Veteran war reporter Robert Fox: 'There is nothing to substitute for eye contact in journalism'

Mrs Thatcher told him that she did not believe the British troops were winning the Falklands War until she heard him on the radio announcing a victory at Goose Green as she was on the way to Command HQ in Northwood in May 1982. His was the first non-military voice to give her good news. Robert Fox had a ‘good war’ in the Falklands three decades ago. He and Brian "I counted them out and I counted them all in" Hanrahan were the BBC stars of that conflict.

Fox shared his Falklands experiences (and more) with journalism students at the University of Northampton. It was riveting, toe-curling stuff revealing the good – "the most exciting 48 hours of my life" yomping with the Paras in Goose Green; the bad – including witnessing the mistreatment of Argentine prisoners of war and the ugly – like the bombing of the Sir Galahad on 8 June 1982 with the loss of 48 lives. And there was also the mundane: "There were times in Goose Green when I just wanted to go home and have a cup of tea."

He deliberately avoided talking to his family back home (children then of two and five) for the three months he was away in order not to raise their anxiety levels. Back from the war, like the soldiers on whom he had reported, he too suffered post traumatic stress: "For four months after I felt like an express train that had gone through three brick walls" as he eloquently put it.

Fox is a veteran frontline journalist, though not a grizzled one. His 46-year reporting career has taken him to theatres of war in the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, The Middle East, Afghanistan and more. Never one to accept authority without question, he fell in and out with the BBC before joining The Daily Telegraph as defence then international correspondent and now works at the London Evening Standard as defence editor on what he describes as "a small retainer".

He told the students: "I grew up with storytelling, loved history at school". And from an early age he developed the essential journalistic quality of scepticism: "Good journalists are born with it. Mistrust everything. What are you missing? What's the motivation?"

Asked for advice, he said: "It’s not a career for money. You have to be good at it to stand out…There is nothing to substitute for eye contact in journalism, that's when you find the real stories and report the truth".

He had a word of caution for those too tied to their screen and social media as a prime source: "You have to report facts first – this is the big problem with the Twittersphere. Always remember the reporter’s motto: ’When in doubt, leave it out'. Say what you know, not what you think." One  par of pure wisdom.

The man who has lived by wars is getting ready for the centenary of the outbreak of World War One in August 2014 when Fox  will be part of the commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He’ll be chronicling the contributions and sacrifice of ordinary people in life and in death. Deep down the humanity of one who had witnessed much of man’s inhumanity to man came shining through during his talk. That was a great lesson for the wannabe hacks.

John Mair is subject leader for Journalism at the University of Northampton

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