Obituaries : Peter Hebblethwaite

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The Independent Online
Peter Hebblethwaite was in the finest traditions of the British hack, writes Richard Dowden [further to the obituary by John Skinner, 19 December].

A roll-up in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, Peter could deliver and collect the latest gossip and speculation with loving, if frantic, diligence. In this mode he could have passed for an old-fashioned Express reporter and it was difficultto remember that he was actually a lecturer in French at Oxford University, an author of several academic works and a brilliant theologian.

Speaking fast and furtively, Peter would deliver in intimate detail scurrility and scandal from far-flung outposts of Catholicism and from within the Vatican itself. How he obtained it I shall never know. But asked to produce 1,000 words on the background to the appointment of an unknown bishop to an obscure see, he would deliver, usually well within deadline, a professionally crafted piece of writing which frequently combined a superb overview with a sympathetic and balanced portrait. His ability to blend current inside track with history and sharp analysis made him a first-class journalist.

Although he was shy and his manner could appear abrupt, he could also be exceedingly charming. I once had dinner with him in a restaurant in Rome. At a nearby table was a clutch of bishops. I was sent to pave the way but when I told them the name of my companion they shrank in horror. Peter then joined me and after a few tight-lipped pleasantries they began to warm to him. They then cleared a space for us, ordered more wine and stayed for an evening of discussion and anecdote. I also noticed when I reada piece by him a month later that, unlike many other hacks in similar circumstances, he remembered what he had gleaned on such an occasion.