Lionel Walsh - One of the kindest people I ever knew
Thursday 10 October 2019
I had the pleasure of working for, and with, Lionel in the late 1970s in the Paris office.
He was unfailingly polite and attuned to the feelings of the people who worked with him.
He never raised his voice or lost his temper, a real gentleman journalist.
I’ve never known an incompetent bureau chief at Reuters, but some of those one worked for had “personality issues” . They were temperamental and quick to anger, the contrary of good man managers.
Jack Hartzman used to describe them as “people who don’t know the difference between being the boss and being bossy.”
Not so Lionel whose proverbial calm led his subordinates (and friends) to affectionately dub him “The Vicar” or ”The Reverend Walsh”.
Alas, life was not kind to him: He lost his wife and one son to cancer, both at early ages, and he later suffered a stroke which left him in a wheelchair for years.
Reuters, or rather its larger-than-life then general manager Gerald Long, was particularly harsh with him, effectively forcing him out of the organisation.
Lionel writes in his online autobiography (www.lionelwalsh.com) that Long (referred to at the time in the ranks as “Chairman” Long in parallel to Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung - though I think Long wielded more unchallenged power at Reuters than Mao did in China) effectively ended Lionel’s days at Reuters because he thought our Paris bureau paid too much attention to efforts by the UN cultural agency UNESCO to influence how the Western press operated.
At the time, Lionel gave me another version.
In a probably unprecedented move, the NUJ chapel at Reuters called for a strike in the summer of 1980 during that year’s Summer Olympics in Moscow.
The strike was widely supported by Reuter journalists in London where a small team of managers replaced them and provided a skeleton service. We in the Paris bureau provided a bare service of urgent stories at London’s request because there were not enough people there to handle a normal file.
Julian Nundy, then Brussels bureau chief, recalls that “All the London-based staffers on the Olympics team joined the strike, leaving just management and those from overseas bureaus to keep the show on the road. I had been sent to do colour and politics and found myself reporting on weightlifting and other events really close to my heart instead.
“The NUJ had said it could not protect staff based abroad and told us to keep working. I had been suspended from membership by the NUJ shortly before because, as Brussels bureau chief, I was considered to have crossed the line into management so I did not in any case consider myself bound by whatever the union decided.”
For reasons I have forgotten, Lionel offered or was pressed to act as a mediator from the Paris bureau since he was known to have no enemies.
He asked me several times to join him in his office as a sort of secretary, essentially taking notes and juggling telephones for him.
Soon, he was directly in contact with Long who was clearly outraged at having to negotiate with people he was used to giving brusque orders to. As talented as Long was, he had a Nero-like personality and on a whim would exile people to the “duck pond,” - the tail-end of World Desk in London.
Lionel then told me how difficult it was to act as an intermediary with Long during the strike as the latter, used to brooking no contradiction to his orders, was furious at what he felt were attempts by staff to undercut his powers.
In the end, a compromise agreement was reached, in large part thanks to Lionel’s common sense and patience.
But not long afterwards, Lionel was brusquely recalled to London without any fixed assignment. He then told me in a voice seeped with emotion that this was Long’s revenge for what he felt were the humiliations he underwent at the hands of his own staff. Lionel then left Reuters but some of us stayed in relatively frequent contact with him as he continued to work for international organisations based in Paris.
In later years, Lionel would telephone some of his old Paris friends from the old-age homes where he resided, always avid for news of “my old comrades”.
Farewell dear Lionel, they just don’t make them like you anymore. ■