Obituary: Richard Beeston

Richard Beeston, one of the leading foreign affairs writers in contemporary British journalism and a Member of the Valdai Club, passed away on May 19 2013 aged 50.

His colleagues share their memories of Richard.

David Hearst, Foreign leader writer for The Guardian.

Everyone dies too young, but in Richard Beeston's case it was especially and cruelly true. Richard's 30 years of foreign reporting encompassed a career his colleagues would envy. It started in 1984 as freelance correspondent in Beirut at the height of the Lebanese civil war. He narrowly missed being seized as a hostage when he left Beirut on the day the Americans bombed Libya.

In Iraq, he was one of the first reporters in Halabja, the Kurdish village which Saddam Hussein gassed with a combination of mustard gas and nerve agents. 5,000 people, mostly women and children, lost their lives and the horror with which Richard described the scene of bodies, many frozen in motion as they tried to escape, never left him. Neither did the memory of two British diplomats who tried to obscure the authorship of the deed. Britain at that time supported the Iraqi dictator in his war with Iran.

After four years in Jerusalem, Richard was posted to Moscow, a city he had known from his youth, because it was here that his father was posted as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. An admirer of the legendary Times correspondent William Howard Russell, who reported the Crimean War and the US civil war, Richard was a fearless adventurer and front-line reporter. He described the terror of Russian recruits and the cruelty of Chechen fighters in equal measure.

Perhaps the knowledge of what it was like to cover conflicts on the ground made him an instinctively good and demanding foreign editor on his return to London. Natural curiosity and a sense of history always drew him back into the field, which one sensed, he always liked best.

His exchange with Vladimir Putin during one meeting of the Valdai was typical of him. It went like this:

Beeston: Thank you Prime Minister. Richard Beeston, The Times, London. Last week we talked about the past, about Russian history and especially about the turbulent 20th century which was fatal for many Russians. I am amazed that with seven years to the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin is still lying on display in the Mausoleum in Red Square, with guards standing around him. Don’t you think it’s a good idea to finally bury him before this event, to help Russia turn a new page? Thank you.

Putin: Are you from Great Britain?

Beeston: Yes.

Putin: Then I have a question for you. Was Cromwell better or worse than Stalin?

Beeston: Probably just as bad. But he is not displayed on Trafalgar Square, but somewhere in Westminster, at the back.

Putin: But there are monuments to him all over Britain, everything in its season. When time comes, the Russian people will decide what to do. History is something that avoids hassle.

Richard battled cancer, a disease which struck five years ago, with the bravery which he displayed in many a conflict. In between operations and bouts of chemotherapy, he travelled to Iraq and Syria to report on the growing civil war. "You have got to keep on living," he would tell his colleagues. And he did to the very end. He will be sorely missed.

Mary Dejevsky, Chief editorial writer and a columnist at The Independent.

Richard was an amiable, generous and hugely professional colleague. After distinguished stints as a foreign correspondent, including in Russia, he followed what in British journalism is a standard path, becoming diplomatic editor for his paper – reporting on the Foreign Office and foreign affairs generally – and then foreign editor, a job that he did in the best, old-fashioned way.

I was on a trip to Israel with him only two months ago, and if you did not know of his health problems, you would not have noticed anything wrong. He was as energetic and engaged as the rest of us, savouring the experience of being a ‘normal’ journalist with a small gang of likeminded colleagues in a part of the world he knew far better than the rest of us. After surviving several crises in his illness, he also understood that he was living on almost miraculously borrowed time; perhaps for that reason, his senses seemed all the more acute.

British journalists who are versed in foreign affairs – specialists not just in one region, but in the whole complexity of world affairs – are fewer and fewer. I will be far from alone in missing Richard’s breadth of experience and strength of character.

Richard Beeston, born on February 18 1963, died of cancer on May 19 2013, aged 50.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.