I met Peter Hounam, the former Sunday Times chief investigative reporter, when I was 18 and working as a postboy on the paper, sorting the mail for eight hours a day. It was a crap job, but it was a foot in the door, and frankly after a year on the dole I was grateful for anything.
I knew nothing about newspapers, but I knew Peter because I’d seen a TV film about an investigation he did revealing Israel had nuclear weapons. I was sorting post one night, and Peter came to collect his mail. We started talking, and soon I was doing research for him, then making a few phone calls – things snowballed. Soon I was working on investigations into dodgy arms deals. At 18, it was exciting stuff.
I remember that when I wrote up a nuclear smuggling investigation I’d helped with, Peter read it, smiled, and said: “Look, there’s a thousand different ways of writing this” – a polite way of saying it was shite. But then he showed me how it should be done. He once said “make every sentence count”, and taught me silence is a great way of encouraging others to speak. It was all fantastic advice. After leaving The Sunday Times, Peter landed the What the Papers Say Scoop of the Year after securing a leaked copy of the Chancellor’s budget speech.
When I left the ST I was only about 24, but Peter encouraged me to think about writing books. It was partly thanks to his encouragement I wrote The New Jackals on al-Qa’ida. I stayed in touch with Peter while I was writing One Day in September about the Munich Olympics. The books led to the BBC offering to send me to some of the dodgiest travel destinations on earth. I’m amazed Peter and The Sunday Times let me near a keyboard so young. I was a kid, yet they gave me opportunities and responsibility. I was paid a pittance of course, but I learnt more there than I would have at university. And the most important thing Peter taught me was curiosity.