I don’t want to go into too much detail here – my son is a friend of Jack Beeston, Richard’s son, but I did just want to say how very tragic it is for his family to have lost a father and a husband – such an extraordinary man so very young .
He had so many stories to tell. Was so brave. Packed so much in to his short life. It really doesn’t seem fair and it made me weep to read that he died shortly after his wife Natasha had read him four chapters of “Scoop” by Evelyn Waugh. So in case you haven’t seen it, here is his obituary in The Times yesterday – what he achieved in a relatively short amount of time is astounding:-
Indefatigable foreign correspondent for The Times who vividly documented the unfolding terror in Lebanon, Iraq and Chechnya
Richard Beeston was one of the finest and most courageous foreign correspondents of his generation. Fearless, always fair, and unflappable even in the most extreme situations, he reported on many of the wars, civil wars and violent upheavals of the past 20 years, from Chechnya to Iraq, the Lebanese civil wars to the present bloodshed in Syria.
As a young correspondent, he was plunged into the unpredictable violence of the Lebanese civil war. Thirty years later he was one of the first correspondents allowed into Syria after the revolt against Assad had begun — still managing with his years of experience to give his minders the slip and report the terrors and turmoil affecting all those yearning to shake off Assad’s tyranny.
For a decade he served as The Times correspondent in Jerusalem and then Moscow. He was also for many years the paper’s diplomatic correspondent, its foreign news editor and then, since 2008, its foreign editor. In this final role he co-ordinated the network of reporters around the world, planned and supervised The Times’s response to the major events and added his own pungent and succinct commentaries and analysis to the main news stories of the day. And latterly, for several years, he did all this despite being gravely ill.
Iraq is the country where Beeston’s fearlessness and dogged investigation won him early acclaim. He was one of the first reporters to make his way to Halabja, the Kurdish village in northern Iraq where Saddam Hussein, in an act of unspeakable cruelty, ordered the bombing of the civilian population with chemical weapons in March 1988, killing 5,000 people — mostly women and children — with a combination of mustard gas and nerve agents.
Beeston flew in on an Iranian military helicopter soon afterwards. As he later recalled: “On the ground, the scale of the slaughter became clear. Entire families had been killed by the poison chemicals. Some died together huddled in makeshift shelters that offered no protection against the gas. One family was killed in their garden along with their pets.
“Another succumbed as they tried to escape by car. We found the vehicle crashed into a wall with the driver and all occupants dead and the keys in the ignition. The most poignant memory of that day was a father in traditional Kurdish dress lying dead at the entrance to his home cradling a baby. Those who survived were arguably worse off. Hundreds had been hit by mustard gas that burnt their eyes and lungs but did not kill them. Victims of this slow and painful poison are still dying of their injuries to this day.
“Even by Saddam’s ruthless standards the massacre broke new boundaries. Yet what was more shocking was the cynical response of the West. The US attempted to blame this crime on Iran. Britain carried on business as usual with the regime in Baghdad. Saddam was shielded from any meaningful punishment.”
What Beeston saw there never left him. It strengthened the strong moral element in his reporting of evil around the world and reinforced his belief that Western countries should never appease dictators but should confront totalitarianism with force if necessary. It also made him eager to follow through the tragedy of Iraq under Saddam.
As the deadline approached for Saddam to pull his forces out of Kuwait in 1991, Beeston was one of the first to volunteer to go to Baghdad. It was a dangerous assignment. Western reporters were risking their lives if Allied forces were to begin bombing. No one knew whether Saddam would seize those remaining in Iraq or whether they would be lynched by angry mobs. As the ground war began and after the initial airstrikes Beeston was recalled home for his own safety by The Times — a decision he regretted but respected.
He reported extensively on the war. But his insights angered the Iraqis, and he was blacklisted by Saddam, whose officials said he had reported “negative information and falsehoods” and called him a “big two-faced deceiver”. Years later, after the second Iraq war and Saddam’s fall, he discovered these secret files on himself and other Western correspondents in the burnt-out Iraqi ministry of information.
Beeston returned repeatedly to Baghdad, taking up residence there as the situation became increasingly dangerous, with the rise in sectarian killings, the breakdown of law and order and the daily suicide bombings and random acts of terrorism. His reports for The Times were vivid documentation of a country in the grip of terror, fanaticism and chaos.
He managed still to send eyewitness reports, often at considerable risk to himself but, with a seasoned correspondent’s prudence, he never exposed his staff or helpers to unnecessary danger.
