When I was at university, I wrote to every journalist known to me for advice. Should I return to my old job on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle or try for Fleet Street? How could I become a foreign correspondent like Huntley Haverstock, the hero of Hitchcock's wartime movie of the same name who filed a scoop after crashing into the Atlantic? Should I really be studying Latin and Roman history if I wanted to be an intrepid warrior for truth among the guns?
Even more depressing than my naive questions were the replies – those few I received. The great and the good of British journalism were too busy to see me, far too wrapped up in affairs of state and foreign adventures and (I suspected) too important to waste their time with the likes of Master Fisk. Only the managing editor of The Daily Telegraph wrote to advise me to contact his Middle East correspondent, John Bullock, when I was on holiday in Beirut.
John – the only correspondent who ever took the time and trouble to see me and who remained a great mate – duly met me in the Duke of Wellington bar of the Mayflower Hotel. So what job was I after, he asked on that glorious summer morning when we met in Lebanon. Well yours, I replied ingenuously. For years, John dined out on his reply. "Bob – you wouldn't like it!" he stated with immense conviction. "Bad hours. Danger. Terrible pressures on family life. It's not as romantic as you think."
When I eventually turned up in Beirut as Middle East correspondent of The Times, John became a colleague, and I discovered that he had been in the Battle of the Atlantic, torpedoed one freezing night, his captain eventually wandering on to the listing deck at dawn, staring into the hole in his ship's hull and shouting: "Fuck me! Abandon ship!" That's when I discovered that John was the real-life version of Huntley Haverstock.
But I had long decided that if I ever did make it to Fleet Street or Moscow or Washington or Beirut, I would not be as arrogant as my forebears.
I would reply to all letters – from students, aggrieved readers, crazed vicars, colleagues, pensioners or MPs – with the same politeness and understanding I had vainly sought when I was at university. No request for an interview would be turned down, no letter go unanswered. Even cocky would-be reporters who said they'd like my job would be tolerated.
Was it a mistake? I get letters from Second World War veterans, enraged missives from Pakistani imams, the regular hate mail saying I'm an anti-Semite (declining recently, I might add, probably because this familiar libel is making anti-Semitism respectable) and pleas from students to answer 52 questions about the reporting of the 1991 Gulf War, the 2003 Gulf War, Bosnia and Lebanon.
But what do you do when a friendly visitor woefully misrepresents reality, despite proof to the contrary? When historian John Grigg interviewed me for his forthcoming history of The Times in the years of Lord Thomson (1966-1981), he quizzed me about a mysterious incident in which the RUC turned up at my Belfast home in 1974. The Northern Ireland police had asked me if I had received secret British government documents. This tiresome episode has been retold many times. The papers had been pushed through my letter box by a British intelligence agent, Colin Wallace, and handed in to the police. I wasn't home at the time, but I knew what they contained: evidence that British authorities were trying to frame Ian Paisley's Protestant party supporters with allegations of paedophilia.
A year earlier – and quite unconnected with this – I had asked the foreign editor if there was any chance of an overseas posting; tentatively, I was offered Portugal. I was therefore looking forward to leaving Belfast when the police came calling. I fled to Dublin for a month, publishing the involvement of MI5 in framing me, and then returned to Northern Ireland for tea with the RUC chief constable, who had no wish to see his cops playing patsy to MI5's oafs.
Grigg took note of all this, including my editor's insistence that I postpone my foreign posting and stay on in Belfast for months longer so that the British government could not claim it had hounded me out of Belfast for my negative reporting. And what did Grigg write in his book? That I had been "withdrawn from Northern Ireland" and that my departure "was clearly to some extent connected" with the incident of the document. Untrue. But I ignored it.
More bizarre was a visit to Beirut some years later by the travel writer William Dalrymple. He dined at my home and asked to take me to lunch the following day to plan his trip to southern Lebanon. He sought the name of anyone who could smuggle him into the Israeli occupied zone in the south. I told him I would call a confidential contact of mine called Haddad. I was "a kind and avuncular figure", Dalrymple would later write. But I had offered to take him on "a nostalgia tour" through "the scenes of Robert Fisk's glory days". I was a "war junkie".
Dalrymple subsequently published the name of my south Lebanon contact – thankfully, Haddad is almost as common in Lebanon as Smith in England – and omitted to mention that he had asked to be shown the ruins of Beirut. Even more weirdly, he quoted me as warning him not to stand on rubble "where there might be a landmine or a UXB".
What puzzled me when I read Dalrymple's account – in which his earlier dinner at my home was oddly omitted – was the acronym "UXB". I had no idea what it meant. How could I have used such an expression – quoted in my words in his book – when it was meaningless to me? Months later, I learned that British television had been showing a series on mine disposal officers during the Second World War. It was called UXB – for "unexploded bomb". I wondered whether Dalrymple had watched it – or heard about it.
But I don't give up. As for my reply to the 20-year-old student who wrote me last month from British Columbia, asking for help for his college assignment essay on Osama bin Laden – "Do you have any particular views, ideas or insights into his character, and his possible future actions?" – er, call me on my mobile.