'Suits from Savile Row, shirts from Jermyn Street, talent from God'

  • 18 March 2005
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His wasn't a name that was well-known in Ireland, but Ross Benson, who died last week, was without doubt one of the best journalists of his generation. Brave, funny, brilliant and always immaculately dressed, he was legendary among his colleages as he reported on wars, the Royal Family and on London society with equal aplomb.

A British gent of the old school he reported on conflicts from Afghanistan to Northern Ireland, Central America, the Balkans and, most laterally, Iraq. His writing in the Daily Mail on the war in Iraq was the most powerful journalism in any medium to come out of that conflict and he was one of the very few western journalists to venture outside the fortified hotels of Baghdad during last January's elections.

The first time I met him I had just arrived in the Palestine Hotel in Iraq where all the journalists were holed up. Mortars were falling outside and when I was introduced to him he asked me: "What's the first rule of being a foreign correspondent?" I hadn't a clue and was not a little in awe of his reputation, but he provided the answer. "Always bring the papers. Did you bring the papers?" I had, but had abandoned them in Amman. He was totally unimpressed, but mellowed a little when I was able to tell him what was on every page of the Daily Mail from two days previously, including being able to quote parts of his dispatch carried over two full pages.

Quoting him was easy; he was a truly brilliant writer, who could evoke vivid pictures of what was around him in a couple of words. The anger at the misery he often saw jumped off the page but in life he seemed far too charming, self-deprecating and funny ever to get angry at anything.

His sartorial elegance and care for his appearance was the stuff of a comic book hero. After months holed up under the bombardment of Baghdad two years ago, he greeted the arriving US troops dressed immaculately in a blue blazer with a silk handkerchief hanging from his breast pocket.

"One should always dress properly for the occasion," he was fond of saying.

Another time I asked him why he almost always wore beautifully tailored jackets, even in 50 degrees of heat, with the handkerchief always in place. "Because, old boy, the British Empire was built on blue serge," he told me. "It was given away on cheap polyester mix."

As one friend said of him after his death: "Suits from Savile Row, shirts from Jermyn Street, talent from God."

Covering the war against the Russians in Afghanistan must have been difficult. Six weeks disguised as a tribesman, with blonde hair dyed, must have been hell. "On the whole," he told a colleague while under bombardment, "I'd rather be in Annabel's."

War reporting was something he was hardly born to, even if it was a childhood ambition. He went to school at Gordonstoun, where Prince Charles was a classmate. He told me he started his professional life as a "property spiv", buying London property in his late teens. He lost his shirt on that game when a war in the Middle East sent interest rates through the roof and he spent the rest of his career in journalism, with the Daily Express and the Daily Mail.

He had a great work ethic. A typical day in Baghdad would see me returning from a day out on the streets in the late afternoon covered in sweat and sand. Ross would be crossing the foyer of the tumbledown hotel, pressed Khakis and shirt, sporting a blazer with a towel under his arm heading for the swimming pool. He invariably had done it all hours before and knew a lot more about what was actually going on than anyone else.

For someone who travelled so much, he was very much a family man and always spoke with awe and pride about his three children. Their sporting achievements were really the only thing that ever left him speechless. He died suddenly at home after returning with his son from watching his beloved Chelsea beat Barcelona.

The last time I met him he was leaving for London, while I was off to spend some time patrolling with US troops. I told him I was going to do a story about the PX stores in the military bases, where it was rumoured you could buy a car tax-free if you were a soldier who spent a year abroad. "Find out what the scam is, there must be a scam," he told me. He drove an Italian sports car in London but wanted a Camero in the US, he was going to pick it up this year and drive it around there for his holidays.

The Daily Mail in their own tribute to him provided a fitting epitaph, it quoted one of his own dispatches from Iraq: "If you accept that we all owe God a death it makes the living easier. But it is how we act in the time allotted us that makes the living worthwhile."

fergal keane