Wednesday 22 January 2020
Most of what I know about journalism I owe to François Duriaud.
It was he who hired me for Reuters at its London head office in 1979 after a long and arduous process. First I took a test in the Paris bureau, then I was summoned for three days of selection at editorial headquarters.
During those days, he made me work on dispatches in every format and on all sorts of subjects. Each time, he would take a few short moments to rewrite what I had sweated blood and water over for hours. And it was ten times better, a hundred times better. With barely a comment.
“The facts speak for themselves,” he said in one of his sparing but incisive observations.
Still in his thirties, he was in charge of the French-language service of Reuters and had long won the respect, indeed the admiration of his British, American and Australian colleagues, stunned by this “froggy’s” mastery of Anglo-Saxon journalism and of English understatement.
“Duriaud”, as the young French journalists he had trained called him with a respect tinged with awe - only the English-speakers called him “François” - was the quintessential agency man: rigorous, concise and precise. He distrusted adjectives and adverbs, the product of value judgments. He abhorred lazy journalistic short-cuts such as “it is understood that” or “so-and-so is believed to have done such-and-such”, or the use of the conditional tense in indirect reporting without attribution. In his eyes, sourcing was the essential foundation of agency work.
“Who says so?” he would scribble angrily in the margin of an unsourced or loosely attributed assertion. No one dared question this high standard, emanating as it did from someone of such indisputable professional integrity, acquired over a series of foreign postings.
Duriaud stretched everyone to the limits of their potential. In return, he was always a willing listener, and above all he defended his journalists tooth and nail against internal and outside pressure.
Alongside the true professional, there was a human being: reserved, shy without being distant, with a mischievous twinkle when he asked you about your loved ones.
Duriaud had the good taste never to talk about work outside the office. Over lunch or dinner at his home, he would unfailingly get the conversation rolling by asking: “What are you reading at the moment?” He loved talking literature - especially the great British and American writers - not least to draw out his dining partner while revealing little about himself. He knew how to blend intellectual and gastronomic pleasure.
The man was a great gourmet, fonder of wholesome traditional cooking than of exotic cuisine. Food brought out his roots in bucolic Burgundy, as if he had to balance his cosmopolitan outlook and encyclopaedic culture with a return to his rural childhood background. He radiated a gentle, almost peasant cunning.
Duriaud was not the sort of person you slapped on the back, nor called “sir”. It wouldn’t have been right. You just enjoyed his company, at work and in personal life.
I owe so much to Duriaud, and yet, like any other rather selfish and vain young journalist, I never thought or managed to express this recognition to him, other than through my work.
So today, François, thank you for everything. ■