Times Obituary: Chris Buckland

Chris Buckland

Gifted correspondent with a sharp eye for the deceits and absurdities of political life

March 3 2017

The Times

Chris Buckland knew he wanted to be a journalist from a very young age

Chris Buckland revealed a passion for journalism, and the requisite degree of cunning, at a tender age.

Just after his eighth birthday he took a bus from his aunt’s home where he was staying in north London to the House of Commons. There he joined a queue for seats in the public gallery. Everyone thought the young boy was accompanied by someone else, an illusion that he carefully fostered.

Thus Buckland witnessed his first parliamentary debate. The year was 1952. Winston Churchill was prime minister. To Buckland’s lifelong regret, the great man was not in the chamber that day. From that moment the “council-house kid from Burnley”, as he liked to call himself, knew what he was going to do with his life.

Buckland was born in the Lancashire town in 1944. He distinguished himself at grammar school and went on to the University of Birmingham, where his aptitude as the editor of the student newspaper earned him a job after graduation on the Daily Mail.

This encouraging start to his career continued with a posting in 1966 to Belfast, where he switched from the Mail to the Daily Mirror, replacing the bureau chief Syd Young.

The move set the pattern for one of Fleet Street’s free spirits. Buckland frequently moved jobs, working for almost all the national newspapers as political correspondent until he returned to what he regarded as his true home, the Daily Mirror.

Looking back late in life he was modestly amazed at his ascent up Fleet Street’s slippery slopes. “I have been travelling first class on a second-class ticket. What on earth did they all see in me?” he once said.

The answer was partly personal charm. Politicians liked Buckland because they trusted him and he made them laugh. However, it was his sharp eye for a scoop and the ability to inject wit into the daily grind of stories from Westminster that made him stand out. His reward was a posting to the US, where he was the Mirror’s bureau chief from 1977 to 1981.

These were Buckland’s golden years, which he spent in competition with two formidable rivals: Paul Dacre, then of the Daily Express, later to become the editor of the Daily Mail, and Les Hinton of The Sun, later to become the chairman of News International.

They swept across America like three musketeers, funded by lavish expense accounts, travelling in hired planes and cars, always bent on outscooping one another, but invariably ending the day in the same bar.

The 1977 US tour by the Sex Pistols provided Buckland with a series of front-page stories about the violent, drug-fuelled excesses of the band that gripped British readers and outraged middle America.

At this stage of his life Buckland’s appetite for alcohol more than matched that of the heaviest drinker ever to sit on a Fleet Street bar stool. When the Sex Pistols tour eventually reached Austin, Texas, Dacre recalled seeing Buckland leaning against one of the vast speakers that amplified the shattering music. He was fast asleep.

The reckoning came on Buckland’s return to the UK as foreign editor. He was summoned to a meeting with an executive and told that there was a car waiting outside that would drive him to the Priory clinic in north London. He was ordered to dry out for six weeks.

The only solace was provided by the woman who had been at his side since his early days in Fleet Street. Buckland first saw Gill Ross when she was an assistant to the columnist Marjorie Proops. He invited her for a game of lunchtime tennis, an offer that she took to be a joke. It was not the usual way that journalists spent that hour of the day. She turned him down, thinking him charming, but a little odd. He persisted. She relented. The tennis turned out to be a computer game played in a Fleet Street bar. They were together for the rest of their lives.

Buckland never had another drink, but unlike most reformed alcoholics he lost none of his zest for life, nor his talent for spiky banter, which translated into some notable phrasemaking. When on holiday in Cyprus Buckland woke in his hotel one morning to find that Turkish paratroops had landed on the island and the hotel staff had left to take up arms. This led to a memorable intro to his story: “The first casualty of war is room service.”

He also had a gift for making friends. The former British ambassador to Washington Sir Christopher Meyer was serving as Foreign Office spokesman under Geoffrey Howe in 1985 when he first experienced Buckland’s brand of tabloid journalism. Introduced at an economic summit in West Germany, Buckland asked Meyer: “Who shall we shaft today, the foreign secretary or the chancellor?”

The two became firm friends, and Buckland was a frequent guest at the British embassy in Washington, where Meyer remembers him “hunched over a typewriter, cigar in his mouth, bashing out a story”.

Diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2010 did nothing to diminish Buckland’s appetite for work, nor the gossipy social life he led with his friends. By then he was working for the News of the World before moving to The Sun.

Always a proud northerner, he kept in touch with his roots in Burnley. He also enjoyed holidays with Ross in a flat on the Spanish coast.

At the end of his life, as cancer tightened its grip, he said: “I’m lucky. I have had the best of it as a journalist, and the best of friends to say goodbye to.”

Chris Buckland, journalist, was born on January 4, 1944. He died from prostate cancer on February 28, 2017, aged 73


© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre