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Phil Pullella - a quintessential agency journalist

Phil was not just a highly successful and respected Vatican reporter, he was the essence of an agency journalist, fiercely competitive and never properly off duty.


I first met him in early 1986 when I took over as bureau chief in Rome and Phil was doing his usual intensive preparation for a trip with Pope John Paul II to India, a journey which turned out to be one of the most gruelling of all papal voyages.


I quickly learned how dedicated Phil was to agency journalism.


When the exhausted Vatican reporters flew back to Rome with the pontiff, Indian airline officials had miscalculated the kind of plane that was suitable, and the journalists were told at the last minute that their luggage - including winter clothing - would come on another airliner. This was particularly unfortunate because Rome was experiencing a very unusual snowstorm and the plane was diverted to Naples.


The Pope and entourage were transported to Naples station for a train back to Rome. According to another reporter on the flight, Phil, who always carried every kind of emergency communications equipment in a steel case, was the only reporter with a stick of “gettoni”, the tokens then needed to use a phone box. He also refused to enter a compact with other Vaticanisti not to file until they got to Rome.


He rushed into a box and filed before jumping on the train. His action so incensed a veteran correspondent from Italy’s national news agency that he tried to stop Phil by punching him through the booth door, unsuccessfully.


Then, when the train arrived in Rome, the reporters, including Phil, were wearing tropical clothes in a freezing capital. There were no taxis - the streets were icy - so Phil trekked through the snow for 45 minutes to reach the office. The door crashed open and a ghostly figure wearing a tropical jacket and looking very pale, stumbled in and sat down to finish his story despite our entreaties that he should go home.


These qualities made Phil impatient with those who were less hard-working than him and meant he was a superb slot man, remaining alert even when he went off duty. I sometimes wondered if he ever slept after his wife told me he would awake in the night and check the radio for breaking news.


But it was hugely reassuring to know that he had your back. He will be greatly missed at Reuters. ■