SubScribe: Richard Beeston: farewell to a giant of journalism What a man, what a life, what a shame Google+

Saturday 21 September 2013

Richard Beeston: farewell to a giant of journalism What a man, what a life, what a shame

When Richard Beeston was suffering from the later stages of cancer, his wife Natasha took a deep breath and said: 'We need to talk about your funeral.'
'The hell with that,' came the reply. 'Let's talk about my memorial service.'

And so was sown the seed that brought journalists back to a Fleet Street shorn of newspapers yesterday to pay tribute to one of the greatest foreign correspondents of the age.

Hundreds of friends, colleagues and admirers squeezed into St Bride's to sing, laugh and quietly weep  in memory of the former Times foreign editor who died in May, three months after his 50th birthday.

Here in the first row of the chairs brought into the heart of the church to supplement the pews sat the Beest's heirs at the Times, Deborah Haynes and Catherine Philp.  Around the edges were scattered the royalty of war reportage: Anthony Loyd, Jeremy Bowen, Jon Snow, Don McCullin, Janine di Giovanni and Sam Kiley - who gave the first reading, the Beatitudes.

There, a couple of seats from di Giovanni, was Boris Johnson, a near-contemporary of Beest whose brief youthful spell on the Times foreign desk was rather less glorious. James Harding, the displaced editor who is now head of BBC news, perched at the back until someone kindly agreed to swap seats. Senior executives, junior reporters, peers, PAs, distinguished foreign correspondents and diplomats were mixed together, grateful just to take part in the service. Having somewhere to sit was a bonus.

They had come from Belgravia, Brighton, Brussels and beyond.  Devika Bhat, who flourished as a foreign news editor under Beest's tutelage, came from Washington. Annie Barrowclough, charged with establishing an Australian bureau under Beest's watch only to be chopped down in this summer's Times cull, flew from Sydney. 'I had to come,' she said. 'I needed to be here. That man was everything. He did so much for me. He changed my life.'

But this wasn't a day about journalism. It was a day to show the family and friends sitting near the altar how much Rick was not simply respected, but loved. The  television producer Simon Cellan-Jones, who related the 'We need to talk about the funeral' anecdote, said that Rick had been his best friend for 37 years. His address was warm, charming, funny, irreverent - just like his subject.

There were tales of late-night poker, vodka martinis and an appalling taste in music. One can only wonder quite what the ambassadors of Iraq and Israel made of the story about the Beest dad-dancing naked in the rain with friends - and being caught photographically in all his glory when everyone else managed to achieve some Calendar Girls level of modesty.

The second address from Ben Macintyre of The Times described the passion for journalism - a real passion, not the ersatz  'I'm passionate about lipstick/children/equality' - and the derring-do of a war correspondent whose choice of destination for a romantic weekend of R&R with his wife was Kabul.

Fortunately, Natasha was understanding - and game. On return from honeymoon, the Beestons had decamped to the Middle East for Rick's new posting in Jerusalem. He suggested they spend a weekend in Gaza.
'First their car was hijacked by two Palestinian gunmen, then they found themselves involved in a full-scale gun battle. Finally, Natasha was left hiding behind a wall with some Palestinian children who periodically emerged to lob back teargas canisters, while Rick went reporting.'
An adventurer certainly, but Macintyre also spoke of  the generous mentor always willing to share his knowledge and experience with the next generation.

And that generation reciprocated with a special supplement expressing their thanks for the opportunities Beest had given them. They told of little acts of kindness, words of advice, challenging commissions. But the where-are-they-now full-page photographs said much more about how he had nurtured his proteges. Ruth Maclean in an armoured car in Darfur, Tim Albone in flak jacket in Afghanistan, Emily Ford on the Great Wall of China, Tom Whipple at base camp on Everest, Hugh Tomlinson in Beirut, Alice Fordham in Libya, Hannah Strange in Mexico City.

The supplements were handed out as the church emptied after a service that had been pitch perfect in every respect -  the readings, the music, the addresses; the downing of imaginary vodka shots, the smashing of imaginary glasses, the suggestion of armed  intervention in France.

The congregation had arrived in sorrow but left in joy: the joy that comes from singing 'Glory, glory, hallelujah' at the top of your voice while a tear sneaks out of the corner of your eye hoping that no one will notice; the joy that comes from having known - and been known by - such a remarkable man.

If Beest did have a hand in it, then once again he got it just right.

