The Greatest Reporters

David Randall explains who ended up in his book of the greatest reporters in the English-speaking world, and what they did to deserve every journalist's respect
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Who are the greatest reporters? David Randall has spent years reading and researching to try to find out, and the result is The Great Reporters, published tomorrow. It profiles his 13 best of all time - three women and 10 men. Here he selects eight of them and describes what made them so special.


War correspondent, The Times

He was nearly fired after his first major assignment for inadvertently giving away his scoop to the opposition, but Russell's reporting from the Crimea is still, 150 years on, a beacon of moral courage. He was the first journalist to cover a lengthy war, and did so with a frankness that shocked Victorian Britain to its roots - from his account of the brave fiasco that was the Charge of the Light Brigade (which he watched from a nearby ridge): "They advanced in two lines, quickening the pace as they closed towards the enemy... At the distance of 1,200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame through which hissed the deadly balls..." to the army's inadequate supplies and medical facilities: "The commonest accessories of a hospital are wanting; there is not the least attention paid to decency or cleanliness ... and, for all I can observe, these men die without the least effort being made to save them... The sick appear to be tended by the sick, and the dying by the dying."

All this, despite almost constant hostility from military authorities (at one point his tent was sabotaged), and knowing that his honesty and patriotism were being vilified back home. Then he had the guts to go to India and report the racism he found there and atrocities against the "natives", including, in 1858, one captured mutineer: "He was pulled by the legs to a convenient place, where he was held down, pricked in the face and body by the bayonets of some of the soldiery whilst others collected fuel for a small pyre, and when all was ready - the man was roasted alive! There were Englishmen looking on, more than one officer saw it. No one offered to interfere."

Probably no reporter has challenged popular orthodoxies as effectively as Russell did.


Crime correspondent, Miami Herald

Was deemed useless by her teacher, never attended college, and went from dead-end job to dead-end job until a writing course and a spell on a tiny Florida paper set her on her way to becoming the greatest crime reporter in history. She covered the festival of mayhem that was the city of Miami, a place so lawless in the 1980s that at one point, as Buchanan reported, the Dade County morgue was so stuffed full of corpses that officials had to hire a refrigeration truck from Burger King to cope with the overflow. Buchanan was a relentless collector of detail ("Ask one more question, knock on one more door, make one last phone call, and then another ..."), and a relentless questioner of those in authority. One officer said he'd sooner be interrogated by Internal Affairs than by Buchanan. The result was an extraordinary portfolio: the rape victim who, running in distress down the street, came across another rape victim running in the other direction; the 72-year-old man who ran away from home because his 103-year-old mother wouldn't buy him a car; the mother who framed her own two-year-old for the murder of his playmate; and a murderer who found that an iron security door had slammed shut and trapped him with his victim.

Her stories were typified by crackling one-liner intros: "They called it Operation Snow White because the drug was cocaine and the suspects included seven Miami police officers" (1982); from 1985: "Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin"; and, most famously in March 1985, on the ex-con shot by a security guard before he could order at a fast-food joint: "Gary Robinson died hungry".

She was famous too for her three rules of reporting: "Never trust an editor, never trust an editor, never trust an editor."


Foreign correspondent, Daily Express, Picture Post, News Chronicle etc

Cameron was, until his mid-30s, a writer of mawkish features for a Scottish paper and a sub on the Daily Express. Then, almost overnight, he became the quintessential foreign correspondent. Equipped by nature and upbringing with infallible irony and bullshit detectors, he roamed the globe, filing reports of sharp wit and world-weary wisdom.

From the Inchon landings, Korea, 1950: "There was a wandering boat, marked in great letters PRESS, full of agitated and contending correspondents, all trying to appear insistently determined to land in Wave One, while contriving desperately to be found in Wave Fifty."

From his famous suppressed account of how the UN's ally, South Korea, treated prisoners: "They have been in jail ... long enough to have reduced their frames to skeletons, their sinews to string, their faces to a translucent terrible grey... They are roped and manacled... They clamber, the lowest common denominator of personal degradation, into trucks with the numb air of men going to their death. Many of them are."

And from the aftermath of the Six-Day War: "The tanks and vehicles litter the desert like the nursery floor of an angry child."

All the more surprising, then, his career should also include one of the more farcical attempts at a celebrity interview. The year was 1958, the venue a posh London hotel, and the subject Elizabeth Taylor. She greeted him in a negligee and with champagne at the ready. Cameron was so taken with her charms it was some while before he popped the first real question. How, he asked, are the economics of Hollywood affecting you? Miss Taylor's reply shook him. "Well fuck that! What about your proposals for a new contract?" She had mistaken him for a fancy movie agent; the interview was over before it started, and Cameron, as he later wrote, "found himself out on the landing in no time".


Reporter, Chicago Tribune

The supreme example of the amoral reporter in pursuit of an assignment. To beat the opposition, he had no second's thought about breaking the law, taking an axe to a telegraph line, defying a city fire brigade, booking himself on to a ship likely to be sunk by the Germans so he could report its torpedoing, out-bluffing the leadership of the Soviet Union, and sporting medals from dog shows to impersonate a war hero. He survived nine wars, two air crashes, a major shipwreck, being shot at by seven different armies, being bombed by four air forces, and encounters with less formal threats such as Pancho Villa and his desperados, and the Japanese secret service. And all this, for the most part, equipped with only one eye, the other one being sacrificed when he was 31 in pursuit of yet another exclusive.

And he could write. After wangling his way into Russia to become the first Westerner to witness the Great Famine of 1921, his story included the following: "A boy of 12 with a face of sixty was carrying a six-month-old infant wrapped in a filthy bundle of furs. He deposited the baby under a freight car, crawled after him and drew from his pocket some dried fish-heads, which he chewed ravenously and then, bringing the baby's lips to his, transferred the sticky white paste of half-masticated fish-scales and bones to the infant's mouth as a mother bird feeds her young."

When Gibbons got to the local telegraph station, he saw that the keyboard used to transmit messages had, naturally enough, only Cyrillic letters. He had to write out his report again, changing each Latin letter to its nearest local equivalent. So, in this hybrid language, was his report transmitted to Moscow where a colleague translated it and despatched it Chicagowards. Once again, Gibbons got the story out.


Reporter, The New Yorker

Joe Liebling once said: "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better" - the statement every journalist wishes he'd thought of first. Born the son of a rich fur dealer, he initially struggled and at one time was so desperate for a job he hired a man to walk outside a paper's offices with a sandwich board reading "Hire Joe Liebling". It didn't work. He then joined The New Yorker and began to cover low life as none have done before or since. There was Hymie Katz, ex-singing waiter and dodgy nightclub promoter ("Hymie is unmarried at present. Wives, with Hymie, are symptoms of prosperity, like tailored shirts"); circus clown Bluch Landof ("It is as hard to be an outstanding clown in an American circus as it is to be a distinguished artisan in an automobile factory"); and Izzy Yereshevsky's famous Broadway cigar store: "Most of Izzy's evening guests - their purchases are so infrequent it would be misleading to call them customers - wear white felt hats and overcoats of a style known to them as English Drape. Short men peer up from between the wide-flung shoulders of these coats as if they had been lowered into the garments on a rope and were now trying to climb out."

His pen was also deployed as a press critic. He once skewered the New York World-Telegram's purple prose style by writing that its readers "had developed hallucinations from reading its prose and were dragged from subway trains slapping at adjectives they said they saw crawling over them." Liebling also covered wars, food, sport, and brought to all his stories an obsession with research and the most quotable wit ever by-lined. Above all, when interviewing people, he listened - a much underestimated reporting virtue.


Reporter, The Observer, Daily Express, The Sunday Times

When it comes to writing, there are several operators - Liebling, Red Smith and Tom Wolfe - said to be journalism's champion. But this Scotsman, born on a council estate in Kilmarnock and who became the world's premier sports reporter, beats them all. Here he is on the late January weather on Ayr racecourse: "It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow." Boxer Joe Bugner: "The physique of a Greek statue but fewer moves." An opponent of Mike Tyson's: "Bruno was no more competitive than a sheep in an abattoir."

I worked with McIlvanney and know that, although his features were sometimes filed to a deadline that bore no relation to the one we in the office had in mind, he could, if it came to it, ad-lib down the phone a 2,000-word report that was, when you received it, as inventive, lucid and considered as if it had been written with a goose-quill pen over three weeks. To this talent, he added a capacity for reading and research that bordered on the compulsive. His quest for precision and talent for getting to the essence of anything were best shown in his report on the death of the young, painfully shy boxer Johnny Owen following a bout in Las Vegas: "Boxing gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression. Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else. It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language." McIlvanney is simply the best writer ever to apply words to newsprint.


Reporter, Daily Mail

Perhaps the most versatile journalist ever, Leslie has reported - with attitude - on anything from pre-teen beauty contests to genocide. She was present at almost all the late 20th century's major events, and has filed from more than 70 countries.

Most of Leslie's stories were not plump fruit hanging from official trees waiting to be picked by anyone who could read a handout. (Never, probably, has a reporter written so much and used the word "spokesman" so little.) They had to be mined, sometimes under cover, sometimes by presenting herself as the world's least likely-looking foreign correspondent, or by assuming her boom-voiced daughter of the Raj persona.

Her resourcefulness enabled her to wangle her way on to Death Row, find and interview Castro's illegitimate daughter, get to the North Korean border and illicitly talk to victims of that terrible famine, confront one of Russia's most feared "businessmen" about a contract killing; and, in Tehran, disguise herself in a burqa to meet dissidents at night. This, as with her walk alone into Jerusalem's sniper-filled alleys, was after three serious operations which left her needing to take medication for the rest of her life.

And, in the stories she filed, always the economical, waspish pen - even if it was something as light as the shenanigans of TV evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker: "'If you pray for a camper,' Jim roguishly urged his flock, 'be sure to tell God what colour!' He made God sound like a celestial mail order magnate - but instead of sending your savings or your welfare cheques to heaven, you mailed them to Jim and Tammy Bakker." Or as dark as Haiti in 1994: "Night after gun-punctured night, I can lie in my bed in the ghostly Oloffson ... and listen, as Graham Greene once listened, to the distant staccato sounds of the poor killing the poor in the interests of the rich."


Reporter, The New York Times

Berger left school at 13, was shy and unassertive; his eyesight wasn't up to much, and he was cursed with a stomach complaint which prevented him from straying too long from home. Thus handicapped, he went on to the streets of the toughest city in the world and became, in my view, the best reporter who ever lived. A prolonged spell as a rewrite man, taking stories apart and putting them together again, was his university. No one has ever written intros that better encapsulated a story's facts and spirit in a few lines. On the death of a blind musician in the subway: "The sixth sense that had preserved Oscar England from harm through the thirty-four dark years of his life betrayed him yesterday. One step too many in the BMT Union Square station and he was wedged, lifeless, between a north-bound express and the concrete platform." And on a failed circus escape: "Jackie, a young but lassitudinous circus lion, won more than an hour of freedom by escape from his cage in Madison Square Garden basement yesterday, but frittered it away in dreamy brooding."

His career climaxed with a report of a multiple shooting for which he interviewed 50 people in a day, returned to the office and wrote a story of 4,000 words in two and a half hours, not one word of which was changed. The story brought Berger a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize. He continued to spend days off, notebook in hand and camera over shoulder, scouring the city's sidewalks for stories. More than anyone else, Berger is the reporter's reporter.

'The Great Reporters', (Pluto Press, £14.99)