By Tom Brown
Bob McGowan, a genuine stalwart of Fleet Street and all it stood for, has died in hospital in Spain after a long and courageously-fought illness. He was a reporter’s reporter, staunch colleague and a convivial companion.
Bob had his share of awards and commendations but what he prized most were his family – wife Pauline and children Emma and Doug – and the camaraderie of his fellow hacks and snappers. The abiding memories of ‘Big Mac’ are his look of quizzical amusement at life in general and the antics of his workmates in particular and his ability to get the job done wherever it took him, whatever it took out of him.
Bob began his 33-year career as rookie district reporter in Grimsby before moving to the Evening Standard and the Daily Express, where he was news reporter and assistant news editor. Especially for younger reporters, he was the model story-getter and news gatherer – not least in conflict situations.
He reported the Six-Day War in 1967, Northern Ireland, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the South Mollucan siege in Holland in 1975, the overthrow of Idi Amin in Uganda, 1978-79 and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. His coverage of the Iranian embassy siege in 1980 won the Reporter of the Year award and the Falklands War from start to finish with 3 Para made him proud holder of the South Atlantic Medal with rosette. It seemed the big stories of the next 20 years were not complete without his reporting – the Brighton bombing, the Libyan embassy siege, the EgyptAir Flight 648 in Malta, the kidnapping and murder of schoolgirl Sarah Payne…
It almost seemed like light relief when he ran the New York office for six weeks in 1981 and was able to indulge his love of pop music at the Simon and Garfunkel reunion free concert and the Rolling Stones tour of America. When Oliver Reed was banned from drinking in New England, Bob tracked him down and got the interview because the bibulous Reed seemed to recognise him as a soulmate.
One of the few times he was lost for words was over lunch with Sophia Loren, whom he described as a ‘leaving home’ woman and she eventually he asked him: ‘Shouldn’t you be asking me some questions?’
He invaded Afghanistan, unaccredited, with photographer Steve Wood and thought Steve pushed his luck a bit too far when he broke cover and had a long discussion with a Russian commander. When Bob demanded what he was doing, he was told: ‘I just asked them if they wouldn’t mind moving their tanks so I could go to F4 for a bit of depth of field, Bob.’
He always said his oddest by-line was in the rival Daily Mail when a senior Hong Kong police officer was embroiled in a bribery scandal in 1973. When he landed in England, the Mail splashed a picture with the caption ‘Peter Godber and one of his minders’. The ‘minder’, of course, was Bob whose face was cropped out of the second edition.
Some human stories he could not forget. He was so affected by the deaths of soldiers who had become comrades and friends in the Falklands that he wrote a book, Don’t Cry for Me Sergeant Major, with Jeremy Hands of ITN, a realistic account of the harshness, humour and, yes, terror faced by the ordinary squaddie. The sequel, Try Not to Laugh, Sergeant-Major told of army life in ‘peacetime’.
He and his family lived the good life in the village of Benitachell on the Costa Bianca, until he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. Up to the end, he kept up a blog that reads like a light-hearted report from the war front; he gave his cancers names so he could personalise the fight, the primary in the lung was Ralph and the two in the brain were The Boys.
As long-time friend and fellow-reporter Mike O’Flaherty said: ‘Bob was a reporter without parallel. He was also brave and resolute and totally unselfish. When he heard I was ill with a heart problem, he was more concerned about my condition and recovery than his own illness. This is the measure of the man.’
Bob McGowan left life as he lived it – with grace and good humour.
Bob died in August 2011 aged 67. This tribute first appeared on gentlemenranters.com