Brian Barron: BBC foreign correspondent who covered many of the global conflicts of the past 40 years
Friday 18 September 2009
Although a familiar face on BBC television for more than 30 years, Brian Barron could not be described as a household name. Few news correspondents achieve that status. Their job is to report the world's tribulations dispassionately, accurately and, most important of all, self-effacingly, keeping themselves out of the limelight so as not to get in the way of the story.
This he achieved consistently with cool professionalism, covering many of the significant global conflicts of the last four decades of the 20th century. The handful of his contemporaries who did achieve celebrity – John Humphrys, Michael Buerk, Kate Adie, Jon and Peter Snow – made the leap by quitting reporting to become newsreaders and presenters. Barron remained in the field throughout his career: the last major story he worked on was the 2003 Gulf War, three years after his official retirement.
Born in 1940, he attended Bristol Grammar School, leaving at 16 to become a junior reporter on the Western Daily Press. He progressed quickly, being appointed chief sub-editor on the Bristol Evening Post at the age of 23. Two years later, in 1965, he decided to try his hand at broadcasting, and moved to London to join the BBC World Service.
His first important assignment was to Aden, where he witnessed the end of British colonial rule in 1967 after many years of violence. His gift for vivid and resourceful reporting soon became apparent, and he was appointed as BBC Radio's resident correspondent first in Cairo, then in Singapore.
In 1971 he made the switch to television, where his striking good looks and wavy blonde hair complemented his developing professional skills. After two years as a London-based reporter, learning the tricks of his new trade, he was sent to Hong Kong as Far East correspondent – a key posting, given that the Vietnam War was about to reach its climax.
He spent long periods in the war zone and was in Saigon when the Americans abandoned the city in 1975, defying a firm instruction from his editors in London to leave when it was clear that the North Vietnamese were about to take over. "What foreign correspondent would walk away from his biggest story yet?" he explained later.
There were to be many other big stories. He had the reporter's good fortune to be on hand to witness some of the most far-reaching and tragic events of his era. In 1976 he was posted to Nairobi as the BBC's chief correspondent in Africa, where one of the major threats to stability was the guerrilla war that would eventually destroy Ian Smith's illegal regime in Rhodesia. In 1977 he became one of many reporters banned by the Rhodesians for what they saw as his tendentious reporting.
Idi Amin's increasingly tyrannical regime in Uganda was another tinder-box. Barron was on hand to report on Amin's overthrow in 1979, and later described how he walked through the celebrating crowds to inspect the abandoned Presidential palace: "The priority was to search the refrigerators because of persistent reports that he sometimes kept the heads of his victims in the freezer. With relief, we found no evidence to back this up."
The following year he achieved one of his biggest scoops when he tracked the exiled Amin to his refuge in Saudi Arabia and conducted a long television interview in which the former dictator vowed to return to Uganda. This was one of the stories that contributed to Barron being named Journalist of the Year by the Royal Television Society.
He wrote later: "Idi Amin was the most flamboyant of a group of African dictators I covered during that turbulent period. Emperor Bokassa, another army sergeant gone wrong, in Central Africa; the mad, bad General Siad Barre in Somalia; the psychopathic Sergeant Doe ruling Liberia."
In 1981 he was assigned to report tension closer to home, in Ireland, although he was pulled away from that beat the following year and sent to Chile as one of the team covering the Falklands War. In 1983 he was rewarded with a posting to Washington, the BBC's most prestigious overseas bureau, if rather more staid than his previous stamping grounds.
He stayed there for three years before returning to Asia, where in 1989 he was roughed up by Chinese officials who objected to his coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests. In 1994 he returned to America, this time to New York, which he and his wife Angela enjoyed so much that they kept an apartment there even after his official retirement in 2000.
Barron's career spanned major changes in the way that television news is gathered and disseminated. When he began there were no satellite phones that allowed live, on-the-spot reporting, nor 24-hour news channels to make demands on reporters for almost constant input.
In those early days his reports were filmed and sent back to London on commercial airliners. Although this meant logistical problems in ferrying them to the airport, and clearly caused a time-lag before they could be broadcast, it meant that he had more freedom in deciding where to go and when, and at what point he had enough material to put together an authoritative report.
Modern technology places the TV reporter at the beck and call of head office, often without time to do the fieldwork that would allow a more illuminating despatch. Some of his contemporaries found it hard to make this adjustment but Barron adapted well, even if he was nostalgic for the old days. In a lecture to students in 2005, he spoke of the time before war correspondents were routinely "embedded" and restricted in their movements in battle zones.
Formerly, they could get closer to the frontline, even if their limited supplies of film meant that they had to be selective in what they recorded. And he spoke of the increasing pressure on today's journalists to keep viewers entertained rather than to "bear witness and analyse" – a fine thumbnail description of the reporter's role, and one that he fulfilled to the hilt. He died of cancer on 16 September and is survived by his wife and daughter.
Brian Munro Barron, journalist: born 28 April 1940; Royal Television Society Journalist of the Year, 1980; MBE, 2007; married 1974 Angela Lee (one daughter); died 16 September 2009.
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