Chris Buckland, who has died aged 73, was an outstanding political reporter, columnist and foreign correspondent, and one of the funniest and best liked figures in Fleet Street and the Lobby.
Stocky and debonair, with a trademark cigar, he filed over the years to almost every national tabloid in turn while living life to the full, but his journalistic home was the Daily Mirror. His raffish style carried over to his copy. Covering the Gulf War from Saudi Arabia in 1991, he wrote plaintively: “The first casualty of war is not the truth; it is room service.”
One colleague described Buckland as “the only teetotaller you could spend a five-hour lunch with”, but it was not always so. His “well-refreshed” period ended in 1981 when he was foreign editor of the Mirror; the paper booked him into the Priory and thereafter he resisted alcohol with the same determination with which he would later fight prostate cancer.
At Westminster, Buckland triggered regular outbreaks of mirth along the “Burma Road”, the corridor where most national papers have their Commons staff.
Even a receiving-line conversation with the Queen presented him with an opportunity. Buckland confessed to her that, arriving in Albania at the height of Communism, he had damaged some property of hers – his passport – by changing his occupation from Writer to Waiter, a step he felt might be prudent.
Buckland had an unerring eye for a story, and despite being a deflater of the pompous made friends across the political spectrum: David Blunkett, Michael Dobbs, the EU commissioner Jonathan Hill, Charles Kennedy – who he claimed offered him a peerage – and Ken Clarke.
Another friend was Christopher Meyer, spokesman in turn to Sir Geoffrey Howe and John Major and later ambassador in Washington. At an economic summit in Germany, Meyer developed a bad case of nerves after overhearing Buckland ask colleagues: “Who shall we shaft today – the foreign secretary or the chancellor?”
At another European summit, Buckland strolled out into the night air to enjoy a cigar. Spotting a figure who seemed familiar, he asked her out of politeness: “So what are you doing these days?” Back came the reply: “I am still the Queen of Denmark.”
Buckland was a talented pianist who could play ragtime with style. Equally proficient on the organ, he loved hymns and Songs of Praise. A stalwart of the Garrick, he celebrated his 73rd birthday there weeks before his death, having fought his illness with almost unfailing good humour for eight years.
Christopher Robert Buckland was born in Burnley on January 4 1944, the son of Claude Buckland and the former Vera Greenwood, and grew up in a council house; his mother died when he was five. He played truant from one Labour conference in Blackpool to revisit his home town and secure a Burnley football shirt for Alastair Campbell, a fellow exile.
His passion for the news was fired when, as an eight-year-old paper boy, he stopped to read every front-page report of the conquest of Everest. Soon after, he slipped away from his aunt’s house in north London to queue for a seat in the public gallery of the Commons. The debate he heard shaped the rest of his life.
From Burnley grammar school he read Social Sciences at Birmingham University, editing the student newspaper. Graduating in 1964, he joined the Daily Mail in Manchester, and the next year was posted to Belfast. In 1966 he became the Daily Mirror’s reporter in Dublin, then in 1970, with the Troubles mounting, its bureau chief in Belfast. Blown through a shop window by a bomb, he put his survival down to the fact that “with my height, there is not much surface area for the blast waves to hit”. He would fill out over the years.
Buckland arrived in Fleet Street in 1972 as home affairs editor of the Mirror, and reached Westminster two years later as its chief political correspondent. On holiday in Cyprus, he was surrounded by invading Turkish paratroops. In his haste to file a report he left his hire car on the beach, wondering for years if he would ever get the invoice.
In 1976 the Mirror sent him to Washington, where he came into his own filing lurid but witty copy from the Sex Pistols’ 1977 American tour. From 1978 he headed the paper’s bureau in New York; up against Paul Dacre, then of the Express and now editor of the Mail, and Les Hinton of The Sun, who later chaired News International, he held his own as they criss-crossed America on expenses, the three becoming firm friends.
In 1981 he returned to London as the Mirror’s foreign editor. A year later he rejoined the Lobby as political editor of the Sunday People, then in 1985 he became political editor of Today. He moved to the Express in 1989 as assistant editor (political and foreign), and from 1995 associate editor and political columnist.
Buckland moved again, in 1998, to the Sunday Mirror as political columnist, then in 2001 to the News of the World. His final billet, as a special correspondent, was with The Sun, from 2006 until illness overtook him.
Buckland never married, but enjoyed a long and happy relationship with Gillian Ross, whom he met when she was Marje Proops’s secretary.