Steve Connor - Scoops with a smile
An appreciation by Mike Kenward
The loss of anyone in the science writing community is always sad, but the messages on Facebook and the ABSW’s emailing list show that Steve Connor’s death from cancer, at the age of just 61, seems to have hit home more than the passing anyone else I can remember. The outpouring of sadness and regret, accompanied by fond, and often amusing, reminiscences shows just how much we all thought of Steve and his work as the scoopmaster general of science journalism.
When asked to write an appreciation of Steve for the ABSW, I quickly concluded that no single account could do him justice. My own part in Steve’s career was essentially peripheral. I may have been his editor, but anyone who knew him would know that Steve had little time for titles and status. You were just a colleague he worked with, and came to when he needed support, and expenses, to pursue the latest scoop.
That role came to the fore in the tale of one of Steve’s biggest journalistic bombshells for New Scientist, the pursuit of the story behind the real discovery of the HIV virus. Ostensibly the work of a team in the USA, led by Robert Gallo, Steve unearthed the true story, which traced the discovery back to a French group, led by Luc Montagnier, and the case of some possibly “borrowed” biological samples.
Others have described the story in more detail, including Steve in the book he co-wrote with Sharon Kingman, another colleague on New Scientist. I will just add one anecdote to demonstrate the lengths that Steve went to to nail the story. Not content with telephone calls – this was before email became the lazy journalist’s research tool – Steve persuaded his editor, that’s where they were useful, to let him go to the USA to interview one of the main protagonists. You didn't turn down Steve’s requests for that sort of backing, so off he went.
For once it is true to say that he was literally in mid-air half way across the Atlantic when the editor’s phone rang late one afternoon and I ended up persuading the scientists concerned that it would be unwise to turn Steve away when he turned up at the lab door. I probably didn’t tell the eminent scientist that Steve wouldn’t have taken much notice if I had tried to call him off, or that failing to talk to our intrepid reporter would only have made him more determined.
The story happened, Steve’s subsequent story changed the history of HIV, not to mention the battle for the Nobel prize, and set the pattern for a series of blockbuster Connor scoops. Oh, and he also got that book out of the saga.
Others have recounted Steve’s irreverent humour and the fact that he didn't make much of a fuss about anything. One illustration of this low-key approach was when he sidled into the editor’s office one afternoon not long before Christmas seeking another favour. This time it had nothing to do with a scoop, at least not one that we could publish, it was to do with something that Tom Wilkie, who worked with Steve for longer than most people, first at New Scientist and then The Independent, relates in his appreciation.
Steve said he would be away for a bit and needed signatures on some official documents. This wasn’t the usual passport application, he wanted to go off to Moscow to get married and bring Ines, and her young daughter, Marsha, back to the UK.
I will leave it to others to describe the lengths to which Steve would go to get a story, not to mention getting a job, according to some possibly scurrilous accounts, involved being economical with the truth about his age when he applied for a job as “young reporter” on New Scientist.
To me Steve stands out from the rest of us in the sheer doggedness with which he pursued stories and his quest for scoops, a word that doesn't feature much in science journalism. But then unlike the many fine science specialists who go into journalism, Steve was more a journalist who just happened to write about science. He could have covered any beat.
Steve’s focus on journalism features in another memory I have of Steve. He was quick to put right researchers who wondered why he wrote what they saw as negative stories about science. To paraphrase Steve, “It isn't my job to sell science. I am here to hold it to account.”
That sentiment may have summed up the feelings of many of us, but Steve was among the first to express it so strongly and clearly to audiences of researchers. He was also happy to point out when scientists were, in his view, akin to “pedlars of snake oil”.
Steve took a delicious sideswipe at the British Medical Association (BMA) in 1999 when it wandered outside its own area of expertise when it jumped into the debate about genetically modified food. “The BMA is a body of experts. But in my non-expert opinion its views on GM crops are no more and no less worthwhile than mine.” It was that desire to get the science right, and to look beyond the vested interests, that marked Steve’s work as a relentless newshound.
Steve’s career as a science reporter took off when Fred Pearce, then News Editor at New Scientist, overlooked the age thing and gave the erstwhile computer journalist a job on the magazine’s news team.
As Fred Pearce recounts it:
“I recruited him to New Scientist way back in ’83, from Computer Weekly if I remember right. [It was Computing, says Mike Cross.] He was my first appointment. A shoo-in. And he brought a scoop with him.”
“Back then he was a mate of secrets-busting Duncan Campbell. They wrote a joint book. He started going to Pugwash meetings, including one to Russia, where he met Ines, who was a translator. He then kept taking weekend breaks behind the Iron Curtain, which we thought rather mysterious till he revealed all and managed to get her out.”
“I think he was probably the best all-round science correspondent in the UK of the past 30 years. Only McGinty compares. Scoops, analysis, splashes, good old-fashioned reporting and explanation. And you are absolutely right that, unlike many in such posts, he was always a science journalist, standing outside, rather than a science-writer member of the priesthood. He also never got cynical.”
Lawrence McGinty has his own recollection of Steve’s working methods
“I never worked with Steve at NS (I left, he arrived) but I saw him around a lot. (Especially because at the time working for a new programme, Channel 4 News, as the only science person, I clung to NS like a safety blanket).”
“After a while, I noticed Steve had a habit. You’d be chatting away about not very much and casually one eyebrow would lift, in James Bond style. He didn’t charge in with a tell me more. He parked it. Later he’d ask someone else about the same topic. It might have been at a party but his radar was still on. That was one of the most impressive things about Steve – his nose for a story. The other was his unrelenting ability to chase down a story and stand it up.”
One person who worked with Steve for longer than most was Tom Wilkie, first on New Scientist, and then on The Independent on Sunday, which Steve joined after a brief interlude on The Telegraph. As Tom says “It is sobering to realise that I first started working with him (and you) nearly 35 years ago.” Like many of us, when he sat down to recollect working with Steve, the memories rolled in. despite Tom’s invitation to edit his thoughts, I reckon that his account deserves all the space it takes.
Tom Wilkie on 35 years as a friend and colleague
One important aspect of Steve's personal and professional lives is the wider context in which he lived and worked.
His personal life was a love story that crossed the Iron Curtain at a time, in the early 1980s, when the Cold War was intensifying. The Soviet Union was, according to Ronald Reagan, 'the evil empire'. Margaret Thatcher had given permission for nuclear-armed Cruise Missiles to be stationed at Greenham Common. The division of Europe seemed permanent to an extent that is almost impossible to convey today. It has become difficult even for those of us who had grown up in a divided Europe, to recall how we never heard Russian, Polish or any other Soviet Bloc language spoken 'in the West'.
Yet Steve and Ines fell in love when they met during a trip he made to Moscow -- a love match broken only now, more than 30 years later, by his death. Characteristically, he kept quiet about it, although some of his colleagues at New Scientist were starting to ask why he was finding repeated excuses to return to Moscow. Eventually the truth came out and they got married in the Palace of Weddings in Moscow. Despite the Cold War, it was successfully arranged that Ines and her daughter Marsha should come to the UK and live with Steve. (It's a sad reflection that, today, there would probably be more difficulty dealing with the UK authorities than with the Russian!)
Steve was delighted to be Marsha's father and was immensely proud of her. I recall once, as we worked together on the Independent, discussing a US scientific paper that extrapolated from animal behaviour to allege a biological basis for violence by human stepfathers towards their children. I was deeply sceptical but there was an added edge of derision and contempt to Steve's voice as he contrasted this 'scientific' result with the care and affection that he had for his own step-daughter.
For Steve, the scientific was also the personal.
To some extent, I think this helps explains why he was both a science journalist and an investigative journalist – and why he was so very, very good at both. He cared about science so, like any good science writer, he was always keen to get a science story into the paper. But he also cared when science was being abused, whether by politicians, money-men, or by overly ambitious or unscrupulous scientists themselves. It was because he cared when science was abused that he was such a good investigative reporter.
It made relationships with the scientific community uneasy at times. Too many establishment scientists in Britain thought (and still think) that a science writer's job was to be a cheerleader for science rather than to be a journalist whose stories would report the negative as well as the positive. Too many scientists in the USA use media coverage to promote themselves and bring in research money. And sadly, too many 'journalists' see themselves as little more than cheerleaders -- witness the way in which US technology writers will applaud speakers at press announcements of the latest product.
In his professional life, the wider context is that Steve (like me) was lucky to be writing when we did. There was a sudden flourishing of newspaper journalism in the late 1980s, stimulated by the appointment of Max Hastings as editor of the Daily Telegraph and by the launch of the Independent in 1986. Both papers were serious-minded about journalism and both took science and technology more seriously than had been the case for many, many years. All science journalists had to up their game. As science editor on the Independent when it launched, I found this little short of terrifying; Steve took to it straightaway.
Steve had joined New Scientist as a news reporter in 1983, when the magazine was still being printed entirely in black and white (apart from the cover). I first met him on New Scientist, when I joined slightly later in the year, as Physics and then Features Editor. In the initial months, he contributed many stories but gained few bylines but, on 10th November 1983 Steve had the lead news page all to himself, with a story revealing that 'next week' (he was always ahead of the game!) researchers would announce a way of testing for Huntington's Disease. Characteristically, even then, his story included a caution about the risks of predictive testing for genetic disease. Media technology might change, but the themes in Steve’s work were consistent: nearly 34 years later, his exclusive story on genetically engineering 'designer babies', published in the on-line Independent on 27 July 2017, was nominated for a Foreign Press Association Award.
He gained his first ABSW award in 1985, while working for New Scientist. He left in 1988 to become technology correspondent on the Telegraph but switched to the Independent on Sunday in 1990.
Steve was a natural as a Sunday newspaper journalist. He had a talent not just for spotting a story but for knowing that it would still be a story by next Sunday. Some stories took many weeks, but he had the patience to pursue them until he had all the threads in his hand. And he had the ability to switch off from the main story that he was pursuing in order to meet the news desk's request for something that had suddenly cropped up and had become topical. Then, he would return to patiently pursuing the main piece. Journalistically, his best work came from his 'marathon runner' approach (and he was not afraid of the loneliness of the long distance runner) but he could also be a sprinter when he had to. I admired and envied his ability, for I tended always to be a sprinter.
A second ABSW award followed in 1993 (at that time, an award winner could not re-enter for a period of some years). And again in 1999, for his reporting on the autism and vaccination controversy.
He was no respecter of persons, writing a mordant editorial in the Independent in 2009, criticising Ben Goldacre's smug and ill-informed criticisms of mainstream media's science coverage, acidly pointing out that, as publicly funded academics, Goldacre and his colleagues did not have to worry about the commercial pressures of those of us who have to 'sell' a story to our readership.
It was a particularly poignant rebuke, for I vividly recall Steve, some years earlier, critical (to the point of incandescent) of the behaviour of the Sunday Times during the initial years of the HIV/AIDS story.
Long after the connection had been established to everyone’s satisfaction, the Sunday Times eccentrically maintained that HIV does not cause AIDS. At least, I thought it eccentric; but Steve saw that the Sunday Times’ stories were being picked up in sub-Saharan Africa where HIV was endemic and that, by failing to discourage risky behaviours, bad science journalism was thus costing human lives. So he directly criticised the Sunday Times in his stories. For Steve, the scientific was personal.
Ends (as we used to write)
I’ll sum up with a few more tributes from Steve’s allies, and rivals, in the pursuit of news about science, scientists and what they get up to, rather than what they want to tell us that they do.
Sharon Kingman worked with Steve on New Scientist’s coverage of HIV/AIDS, with Sharon following the science while Steve chased the news, a collaboration that they turned into their book. Sharon and Steve also worked together on The Independent on Sunday.
“It has been a dreadful shock to hear of Steve’s death at such a young age. Although I hadn’t seen him for maybe about seven years since bumping into him at a press conference, somehow the fact that he has gone brought it home to me that my own “New Scientist era”, so precious in my memories, has truly gone. A person who was key to the events that took place then is no longer around to remember them with us.
“It is spot on that Steve was first and foremost a journalist, probably the best I have ever worked with. He had “killer instinct”—the story was everything. He followed the rule, never get too close to a source, in case one day they are the target of your story. All his awards were very well deserved.
“The stories that he brought back from Russia were fascinating. I remember hearing about how he had to sneak Ines into his hotel room, avoiding the attentions of the nosy “minders” that were posted on each floor of the hotel. And once she was out, she sometimes stayed in touch with her mother at one remove: when Steve and I were on the Independent on Sunday together, I remember she had tasked him with phoning up her mother to wish her Happy International Women’s Day—which she had trained him to say in Russian! Some weeks later, one of the Home News editors came round asking who had covered a story that had needed calls to Russia, because the bill was enormous. After that, Steve made sure to phone his mother-in-law from the Foreign News desk!
“Even Steve had some problems getting science stories into certain parts of the Independent on Sunday, such as the tabloid-size colour supplement that in those days was a new format. I remember him coming back from a session down the end of the office with one of the supplement’s editors, absolutely in despair at their ignorance. He had written something on trees and had been asked to use “less technical language”—they wanted him to avoid the term “the crown of the tree”! On another occasion, I remember him being scathing about one very senior editor, who had asked him who his favourite model was—when Steve had said he didn’t have one, this editor was incredulous: “Oh don’t be silly, EVERYONE has a favourite model!”. But that was Steve’s goal—to make science as interesting, comprehensible and pertinent to readers as celebrity lifestyles.”
Pallab Ghosh was another colleague at New Scientist who went on to become a media superstar, or at least the science correspondent at the BBC, not to mention former chairman and now honorary president of the ABSW.
“I’m reliving my time at New Scientist reading all your emails. I was in awe of Steve when I first joined the magazine when he was following every twist and turn of the Gallo-Montagnier battle. He was always ahead of the game. Fred told me with great relish how crafty Steve was at times.
“Fred was involved in hiring Steve and realised a few months after he had got the job that he had reduced his age by a few years in the application as he was told that they were looking for a young reporter.
“While national science correspondents came and went, Steve was the great constant for me. I’d often bump into Steve at the British Science Festival and the AAAS. He’d always have time for a conversation – often of fond recollections of times at New Scientist.
“He was part of my professional world for so long. Now that he has gone, like Sharon, I do feel that there is a gap in my life. I also agree with Sharon that Steve had a real instinct for a story. He seemed to know where to look, who to ask and, crucially, how to stand it up. He was a great journalist. Old School.
“As I got to know him my awe turned to huge admiration for him – both professionally and as a person. He was a kind, decent and yes, funny man. There was many a dry remark, often accompanied with a devilish glint in his eye and a wicked smile.”
Just to show that Steve didn’t arrive at New Scientist fully formed, Marcus Chown, who ran the science news section of the magazine when Steve was chasing copy, recalls a Twitter conversation they had.
“Looking back through Steve’s Twitter feed, I was very touched by this… ‘Thanks, Steve. That was very nice of you to say. I remember your kindness and patience in showing me how to write news for @newscientist when I knew nothing’”
That’s Steve, always generous with his appreciation of what other people did. But as Marcus says, it was a two-way process.
“Some of things I learnt from him I use every day in my writing. I am so shocked. And saddened”
“Steve taught me one of most important lessons in journalism. Sorry to be [a] tease but can’t tell you what. Trade secret!”
One account of Steve’s working practices comes from Peter Wrobel, who, as chief sub, ensured that New Scientist got out of the hands of the writers and into those of the readers on time and in a readable form.
“The incident I most remember about Steve at New Scientist was observing him interviewing someone reluctant over the phone, I think for the AIDS book. The interview was punctuated by a series of long silences, with Steve just waiting for the other guy to break – which he eventually did, every time. A cool guy.”
There is a lot more like that in the closed groups that we can all read. I’ll leave the last word to Tom Wilkie. In response to Fred’s comment about the past 30 years, Tom says of Steve:
“At least on newspapers, you would have to go back a lot longer than 30 years to find his like.”