Reporter Simon O'Dwyer-Russell's obituary in Sunday Telegraph, 16 December 1990

Can you believe they actually pay us to do this?, Sunday Telegraph, 16 December 1990, page 8.

Can you believe they actually pay us to do this?

Our Diplomatic Correspondent, Simon O'Dywer-Russell, died last week, aged 29. We pay tribute to a man who enlivened his world

The young Israeli soldiers of Platoon 424 reacted with “undisguised contempt and dislike” when first approached by Simon O'Dwyer-Russell of The Sunday Telegraph in Gaza in January 1988.

Within a few minutes, however, this newspaper's Defence and Diplomatic Correspondent had won them over - to produce a vivid inside account of a patrol in Israeli-occupied territory.

His technique on this occasion was typically O'Dwyer-Russell. Accompanied by the photographer Judah Passow, he ignored the request of an Israeli Defence Force liaison officer - who had tired to restrict him to the main road of Gaza - and instead hired a flashy white BMW to explore the back streets where reporters were not normally taken.

With music blasting from the car stereo, he struck a deal with the Israeli youngsters. If they would lend him a Jeep and a driver the rest of the Jeep's crew could take a turn in the BMW. And so they set off in a bizarre convoy, the Jeep trailed by the car - with the music still playing and a soldier aiming his M-16 out of the sun-roof.

His great skill as a journalist was the art of making himself welcome where he was not really wanted, which he achieved through a combination of acting and charm.

He could hardly approach a subject by stealth; as a man who was 6ft 6½in tall, it was impossible for O'Dwyer-Russell to be inconspicuous.

His by-line, too, was out-sized, causing constant problems for sub-editors, and colleagues generally referred to him in abbreviated form as ODR.

But he never sought a low profile. He worked for Jane's Defence Weekly before being appointed to The Sunday Telegraph by Peregrine Worsthorne in 1986.

From that moment he set about getting himself noticed, both within the pages of the paper, for which he produced a string of proper, old-fashioned scoops, and within the news-room, where his booming voice on the telephone to generals, MoD officials and editors alike was an essential part of the eccentric Sunday Telegraph ambience.

He cared deeply about the paper and its contents, and one of the sights of a Saturday afternoon would be O'Dwyer-Russell in his braces peering - short-sightedly, despite his thick spectacles - at a page proof held up to his nose.

The stories he produced were a mixture of hard fact and a dash of intuition which usually - though not always - paid off. His readiness to gamble on his hunches earned him the alternative, affectionate nickname “O'Flyer”. But newspapers need people who are prepared to take risks, and although there were occasions when O'Dwyer-Russell sailed closer to the wind than some of the those above him preferred, he produced a series of notable exclusives.

He obtained the first verbatim report of the flight-deck conversation between the pilots of the British Midlands jet which crashed on the M1, he was the first journalist to interview an embittered Savimbi in Angola after South Africa decided to cut off aid from his Unita troops; and he uncovered the slaughter in Namibia of 18 Swapo guerrillas who had surrendered to the South African troops.

He was on a pre-arranged visit to the Royal Marines' training base at Lympstone, Devon, the evening before Prince Edward resigned his commission. Something O'Dwyer-Russell ate gave him acute stomach pains, and he was taken to a nearby hospital to be examined overnight.

When the news from Buckingham Palace came through and he had by this time recovered, he returned to the base - once again in a substantial hire car - where the sentries mistook his large, upright figure for top brass. They held back the throng of rival journalist to wave his car through. That Sunday, his was the first and only account of how the news was greeted inside.

Although O'Dwyer-Russell's own military experience was limited to a spell in the Territorial Army while an undergraduate at Leicester University, he accumulated a vast expertise in defence. His father was a senior RAF officer, and his eldest brother was until recently an RAF Harrier pilot and fought in the Falklands.

After Leicester, he was one of the first post-graduate students in war studies under Professor Lawrence Freedman at King's College, London. Using his army connections, he was able to gain an attachment to the British contingent in the UN forces in Beirut.

All this, plus a wide range of friends in military circles, gave him unrivalled access to both the Armed Forces and the security services at all levels and enabled him to write stories which produced apoplexy at the Ministry of Defence. The editorial conferences at The Sunday Telegraph were often enlivened by an O'Dwyer-Russell account of how this or that piece of military equipment had failed. His tale of how delays to a new radar system meant that high-tech RAF Tornados were flying with concrete ballast in their noses had sceptical colleagues in stitches - but turned out to be true.

