How Robin took flight to spread news for BBC

HEALTH professionals may want to take a closer look at Robin Lustig. For the veteran journalist could be a medical marvel — as he believes he was born with an excess curiosity gene.

He is speaking in jest, of course, but it is that thirst for knowledge which served him well over five decades of journalism.

Robin is perhaps best known for his 23 years at the BBC, where he presented programmes such as The World Tonight, Stop Press and File on 4 for Radio 4 and Newshour on the World Service.

He also covered major world events, such as the death of Princess Diana and 9/11.

Robin’s passion for news started at a young age. He told me: “I would devour it and would lay out the broadsheets on the living room floor because my arms were not big enough to stretch to both sides of the newspaper.”

The 70-year-old was raised in London, the son of German Jewish immigrants. His father, Berlin-born Fritz, had left for Britain in the summer of 1939.

Fritz later joined the intelligence corps and was a clandestine listener to German prisoners of war, meeting his wife Susan (nee Cohn) at Wilton Park interrogation centre, in Buckinghamshire.

“I knew a fair amount about my father’s side, because his mother, sister and aunt had all moved to London, so I grew up knowing them,” Robin said.

Robin’s mother was born in Breslau, Germany, which is present-day Wroclaw, Poland.

He never found out what happened to his maternal grandmother until the 1990s when, thanks to the internet, they discovered she had been deported to Kaunas, Lithuania, and shot in the mass executions.

Robin, who wasn’t barmitzvah, barely knew anything about being Jewish in his early years, as both his parents were “militant secularists who would not have anything to do with religion”.

It wasn’t until Robin was engaged to Ruth that he discovered more.

He recalled: “Her father wanted us to marry in a synagogue because she was his only daughter.

“I had no problem with that, but when we met the rabbi, he said he had to establish if my mother was Jewish.

“I asked my mother and she dug out a German passport issued by the Nazis which had a large ‘J’ stamped on it, and that was the proof the rabbi needed.”

Robin and Ruth married in 1980 at West London Synagogue.

Robin, who read politics at the University of Sussex, made his first foray into journalism when he was offered a traineeship with the Reuters news agency.

He had wanted to work for the BBC, but, after “getting nowhere”, he filled out an application form with Reuters.

After six months in London, in 1970, he became its correspondent in Spain. The country was still five years from democracy and was ruled by dictator General Francisco Franco.

“Spain was a suppressed and oppressed country, so it wasn’t fantastically interesting, but it was good training in finding news where there wasn’t any,” Robin explained.

“I was based in Madrid, but often went to Barcelona, where there was an underground movement for Catalan independence.”

Robin then spent a year in Paris before he moved to Rome, where he was based for four years.

Fluent Italian speaker Robin fell for the country in a big way and still holidays there as often as he can.

In 1977, he landed a job at The Observer and returned to his native UK.

Robin said: “I had filled in for their Rome correspondent when he went on holiday, so I wrote to The Observer, stating that I would love to work for them.

“Through sheer luck and timing, they said they were looking for another reporter.

“I thought I should gain some experience of reporting in my own country and I knew that writing for a Sunday newspaper meant one deadline a week.

“With Reuters, there was a lot of writing and not much thinking, but it was the other way round at The Observer.”

As well as working as its home affairs editor and assistant editor, he and his wife — and young son Josh — moved to Jerusalem in 1985 to become the newspaper’s Middle East correspondent.

Their second child, Hannah, was born during their time in the Israeli capital.

The biggest stories of the time in the region were the civil war in Lebanon and the ongoing conflict between Iran and Iraq.

Robin spent a lot of time in Beirut, but, after being caught up in a shoot-out in a refugee camp and a fellow journalist being kidnapped after they had enjoyed dinner together, he decided to leave Lebanon as quickly as he could.

Israel, though, was an altogether different story.

“It was a marvellous place to be a journalist,” Robin explained. “Everybody there had an opinion.

“I remember going to get my accreditation and being given the home telephone numbers of various ministry spokesmen — in other countries, you would have to wait a decade for that kind of access.”

The family returned to the UK in 1989 when Robin secured a job at the BBC.

