 65 people. I arrived there with a camera crew, to find a car perched on top of the travel lodge, and the wallpaper ripped off the walls of my second-floor room. A man clearing debris outside was weeping and muttering the names of his children.
I persuaded him to tell me what had happened at his home, or what was left of it. Once there, he explained how his kids had been hurled against walls and crushed under falling debris. His wife had died before he got home, and as he'd held his youngest in his arms, a rafter had hit him and the child had been sucked away. What a story!
In those days, we used to send reports back by plane, and, if we were lucky, it arrived in time for the daily bulletins. With the film safely dispatched, I thought that I'd better run through the details with the local police chief. "I don't recognise the name, mate," he said. "I've got no record of any young children being killed." My heart sank, my fingers became clammy, and I felt that we were on the verge of a monster cock-up.
So, I got our "bereaved" father back, fed him a few beers, and questioned him closely. The more I talked to him, the more I discovered that he was a little off-centre.
I sent a telex suggesting that there had been certain inconsistencies in my story, and perhaps they should kill it, assuming that they would. The story had seemed quite plausible. He was so convincing, and he'd shown me his ruined house, except it turned out that he'd picked it at random. He had a vivid, distorted and nutty mind.
Months later, I was back in London, lunching with my foreign editor. "You've done very well," said the boss, "but of all the stories, the one about the poor guy in Darwin was the most touching." I kept very quiet. Had they used it? Surely not...