Robin Lustig: ‘I just like talking to people and listening’

Robin Lustig

Robin Lustig - Credit: Archant

BRIDGET GALTON talks to veteran broadcaster Robin Lustig about his memoir of 45 years in news ahead of Jewish Book Week

He’s interviewed goodies and baddies from Nelson Mandela to Radovan Karadzic, and helmed live coverage of revolutions, elections and royal funerals.

But Robin Lustig remembers when resourceful journalists had to carry change for the phone box and he would man the Reuters desk putting up with the British foreign correspondents who would return from a boozy lunch and ring to ask ‘Is anything happening?’

It’s the title of Lustig’s eventful memoir of 40 odd years in journalism which covers his own spells as a correspondent in Madrid, Paris, Rome and Israel.

After years as a print journalist on The Observer, the Muswell Hill resident became one of our best live broadcasters, the host of Radio 4’s The World Tonight, more conversational than combative like his colleagues Jeremy Paxman and John Humphreys.

“Different broadcasters have different styles,” he says. “You can invent an on air personality. I was not a rottweiler. I just liked talking to people and listening to them.”

Born in Stoke Newington in 1948 to Jewish German refugees, he modestly attributes his career to “being born with an excess of curiosity” and luck - not just being in the right spot, but being a baby boomer. Far from being born into privilege, his father Fritz had fled Berlin in 1939. The year before his mother had arrived aged 18 on a domestic servant visa. The pair met while working for Intelligence Service, eavesdropping on the bugged conversations of German POWs. They married at Hampstead Town Hall before moving to Greenford.

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“The work that unit did was extraordinary,” says Lustig, who knew nothing of his parents’ activities until decades later. “People were completely unaware until the 1970s. It was covered by the Official Secrets Act. But as the truth about Bletchley emerged they started to talk. They recruited native German speakers, mother wasn’t a listener, they worried that women might hear things unsuitable for the female ear, but she analysed the material. I am very lucky my father is still alive and we have been able to talk about it while for others it was too late.”

Less happily, Lustig’s maternal grandmother who was too old to qualify for a servants’ visa, perished in the Holocaust. She was arrested, deported and shot in 1941. Some years ago, Lustig retraced her final journey to Lithuania. “I stood on the spot where she was shot and it was very strange. A journalist normally wears an armour. You have a job to do and put personal feelings to one side. My natural instinct was to behave as a journalist, but I was there as a grandson to honour my late grandmother. I had to take my armour off.”

Always drawn “by wanting to know what’s going on and why,” although he’s been in some tight spots, like the time he got caught in crossfire while covering elections in Pakistan, it was never about the thrill of danger.

“I am not in any way drawn to danger or revel in it. It is risky but that’s relative. To me cycling through central London is more dangerous than going to Baghdad. I am perfectly happy for other people to be there while the bullets are flying, to come in later and try to work out what has gone wrong and why. Whenever I’ve found myself in the middle of something you keep your head down.”

The book amusingly describes the organised chaos of live radio as presenters ask tough questions while producers gabble in their ear.

“People don’t recognise how incredibly complicated live broadcast is,” says Lustig who cites curiosity, thinking on your feet, being a good listener and staying calm while everyone else is going beserk among the attributes of a good broadcaster. “It’s not as easy as it looks. The presenter’s job is to keep cool and give the impression that nothing’s going wrong even though the opposite is often the case.”

He says the armour and experience, would help him stay on task. “Panicking is what other people do, I am not going to ask what’s going wrong, I just need to do my job. All I need to know is how long do you need me to keep doing this and what’s next?”

When that task is interviewing someone like (Serb leader) Karadzic, he admits the job gets tougher.

“The journalist me does things the other me wouldn’t dream of doing. Like interviewing a terrifically unpleasant war criminal, interrupting him, asking difficult questions. If I wasn’t wearing the armour I would have been a quivering wreck, but there’s no one I wouldn’t be able to interview as a journalist. The Queen in an hour’s time? Trump? Great I’ll do it.”

Some of the toughest interviews have been ones to do with BBC stories. He was there for ”the great meltdowns” of Savile, Dr Kelly, and Jonathan Ross.

One BBC HR supremo who “didn’t like talking to the journalists on her pay roll” stalled him horribly, while after a grilling then Director General Mark Thomson said bitterly: ‘you must really enjoy this’

“I thought you are completely wrong I hate it, but this is what you pay us for.”

During his decades at the BBC he prided himself on his impartiality.

“When a producer colleague said ‘I have no idea how you vote’ I took it as a compliment. A Lib Dem I had given a hard time to said ‘I know you don’t vote Lib Dem’. And I’d think ‘you know no such thing’. I’d do the same with any party.”

After retiring thouh it was a relief to finally voice an opinion. “The BBC had asked me to write a blog but it’s difficult without expressing an opinon, now I can say what I think.”

Looking back he thinks of the great events he’s witnessed. The fall of the Berlin Wall just two weeks after he became a broadcaster “was an extraordinary moment”, Moscow when the Soviet Union ended. Hong Kong for the handover. “To be present at moments in history has been a great privilege it’s nice to look back and think ‘this is what it felt like.’”

But does he miss it now he’s laid down his armour?

“The US election was the first I hadn’t covered for 20 years, but I am happy for other people to do it now. I’ve not had a bad innings.”

But in a cautionary note, having worked all his life to be impartial he’s worried about a future where the work of professional journalists can be drowned out by fake news.

“I can’t imagine now how we worked without mobile phones or the internet. Journalists don’t have a monopoly any more. We used to be the only people who could transmit information, now we are competing with everyone on Twitter. Journalists have to change the way they work, but people who consume news have to change the way they interact with what they are seeing to tell the difference between truth and ficion.”

Is Anything Happening? is published by Biteback publishing £20. Robin Lustig speaks at Jewish Book Week on February 26 at 2pm.