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Obituary: Douglas Hamilton

Douglas Hamilton, a veteran Reuters correspondent, drowned while swimming in the Mediterranean off a Tel Aviv beach on Monday. Israeli paramedics spent 40 minutes trying to revive him on the beach, but to no avail, writes Crispian Balmer, Israel and Palestinian Territories bureau chief.

He was 65 and had worked with Reuters for more than 30 years, having joined the World Desk in London in 1982 from Swiss Radio International. Most of his time with Reuters was spent abroad in a variety of postings, including in France, Germany, South Africa, Yugoslavia, Austria, Brussels and lastly Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

He was an exceptional reporter and a quite wonderful writer. He had the rarest of abilities to tell big-picture stories through the eyes of ordinary people. As his old friend and colleague Paul Taylor said: “Whether in the Balkans, in the Middle East or in Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Doug captured the sweep of history and the ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man in raw prose. He was a false cynic with a real heart of gold.”

Some of his most remarkable work came during the various Balkans conflicts, where he reported courageously from the frontline to bring home the horrors of that vicious civil war. Here is the lead from a story in 1995: “Some Croatians will be lying on beaches this weekend. Others may be lying in unmarked graves. It depends where you go.” If he had worked for a major newspaper back then, he would no doubt have been a famous, Pulitzer prize winner. One New York Times correspondent said she always carried one of his stories in her purse to remind her of why she got into journalism.

During the NATO bombing campaign of Serbia in 1999 Doug was based in Brussels. His daily grilling of the NATO spokesman Jamie Shea provided a masterclass to junior reporters on how to take on officialdom and cut through the clutter of mind-numbing jargon to find the real news.

But it wasn’t all wars and mayhem. He also showed his value and originality in utterly different beats – such as when he covered the Olympic Games in 2004 and 2008, writing with wit and elegance about everything from dressage to synchronised swimming. Some of his finest stories never saw the light of day because they were simply too original or outspoken. I remember with particular fondness a pastiche he wrote about wrestling in the 2008 Beijing Games written in the style of a Damon Runyon short story. Or a piece during the Second Gulf War where he ferociously pierced the sanitised language of the US-led coalition as it blasted its way through Iraq. I always kept a copy. “In capitals, mouthpieces so practised they have forgotten they are lying cannot wait to get before the cameras to work their spin. But they cannot disguise the fact that they do not really care, that they relish their performance above all. We tolerate this blatant hypocrisy because we are inured to the slick phrasing of the television age. We don’t listen, we watch. Our opinions are formed by osmosis.”

Such a fiery spirit was sometimes hard to contain within the four walls of a news agency. I, like many of his previous managers no doubt, received the occasional e-mail threatening imminent resignation because of the way one of his stories had been handled, or spiked. The trick was to wait an hour, then pick up the phone and talk about some new story ideas. He liked to appear grumpy and gruff, but it was often just a veneer. In fact he was one of the most generous and open correspondents I have worked with. He was always free with knowledge and adored mentoring young men and women starting out in the profession. He would rework their prose with the same passion that he would craft his own sentences, improving any story that he got his hands on, bringing to it the sort of originality and flair that very, very few correspondents could ever aspire to.

It was not always easy. Doug broke his back in a road accident in the Gulf and had to be med-evaced home. He later got injured in a bomb attack in Algeria – severely injuring his toe as he rushed out of a nearby building to witness the carnage. He needed surgery to put it right. He also survived cancer in 2008, writing about it for Reuters with his typical blunt honesty. He bounced backed and became astonishingly fit. No-one would have guessed he was 65 without triple checking his passport. When the Israeli police first reported his death, they said that they had found a 40-year-old man. Doug would have loved that, but then have demanded a correction.

Scottish-born and Canadian by naturalisation, he loved scotch and cigars. Wherever he worked, Doug left behind a thicket of cigar stumps and a welter of friends. As Michael Stott, editor, Europe, Middle East and Africa, wrote: “Unpredictable, volatile and innately anti-establishment, he was every reporter’s ideal mate and a (rewarding) challenge to every editor”.

He leaves a wife and son and will be sorely missed by all who knew him. The funeral arrangements have yet to be decided and will be announced at a later date.


PHOTO: Douglas Hamilton in Sarajevo.


The piece of paper that brought down the Berlin Wall by Douglas Hamilton ■