Robin Stafford

              Robin Stafford CREDIT: STAFFORD FAMILY

Robin Stafford, who has died aged 86, was a foreign correspondent for the old broadsheet Daily Express for more than 20 years before becoming the official spokesman for Nato when Lord Carrington was secretary-general. 

He joined the Express in 1954, when the paper boasted a daily circulation of four million, a readership of 12 million and foreign bureaux around the world. Over the ensuing 22 years, Stafford was based variously in Paris, Rome, Beirut, New York and Moscow.

Robin Stafford in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, with victorious rebels following the civil war of 1965 CREDIT: STAFFORD FAMILY

Stafford claimed to have been the last British reporter to receive a message from his newsdesk in London via a native bearer with a cleft stick, at a train station in Somalia. On another occasion, in a remote town in northern Ethiopia, his late-night account of Princess Anne being taken ill during a state banquet was held up when international telephone and telex links failed. Stafford’s copy got through thanks to the local operator whistling it over the phone to the next village, letter by letter, in Morse code. The story appeared word-perfect in the Express the next morning.

In 1963 Stafford tracked down Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where they were waiting to marry. With photographer Bill Lovelace, he struck up such a cordial friendship with the couple that they allowed him to help them plan their flight to Montreal in March 1964. On the “dry” Air Canada flight Stafford persuaded the cabin staff to serve them whisky in tea cups. He and Lovelace were the only press present at the wedding and pulled off a world scoop. 

Robin Stafford (right), and his photographer Bill Lovelace, with Liz Taylor before her first marriage to Richard Burton CREDIT: STAFFORD FAMILY

“Robin Stafford of the Express came to visit us at the same time as Peter Sellers,” Burton recorded in his diaries. “He was the only journalist allowed at our wedding, not because he was a particular friend but because he was so quietly and charmingly persistent. It wasn’t until we had chatted for a long time that I thought to ask him if he were on a job or purely social visit.”

Stafford was in Turkey in 1960 when, in collaboration with David Hotham, Ankara correspondent of The Times, he traced the notorious German spy known as Cicero, an Albanian-born Turk named Elyesa Bazna. During the war Bazna had been the valet to the British Ambassador in Ankara, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, who left top-secret documents lying around his bedroom. When he bathed, Cicero photographed them and passed film daily to the Germans. 

While in Istanbul to cover the trial and subsequent execution of the former prime minister, Adnan Menderes, Stafford had asked around about Cicero, and was told variously that he had been shot by the British and shot by the Germans. After following numerous false leads, Stafford and Hotham finally came face to face with Bazna in a dingy apartment in Istanbul’s Fatih quarter.

When confronted, Bazna demanded £10,000 and two airline tickets to “anywhere but preferably Germany”. Although both Stafford and Hotham published stories of his whereabouts, neither the Express nor The Times paid a penny to a man whose treachery had almost certainly cost thousands of Allied lives.  

In the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli War of 1973, Stafford landed another exclusive by persuading Max Hastings of the Express’s then sister paper the Evening Standard, who was returning to London, to act as his “pigeon” by carrying a letter which Hastings duly delivered to the Express office next to the Standard on his arrival in Fleet Street. The following morning, Hastings was dismayed to see “screaming headlines” on the front page of the Express about a secret raid by Israeli commandos, who had snatched an entire Soviet-built radar station from deep inside Egypt.

The letter that Hastings had “innocently pigeoned” for Stafford would have finished Hastings in Israel had it been intercepted; Stafford, too, knew he could never have filed the story himself, or, if he had, he would never have worked in Israel again.

Robin Stafford, after being invited aboard a Beatles Caribbean cruise by Ringo Starr CREDIT: STAFFORD FAMILY

The youngest of three children, Roger Robin Stafford was born in Wimbledon on September 19, 1930. At the outbreak of war the family was evacuated to Oxford where his father, Frederick Stafford, became the artistic director of the New Theatre. Educated at Eastbourne College, Robin won a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, but never took it up, opting to do his National Service first. He was drafted into the Royal Artillery but during a training exercise shelled his own position and was transferred to the Intelligence Corps. 

When he returned to England from a posting in Africa, he was sent to stay with his sister in Paris where he began work at RFI (French International Radio), reading the news for the station’s English service. To augment his income he also filled in as a night desk man for the Daily Express, which soon offered him a staff job in Paris. 

His first war assignment was in 1961 in Algeria where there was vicious street fighting. The French rebel Secret Army Organisation (OAS), run by General Raoul Salan, had shot a couple of French journalists, and in a restaurant where he had been lunching with a group of fellow British reporters, Stafford was handed a note signed by Salan saying: “You Anglo-Saxon journalists are hereby ordered to have a good time while you can. You’re next.” Fortunately, the threat was never carried out.

In January 1959 the proprietor of the Daily Express, Lord Beaverbrook, became convinced (wrongly, it transpired) that his friend Sir Winston Churchill was travelling to Marrakesh in Morocco in order to die, and instructed Stafford and a photographer, Mike McKeown, to hasten there. Sir Winston and Lady Churchill arrived in a plane loaned for the occasion by Aristotle Onassis. First off the aircraft was a crate of Pol Roger champagne and with nothing else to do, McKeown snapped it for the record. They sent it to London where it was splashed in a William Hickey diary piece across three columns headed: “Of course, he took his own champagne along!”.

The story was seen by Christian Pol Roger who immediately ordered 3,000 copies of the newspaper and sent a case of champagne to Stafford’s Paris office, although on his return from Marrakesh three weeks later, not a drop was left. Many years later while passing through Epernay with his wife Barbara, Stafford called at the office of Pol Roger, where Christian Pol Roger recalled his pleasure at the publicity he had received. On departure, Stafford found two cases of champagne in the boot of his car.

After leaving the Express in 1976, Stafford freelanced in Rome and then worked for United Press International before moving to SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe) in 1980. In 1985 he was appointed Nato spokesman during the secretary-generalship of Lord Carrington, a former British foreign secretary.

Carrington’s successor at Nato was Manfred Woerner, whom Stafford accompanied in 1990 on a ground-breaking visit to Moscow where he laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. One of the Russian delegates said to Stafford: “When you were here as a journalist we thought you were a spy. Now you have come from Nato, we know you are a spy!” Stafford insisted this was untrue.

Robin Stafford married, in 1956, Marilyn Gerson, with whom he had a daughter. The marriage was dissolved, and in 1974 he married Barbara Harrison, a BBC production assistant. Both wives and his daughter survive him.

Robin Stafford, born September 19 1930, died November 25 2016


© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre