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The art of freeloading

Peter Gregson’s recollections (Copycat Stories) of freeloaders and pirates among newspaper correspondents gravitating around Reuter bureaux or Reuter reporters in the field brought back some memories of my own.


There was an award-winning lady journalist from one Fleet Street title who would swan nonchalantly into the Moscow bureau, and - if I was punching a story onto the teleprinter - would stand behind me and massage my shoulders (it was NOT a sensuous experience) while not very surreptitiously reading my copy.


In Mexico, there was a stringer for another London daily who, after I had gone home on days when there had actually been news, would come to the office to pick up a copy of the bureau file from the duty office boy. They had, it emerged near the end of my posting, a financial arrangement.


Yes, it is true as Peter suggests that John Miller (Obituary), was not totally innocent of lifting a line or two during his frequent passages through the Moscow office. But then, as Marc Anthony said, “he was my friend… etc”. And he was captain of the press broomball team.


Far more egregious, not to say annoying, was the snooty young correspondent from a major US newspaper of record (come to think of it, there were two from two different papers) whose stories for the first year of his posting were amazingly like ours, though he never came near our office.


We could track his output because, although with a delay of three or four days, a slimmed-down version of his paper reached us through the Soviet postal system.


A spy eventually established that a sub on his news desk would telex him the first few paragraphs of the Reuter stories. There was not much we could do about that. I suppose we should have felt flattered that he was milking us and not AP.


His paper was not the only one serving their correspondents in the same way in those days. Fleet Street, including the DT, was not slow to adopt the practice after, in the mid-1960s, the Soviet authorities allowed uncensored telephone and teleprinter lines into Moscow news bureaux.


Often the newspapers themselves were directly guilty of piracy, even though Reuter contracts specified that use of our stories should be credited.


As an innocent relative newcomer to the trade, my initial encounter with this practice was on my first home leave from Moscow in 1965. Off the BEA at Heathrow, I spotted quite a large headline on a newspaper stand that looked as though it ought to be familiar.


A closer look showed it was the story (disclosure: based on a tip from John Miller) on a once-jailed bad boy of Soviet football who had redeemed himself and returned to the Spartak forward line. I was very proud of the piece, but disillusion struck when I saw the credit: “By our Staff Writer.”


Just one to try match Peter’s Wise story. In 1971, West Germany’s ambassador to Guatemala was kidnapped by Maoist guerrillas demanding detained comrades be freed. The government refused and the guerrillas shot the diplomat and dumped his body in a field outside the capital.


Uli Schmetzer, from our Mexico City bureau, persuaded a Guatemalan police unit to take him with them to recover the corpse. Back in his hotel, he called in what was one of Uli’s always colourful stories from what he thought was a safe phone in the lobby.


Back upstairs in his thin-walled room, he heard the just arrived Daily Mail man next door dictating. “I stood over the bloodied body of the West German envoy… Fill in background from Reuters…”


At least, that was how Uli told it. ■