And so we said goodbye to a gentleman who was not only charismatic and quietly heroic, but also suave and Hollywood handsome. There has to be a film. With luck, Ben Macintyre will be involved in the screenplay.

Well, Natasha, is it to be Leonardo di Caprio? Jude Law? Did he give any hint at all as to who should play the leading role?


When Rick's work was first published in The Times it was under the byline Nicholas Beeston, to avoid confusion with his renowned father, also Richard (but known as Dicky).

After leaving the field Dicky Beeston also worked for a while on the Times foreign desk as a casual late-night news editor. When he retired his son reverted to the byline Richard Beeston.

[Another titbit while on the subject of bylines: when Boris was on the paper, his work would be tagged 'By Alexander Johnson'.]

The nickname Beest probably emanated from his logon name on the old Atex system in Wapping. The former production supremo Tony Norbury could be creative in ascribing user names. Most were straightforward surnames, but there were occasional 'specials'. Alan Hamilton, for instance, was Nelson. Stewart Tendler, the crime reporter, was Cathy (his wife's name). David Hopkinson was, of course, Hoppy. Rick was Beest.

It is humbling to realise how privileged I was to watch for a quarter of a century as that eager young man with wavy blond locks, bouncy walk and constant smile evolved into a master of foreign affairs. The transition from student to sage was so natural that it was imperceptible. He always seemed exactly the same to me.

The Times has now put a video of the hour-long service up on its website, along with Roger Boyes's report,  Fleet Street friends raise final glass to Richard Beeston
It may even be outside the paywall.

What others have to say

Pens with much finer nibs than mine have writtenmore elegantly on the Beest; voices of much sweeter timbre have spoken more eloquently. Here is some of what has been said:

The Times obituary

Ben Macintyre Times tribute: A man with journalism in his veins

The Telegraph obituary

Kim Sengupta, Independent obituary

Oliver Kamm: Objectivity doesn't mean balance. It means telling the truth about what you discover

Tributes via The Times Storify

David Hearst and Mary Dejevsky: Valdai Club

The Italian Insider: Beest's private army

Adel Darwish: Inside British Politics

Con Coughlin: Beirut, 1985: When Rick went to sunbathe at the Hotel George V hotel on the Corniche, he had to place his sun-lounger close to the hotel wall to make sure he was not interrupted by stray shrapnel fragments.

Sue Foll Blipfoto picture of the day: RIP Richard Beeston

Bernard Emie, French ambassador: Britain has lost an astounding journalist, and France a friend.

Ruth Elkins: What a great service it was for the most gentle of men, Richard Beeston. We miss you very much.

Kaya Burgess: A touching and uplifting memorial service today for Richard Beeston, our much-missed and legendary Foreign Editor. His words of advice were always so valuable and, were it not for him sending me on Hostile Environment Training, I would never have met Kat. Here's to the Beest.

Devika Bhat: So very fitting to celebrate the life of Richard Beeston, my amazing boss and dear friend, at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street. A brilliant journalist, and true gent, greatly missed.

Charlie Gere: Beautiful memorial service for Rick at St Brides, off Fleet Street. Courageously and brilliantly organised by Natasha Fairweather. Among the highlights, speeches by Simon Cellan Jones, and Ben Macintyre, and the singing by the choir, which was wonderful.


Earlier Twitter tributes 

The master at work

Finally, the Beest himself  conveys so much in eight paragraphs that we can only read in wonder:

The Times, January 18, 2010

It has taken nearly 22 years for Ali Hassan al-Majid to be judged by Iraqis for perpetrating one of the worst massacres in modern history.

Even peeering out from the smudged window of an Iranian helicopter, it was clear that a terrible crime had been committed against the inhabitants of Halabja as part of a campaign by Saddam Hussein and his commanders to teach Iraqi Kurds the cost of siding with the enemy - at that time Iran.

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. Hudreds 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. He went on to invade Kuwait two years later and ordered the massacre of thousands of Iraqi Shia Muslims in 1991.

The failure of the West to respond adequately to this outrage made it difficult for George Bush and Tony Blair to make a moral case for overthrowing Saddam in 2003.

But as the Iraq war comes under new scrutiny and more voices argue that Saddam should have been left in place, it is worth sparing a thought for those thousands of innocent Kurdish men, women and children who died in the deadliest chemical weapons attack on civilians in history.


  1. Natash Fairweather23 September 2013 at 10:55

    Thanks so much for putting this together, Liz. Natasha x

  2. No...thank YOU for being so amazing. love to you all x