Another story in which he reported that RAF pilots who sought early retirement were being grounded, thus reducing their employability when they left, forced an immediate change in the rules.

His brass neck became legendary within the paper, where his enthusiasm for a big story was such that he hated to see one go by without some personal input from himself.

Earlier this year he was among those reporters who dashed into Central London a Saturday afternoon to cover the Trafalgar Square poll tax riot. He was dressed characteristically - navy blue blazer, yellow polka-dot silk tie with glittering tie-pin, cuff-links and highly-polished size 15 brown brogues, so large that they had to be hand-made - but entirely improperly for a violent protest.

He was spotted, in the middle of dictating copy, by a group of demonstrators who ran at him shouting “Get the yuppie! Get the yuppie!” He thumped the nearest over the head with his portable phone and ran off behind police lines to continue filing his contribution to the front page.

O'Dwyer-Russell's background was, in fact, modest middle class, and after being head boy at Kimbolton public school he worked variously as a despatch rider, dustman, and meat loader, even delivering flowers to help to get through university.

But he set out to embrace the upper-class establishment, whose behaviour and manners he would also mock. His wife, Karen an interior designer whom he married six years ago, recalls how, when they were first dating, he eventually introduced her to his flat. she had expected something grand, but liked him none the less when it turned out to be a dive at the back end of Kensington.

He made many close friends in the grander regiments, especially the Guards, and rode regularly in Hyde Park on the horses of the Household Cavalry.

He was urged to keep coming back partly because his favourite horse, Hercules, was so large that it needed a man of O'Dwyer-Russell's size in order to be exercised properly. He enjoyed the social life surrounding hunting but disapproved of the sport itself.

He was once told to stop shouting at his horse when it went over a jump, as it did not need encouragement and might be put off. “It's not the horse I'm trying to encourage, its myself,” he replied.

Above all, he liked cars “What's the fastest car in the world?” was one of his favourite jokes. The answer was, of course, a hire car. (He got through three on one of his Gaza trips, though the damage was from hurled rocks rather then driving too quickly.) Or, failing that, a rally car; preferably on a race to the South of France.

He could be raucous in the office (although his favourite drink was Coke), and would occasionally lose his temper with colleagues. A former Sunday Telegraph foreign correspondent was once startled to be lifted bodily by O'Dwyer-Russell and dumped, unceremoniously, in an enormous waste paper bin.

He was also a sensitive man, and was particularly close to his other older brother, who has multiple sclerosis. As a result, he would make and enjoy jokes about anything except disabled people.

He joked about the heart surgery which he was told he needed soon after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. His hope was that the Americans could be persuaded to delay any attack until he was back at work - he (as well as his colleagues) dreaded the possibility of the biggest military story of his career reaching its climax without him being there.

His last story before his operation, published at the end of September, correctly predicted that Lieutenant-General Sir Peter de la Billière was to be put in overall command of British forces in the Gulf. A little while after his surgery he was up and about in hospital where he took to impersonating a doctor by donning a white coat, and broadcast nightly jokes to the other patients over the internal radio.

He seemed to be making a good recovery, and his colleagues shared his optimism, encouraged by his occasional cheerful re-appearance in the office and the resumption of his contributions from home - or, last Saturday, from the Cotswold cottage where he was snowed in.

The sudden heart attack which killed him early the following morning has deprived everyone who knew him - and has taken from journalism one of its most enthusiastic talents and exuberant spirits. No one failed to be spurred on by the enjoyment O'Dwyer-Russell found in his life and his job.

As he once remarked to Judah Passow, as they drove hard and fast to a story through an African night, O'Dwyer-Russell's favourite Fleetwood Mac tape playing at full blast: “can you believe they actually pay us to do this?”

A fund is being launched in memory of Simon O'Dwyer-Russell. It is proposed that the money raised should be donated to the Department of War Studies at King's College, London, to endow an annual student award.

Please send cheques, made out to the Simon O'Dwyer-Russell Memorial Appeal, to The Editor's Secretary, The Sunday Telegraph, 181 Marsh Wall, London E14 9SR. A memorial event will take place in the New Year, when details of the award will be announced.

Related