Nick Moore and a call in the night from Idi Amin
Monday 17 May 2021
We often remember great journalists for the stories they write, the wisdom they impart and the experiences they share. Nick Moore was a highly talented reporter, a hard-charging news hound and weaver of words who wrote with consummate skill, and set exacting standards that left a mark on all who worked with him. He was intensely competitive but wore his knowledge lightly and had little time for prima donnas. Nick was a master of the pithy sentence and the arresting lead. His coverage of the dramatic fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and the bestowal of high office on John Major was particularly memorable. He described Major as “the son of a circus performer who rose to the high-wire of British politics.”
A long-forgotten incident which I witnessed nearly 40 years ago speaks to Nick’s even-handedness and cool professionalism.
Late one winter evening a news assistant on the World Desk took a call from an unexpected source. Barely able to disguise his astonishment, he turned to the duty editor, Basil Chapman, one of the legendary “four horsemen of the apocalypse” who ran the World Desk, and announced: “Someone on the line claiming to be Idi Amin wants a word with us.”
Without missing a beat, Basil asked for the call to be transferred to Nick, a fluent Swahili speaker who had worked extensively in Africa and reported on Amin’s rise to power in the 1970s. Nick had also been held for several days in one of Amin’s cells and would sometimes reminisce by mimicking the threatening words of his captors. Grasping the receiver, Nick settled into a long and animated conversation in Swahili with the caller. When Nick finally put the phone down, the first question Basil put to him was, “Well, are you really sure it was Amin or could it be an imposter?” Nick shot back, “It was Amin all right.” Amin was living in exile in Saudi Arabia after his ouster by Tanzanian troops in 1979 ended an eight-year reign of terror.
So what was it that persuaded Nick that the man on the line was the toppled tyrant who once described himself as “Lord of All Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea”? Nick said the clincher was when he asked what Amin had done immediately after announcing his seizure of power from Milton Obote in 1971. “He said he had gone for a swim in the pool at Kampala’s top hotel. Not many people knew that.” Nick had also reminded Amin - by this time he absolutely was sure it was him - of his terrifying ordeal in a Ugandan prison. Amin had apologised, saying it had all been a misunderstanding! Nick then sat down to hammer out a story pegged to Amin’s boastful claim that he was mobilising an army in the north of Uganda with the intention of riding back to power. The story was spiked without ceremony and that was the end of the matter.
Years later I reminded Nick of the incident at a dinner in Geneva after an OPEC meeting only days before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Nick wholeheartedly defended the decision not to run the story. “It was the right thing to do. Publishing a story like that could only have led to bloodshed.” ■