“I had been interviewed a couple of times by the BBC when I was in Jerusalem and I discovered that I was good at talking and thinking on my feet,” he said.

“I thought it was time to make a change, so I wrote to the editor of The World Tonight to say that if they were ever looking for a stand-in presenter then I would love to have a go.”

Luckily, she responded positively and Robin began a new role in broadcast journalism.

“I love broadcasting, especially its intimacy — it is your voice and the viewers’ ears,” he said.

“I love breaking news and that sheer excitement of never knowing what I would be talking about on that evening’s programme.”

The BBC has come in for plenty of criticism over its perceived anti-Israel bias, but Robin hit back: “Some Jewish people are reluctant to hear anything that is less than complimentary about Israel because of their close identification with the country.

“Israeli journalists are far more critical of Israel than a lot of British Jews will accept from the BBC.

“I remember several times quoting something said to me by an Israeli official or analyst and then being lambasted for having said something ‘anti-Israeli’.”

There is also the suggestion that the BBC is pro-Palestinian. Again, Robin stuck up for the broadcasting organisation.

“News reporters, by temperament, tend to be interested in the human side of conflict and politics,” he said.

“In the 1980s, if an Israeli war plane was bombing Lebanese civilians, a natural journalistic instinct would have been to talk to those civilians.

“For journalists, that applies to any conflict, anywhere in the world.”

Robin had to react quickly and instinctively at the BBC — and none more so than when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in August, 1997.

He received a call at 6am the following day asking him to anchor the World Service’s studio coverage, as well as presenting a special edition of The World Tonight.

Robin was also one of the commentators at Princess Diana’s funeral, positioned in Whitehall, where he described the event for radio.

It was a similar situation four years later, when he anchored radio coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America.

And, while he has interviewed many world figures, including Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair, the interviews he loved doing most were not with politicians, but with ordinary people.

Robin explained: “I made a documentary a couple of years ago about the experiences of adolescents around the world.

“There were street children in Delhi who ran a sort of pseudo bank so that they could hand in the money they had collected from begging.

“This little boy of 10 or 11 was its clerk and he would enter the money into a ledger, but he was such a tiny thing that the ledger was bigger than him.

“He was very sweet and took it all so seriously that I have never forgotten him.”

Robin left the BBC in 2012 and, five years later, his autobiography, Is Anything Happening?: My Life as a Newsman, was published.

The grandfather-of-one still does “bits and pieces” for the BBC and, last year, made a documentary for the World Service called The Future of English.

Journalism has changed unrecognisably since Robin started out in the trade and today, people have access to more news than ever before.

Robin said: “If I wrote something for Reuters, I would phone it through to the copytaker in London or tap it out on a Telex machine, which was then transmitted to London, before it was retransmitted to a newspaper or radio station.

“Google means that everybody has access to as much info as a journalist does, yet the downside is that a lot of the info is complete rubbish.

“On social media, especially, there are vast amounts of stuff which are nonsense, but a lot of people believe it. It is a huge issue.

“The pressures today for journalists are far greater.

“When I was at The Observer, I could spend days delving into a story and thinking how to approach it.

“Today, I would be expected to be tweeting about it, taking pictures and shooting videos.

“We were taught that facts were sacred, but today much journalism has become commentary rather than factual reporting, so the lines between the two are increasingly blurred.”

Robin has received numerous awards for his journalism, including the Sony Silver Award for talk/news broadcaster of the year and the Charles Wheeler award for outstanding contribution to broadcast journalism.

But, he jokes, his greatest achievement is being named Beard of the Year in 2012 by the Beard Liberation Front.

“I am very proud of that one,” laughed Robin, who has sported a beard since the mid-1970s.

“I am hugely impressed that George Alagiah has been reading the news while sporting a beard — it is a big breakthrough at the BBC!”

As he sits back and contemplates his career, he describes how grateful he feels.

“I have been paid to do a job which I loved,” Robin said. “I was in Berlin when Germany was reunified and in Hong Kong when it was handed back to China, for example.

“Those things to me are great privileges, but I know how lucky I have been.”

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