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In conversation with Robin Lustig

February 19, 2017

In conversation with Robin Lustig Wednesday 17th May, 7.30pm Dulwich Picture Gallery, Linbury Room

Journalist and broadcaster Robin Lustig’s distinguished career has spanned more than 40 years. Best known as the presenter of The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 and Newshour on BBC World Service until 2012, he has been witness to the world of news change beyond recognition. Robin recently published his memoir, Is Anything Happening?: My Life as a Newsman, looking back at his career in the news.

This conversation with Robin Lustig will provide a fascinating insight into the world of journalism and the role of the reporter.

Ahead of the event we asked him a few questions to give you a taste of what the audience can expect.

What do you think drew you to journalism as a career?

I happened to be born with an excess of the curiosity hormone and a love of travel, which made journalism the ideal occupation.

Your career started as a Reuters correspondent and then a journalist for The Observer but you became best known for presenting The World Tonight on Radio 4, which you did for 23 years. What is the difference between presenting and reporting?

There are both similarities and differences. As a presenter, you ask people questions in the hope of getting answers that will help people better understand the world around them. As a reporter, you do the same thing, but you don’t always get to go home at night to sleep in your own bed. Perhaps the biggest difference is that as a presenter, your questions are asked publicly, which inevitably means there’s an element of play-acting involved.

You have recently published a memoir about your career, Is Anything Happening?: My Life as a Newsman. What did you discover about yourself by writing it?

It’s an interesting question. I’m not much given to self-examination so I prefer to ask questions about other people rather than about myself. I suppose what struck me most as I was writing the book was how extraordinarily lucky I have been to be able to travel as much as I have done and to have witnessed history in the making.

You started your career in journalism in a completely different landscape to the one which we inhabit today. There was no internet, mobile phones or 24-hour news channels. How has this changed the nature of journalism?

The communications revolution has made life as a journalist infinitely easier than it was when I started — and infinitely more difficult. The web and search engines mean that vast quantities of information are now available at the click of a computer mouse, but unfortunately not all that information is accurate, or even true, so journalists need to be much more careful about taking things on trust. The golden rule when I started was ‘If in doubt, make another phone call.’ It should apply equally, if not more so, today. The other big change is that information that used to be available only to journalists is now available to everyone. This means that journalists need to work much harder to find stories, and to accept that they will often be challenged by people who know more than they do.

Has the role of journalism changed?

No. The primary role of journalism remains what it has always been: to help inform citizens so that they can make well-informed decisions about the world around them and about whom they want to elect to positions of power. Perhaps what has changed is that journalists today need to do more to help citizens understand the context in which news events happen — the ‘Why?’ is now more important than ever.

In the course of your career you have interviewed countless political leaders. Who has given you your most interesting interview?

In my experience, political leaders don’t often give interesting interviews. They do so many of them that they trot out the same platitudes over and over again. What’s most interesting for a journalist is the opportunity to observe them close up and try to form a view about what kind of people they are, rather than to hang on their every word.

Who has been the most difficult interviewee?

The leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadžić, now serving a 40-year-old prison sentence for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Apart from being a mass murderer, he was also an inveterate liar.

Is there an interview you are particularly proud of?

Not really. I come out of every interview thinking I should have done better.

What do you think has been the most significant world event you have covered?

The reunification of Germany in 1990. I was in Berlin and was very conscious of the fact that I was witnessing the most significant day in European history since the defeat of Hitler in 1945.

While you were presenting Newshour on the BBC World Service you covered every UK election night programme from 1997 until you stepped down in 2012. Which was the most significant?

The first one: the landslide victory of the Labour party under Tony Blair in 1997, the first of three that Labour won under his leadership. The Labour party is still trying to create a post-Blair identity for itself, and has still not come to terms with his decision to back George Bush over the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In your career you reported on four US presidential elections including Barak Obama’s historic election in 2008. We have just experienced another momentous American election. Would you have liked to have presented the coverage for this one and why?

I reported on four US presidential elections: the two Bush ones (2000 — hanging chads — and 2004) and the two Obama ones (2008 and 2012). I have always been fascinated by US politics, ever since my first visit in 1968, and yes, of course I would have loved to have been there again in 2016. The Trump phenomenon is unlike anything in recent US history, and I certainly felt a few pangs having to watch it unfold from this side of the Pond.

You write a blog Lustig’s Letter. How does this type of writing compare to journalism?

I started writing the blog when I was still at the BBC (it started as a weekly email newsletter, and it was their idea). The sort of blog that I write is still a sort of journalism, although now that I have left the BBC and am allowed to express my personal opinions, it is closer to an op-ed column than to news. I like to think that anything I write on my blog would not be out of place in a newspaper; it simply represents my attempt to make sense of what’s going on around us. And, when I do get an opportunity to go off and report from somewhere far away (since leaving the BBC, I have reported from Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Myanmar and Nigeria), I can do some real reporting as well.

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