Neal Ascherson: The most skilful, relentless listener in the world

From an address by the writer, at a service in memory of Anthony Sampson in St Martin's in the Fields, London
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The Independent Online

Some journalists are Light Brigade people, going like hell at the objective without waiting to ask how many guns or who's the general. Some are guerrillas, who vanish silently into the mountains and reappear months later with a stained rucksack full of wonders.

Anthony wasn't either type. Instead, he was like those methodical British generals in the Second World War. He studied maps, he commissioned air photographs, he sent out trusty forward officers with binoculars, he interrogated deserters and he mugged up the names and family connections of the officers on the other side. And then, only then, he would move. By the time the enemy commander realised he had been defeated, he was already a prisoner being questioned, so very civilly, in such a low voice, by a man with steady green eyes.

Questioner? I never knew such an artist at questioning. Anthony was the most skilful, relentless listener in the world. He hardly seemed to speak himself: just the odd, interrogative mutter. And the subject would grow trusting. And do the talking. "Yerss," Anthony would murmur, and not in apparent sympathy. But he always kept that direct gaze trained into the other's eyes. Irresistible! How lucky we are that he used that frightening gift in order to open secrets in the service of justice and freedom.

In those days, the private opinions of journalists were not thought very interesting. It wasn't easy for Anthony to express directly his burning anger against the duplicity of statesman, the debasing of public integrity or the decay of media independence. Only late in his life did he start writing columns, and those deceived by his apparent suavity were startled. A lifetime spent studying the system had shown him where to hit so it hurt.