Beeston had already seen plenty of military action elsewhere. He began his career as a journalist early. Straight out of school, he went for a three-month assessment with the Royal Green Jackets. He found that an Army career was not for him, but the experience later proved valuable in giving him a respect for, and understanding of, military matters and strategy. Deciding not to go to university, he then began journalism the hard way — taking the NCTJ course, spending a year in Harlow New Town, Essex, and then doing a stint on the Coventry Evening Telegraph. His first foreign job was in South Africa, where he worked as a reporter for the Financial Mail of Johannesburg.
At 21 he went to Beirut and a job on The Daily Star, the English-language paper. It was the height of the Lebanese civil war and the place where a young journalist could make his name. Sniper fire, bombings, rockets and kidnappings were a constant danger. For two years he covered the fighting between Christians and Muslims, Maronites and Druze, Israelis and Lebanese. Western hostages were still being held and there was always the danger that another Westerner could be seized.
Beeston got out of Beirut on the day that the US bombed Libya — on an earlier plane than the one John McCarthy was aiming for when he was abducted. As Beeston said later: “As a crash course in the workings of Middle East politics, it was quite an education.” But it was a time that made his name: The Daily Telegraph and The Times both offered him a job on the basis of his work. He chose The Times.
One typically fearless exploit brought him into contact with Imad Mughnieh, then the world’s second most wanted terrorist. A TWA plane had been hijacked and was sitting at the airport, baking in the sun. Beeston raced over to the control tower, with a plan to get himself on board.
Several days into the hijack, the gunmen had been complaining about the poor food. Beeston and a few other journalists loaded up with a traditional Lebanese breakfast of flat bread covered in olive oil and served with yoghurt. They radioed to the plane from the control tower, saying they were ready to deliver the breakfast. There was a pause. “Let me check”, a voice said. Then Mughnieh came on line: “All journalists are dogs!” he screamed, and leant out of the cockpit window and let off a volley of automatic rifle fire, forcing everyone to dive for cover. So much for the scoop. Beeston handed the free breakfast to the airport officials and went home.
A decade later, as The Times correspondent in Jerusalem, he reported the suicide bombings and acts of terrorism, the vain attempts at peacemaking and the political crises, the hatred and the fanaticism that were still roiling the Middle East and that he had seen first-hand in Beirut.
The Middle East was in the young reporter’s blood from an early age. His father, Dick Beeston, had been a distinguished correspondent for the News Chronicle and The Daily Telegraph, and had lived with his family in Lebanon in the 1950s — peaceful and idyllic days. Beeston Sr was then posted for a long time to Washington, before being sent to Moscow for the Telegraph in 1977. Young Richard, then a schoolboy at Westminster, used to go to Russia for the holidays, and that country, too, seeped into his veins and emotions.
After four years in Jerusalem, Beeston, like his father, was posted to Moscow. But this was no longer the dozy days of Brezhnev that he had known as a boy. Soviet communism had collapsed, and the Yeltsin years were marked by lawlessness, instability, a sense of drift and occasional open gun battles in the streets.
The greatest challenge then to Moscow was the uprising in Chechnya. Beeston covered it in detail. It became one of the bloodiest and most violent conflicts of any civil war. The Russian airforce flattened Grozny, the capital, and snipers shot almost anyone moving. Beeston reported from the front line, dodging Army censors, moving among Chechen fighters who were as bloodthirsty as the terrified Russian recruits blindly firing off weapons at them. Rarely, he reported, had he seen such stupidity, corruption and irresponsibility in a national army as he found among the Russian forces in Chechnya.
His reporting echoed an earlier personal interest. Beeston had long admired William Howard Russell, the legendary Times correspondent who made his name reporting the Crimean War and subsequently the US Civil War. Beeston visited the Crimea as a correspondent, tracing the battles, looking at the hardships endured by the troops during the siege of Sebastopol, visiting the famous Valley of Death where the Light Brigade charged. Looking for the Balaklava valley one sunny autumn day, he later wrote, “I instinctively felt the resentment of envy”. He also found that reading Russell’s reports, 150 years later, still brought a lump to his throat.
A sense of history played a big role in Beeston’s reporting. He always believed journalists should see things for themselves, and not rely on news agencies, blogs, Twitter and all the second-hand reports available electronically. As foreign editor, he insisted his reporters go in person to where news was happening, meet people and send back eyewitness reports.
But he also knew the importance of context. He was understanding of the difficulties of foreign reporters, knowing from his own experience the logistical nightmares. But he had little time for those who lacked courage, interest or dedication. A normally courteous man, he was capable of bluntly telling those who let down the paper that they had done poorly.