A Tribute to Anthony Mitchell

I am about to do something that would have made Anthony unhappy.

You see, in December and January, when the war in Somalia was raging, we were all putting in 16 hour days and taking turns editing stories from our stringer reports.

The lead editor that day would have to process information from 10 different sources and write it up into one story, with someone else’s name on it just to add to the trauma.

At the end of one these days, I said to Anthony he had done a great job. He looked at me, sneered, and said, “I hate it when you say things like that.

Today, I can’t help it. I have some good things to say about Anthony Mitchell.

Anthony was a courageous, thoughtful and compassionate correspondent, though he would have you believe otherwise. He would like you to think of him as a little bit of a coward, but then would turn around and risk his life for a story.

When others were unwilling to stand up, Anthony never turned away from a challenge, and he never failed to report the truth to the rest of the world.

In Ethiopia, one top government official repeatedly called him in and made him stand in front of his desk like an unruly pupil while he lectured Anthony, making veiled – and some not-so-veiled – threats.

But Anthony never let up. He knew his job was to witness and testify, because if he didn’t, often times, nobody else would.
When government thugs intimidated voters, he was there. When opposition leaders proved incompetent, he was there.

When diplomats tried to hide their true opinions, he was there. He scored scoops and broke the news and did it with intelligence, compassion and diligence.

He continued his amazing work in Kenya, mixing the serious with the farcical, the irreverent with the sincere.

He was perhaps one of the best reporters I’ve ever known. Anthony was at ease covering disaster in Somalia, politics in Ethiopia and male Massai fashion models in Kenya.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at this. These are all of the condolence messages I had received by Wednesday night. They are still coming in from around the world, from every continent, from friends and strangers, co-workers and distant admirers, diplomats and rebel leaders.

Let me read from one especially moving tribute; it comes from Andrew England, now Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times but who worked with Anthony in Kenya and Ethiopia and became a good friend.

He described Anthony as: ‘A WONDERFUL COCKTAIL OF HUMOUR, CYNICISM AND GENEROSITY, A GREAT FRIEND WHO WOULD ALWAYS TOP MY LIST FOR A BEER AND A YARN.
WHEN SOME OF US TURNED UP AS JOURNALISTS IN AFRICA —, LIKE ME —, WE WERE NAIVE AND INEXPERIENCED, AND SAW NAIROBI AS A CHANCE TO PROVE OURSELVES. OTHERS CAME WITH NOTIONS OF CHANGING THE WORLD.
BUT WHEN ANTHONY ARRIVED HE WAS ALREADY A FLEET STREET VETERAN. I LEARNT HUGE AMOUNTS FROM HIM AS HE PROVIDED INSIGHTS AND EXPERIENCE FEW OTHERS I’VE MET IN AFRICA HAVE BEEN ABLE TO OFFER. HE NEVER CLAIMED TO BE HERE ON SOME MORAL CRUSADE, HE WAS SIMPLY DOING WHAT HE LOVED, WHICH I FOUND INCREDIBLY REFRESHING.
ONE OF ANTHONY’S ENDURING QUALITIES WAS TO AMUSE AND STRIKE FRIENDSHIPS EVEN AS HE WAS TEARING YOU TO SHREDS.
RECALLING OUR TIME TOGETHER, THE DETAILS SOMETIMES SEEMED A LITTLE VAGUE.
IN PART I GUESS IT WAS BECAUSE OUR EVENINGS OFTEN ENDED IN A BOOZY BLUR WITH NEITHER OF US QUITE SURE WHAT HAD BEEN SAID. BUT I ALSO REALISED IT WAS BECAUSE JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING ANTHONY DID WAS LACED WITH HUMOUR AND HIS CUTTING WIT WAS DELIVERED WITH SUCH SPEED AND PRECISION THE REST OF US WERE LEFT TRAILING IN HIS WAKE. THERE SIMPLY WAS NEVER A DULL MOMENT, EVEN IF HE SOMETIMES SENT US SCURRYING FOR COVER.
AND BENEATH THE CYNICISM, ANTHONY CARED DEEPLY. I WAS TOLD THE OTHER DAY THAT HE USED TO GIVE A MONTHLY ALLOWANCE TO A BLOKE WITH NO LEGS WHO SAT ON THE ROADSIDE NEAR HIS HOUSE. APPARENTLY THE MAN WASN’T A BEGGAR, JUST SOMEBODY WHO WOULD SIT IN THE SUN AND WATCH THE WORLD PASS BY.
I STARTED TO THINK ABOUT THIS AND IT OCCURRED TO ME THAT IF THE MAN HAD BEEN BEGGING, ANTHONY WOULD HAVE MADE HIM TAKE OFF HIS TROUSERS JUST TO BE SURE. HE REALLY DIDN’T HAVE ANY LEGS AND WASN’T TRYING TO PULL A FAST ONE.
IN ETHIOPIA, ANTHONY BECAME PASSIONATELY INVOLVED IN THE ISSUES THAT WERE TEARING THAT COUNTRY APART. HE WAS ALSO IMMENSELY GENEROUS AND WOULD OFFER ADVICE AND CONTACTS HE HAD WORKED TIRELESSLY TO ACQUIRE TO JOURNALISTS HE BARELY KNEW.
HE WAS QUICK TO HEAP PRAISE ON OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES, PARTLY BECAUSE OF HIS PROFESSIONALISM, BUT ALSO BECAUSE HE WAS GENUINELY HAPPY WHEN A FRIEND ENJOYED SUCCESS’.

(Chris resumes here)

Despite all of the praise for his journalism, Anthony was kind, generous and self-effacing.

And how he made us laugh.

Anthony had a razor sharp wit, and after a couple of drinks, beware falling into his gaze.

He would mercilessly tease you until everyone, including you, was rolling on the floor in laughter at your expense.

And Anthony loved his family.

Too many people are great at their jobs, but at a cost. Not Anthony. I have never known a more devoted son, husband or father.

He could drive them crazy at times, but his love for them was palpable,like a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day.

In the last two weeks, I have come to know Catherine and his parents, Jackie and John. They are brave and resilient in the face of adversity, just as Anthony would expect.

I admire their fortitude and now understand where Anthony got his.

Lastly, Anthony could also make a claim that every reporter wish they could: he saved lives with a story.

When dozens of Muslims, some women and children, from 19 countries were arrested by Kenya authorities only to later disappear, Anthony went looking for them. He traced them to holding centers in Somalia and eventually to prisons in Ethiopia, where the government denied their existence.

Anthony kept digging and with the help of other AP reporters, eventually proved these people were in Ethiopian custody and that U.S. interrogators were talking to them.

This forced the Ethiopian and the U.S. governments to come clean and Admit what was going on. I shudder to think what would have happened to them if Anthony hadn’t written that story.

Anthony never let up. He knew his job was to witness and testify, because if he didn’t, often times, nobody else would. When government thugs intimidated voters, he was there. When opposition leaders proved incompetent, he was there. When diplomats tried to hide their true opinions, he was there.
June 7, 2007
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