More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism – Part Two

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

A university education in politics and international relations in Aberdeen would serve to lead me seriously astray. Journalism might have been regarded as a safe home in comparison to the lifestyle choice which emerged.

My life has been made up of a series of all-consuming passions. Once an interest developed, it quickly became a passion. It might be replaced several years later by something quite new and different but, for the time being, it would be the focus of all my energies.

An interest in shortwave radio had developed after a cousin gave me a former RAF Bomber Command radio set (type R1224A, according to the brass plate on the front on the case). Its blue wooden box sported a variety of intriguing dials and knobs on the fascia and mastery of these proved to be the key to a new world waiting to be discovered: commercial radio stations, restricted maritime and military transmissions, and amateur ‘ham’ radio broadcasts from around the world.

In a coved upstairs attic room, I spent hours late into the night scanning the airwaves, listening-in and noting wavelengths for future use. This must have seemed a harmless exercise to my parents downstairs but it was, in reality, here that my skills as a journalist, intelligence gatherer and investigator were honed.

Radio Moscow, HCJB ‘The Voice of the Andes’, Radio Free Europe and Radio Tirana might have seemed harmless enough propaganda stations, the sort which flourished on the short wave spectrum in those days before the advent of satellite broadcasting and the internet. But in those days, in the 1960s, virtually all top secret and military communications were passed over the HF short wave bands.

I was soon learning how to decode secret military SSB (single-sideband transmissions), the morse code, and intercepting messages from missionaries in the Congo, UN troops and distress calls from ships at sea.

I even won second prize in a national competition for a new slogan for Roberts radios, at the age of fifteen. I came up with ‘The World at your Fingertips with a Roberts Radio.’ It was derived directly from what I was personally up to.

However, the devious purpose of some of the international propaganda broadcasters was shockingly revealed to me on an Association of Teachers of Russian school trip to Russia in 1965. Ahead of the trip, I dispatched a letter to Radio Moscow’s English department advising them of my imminent arrival. To my astonishment, they wrote back and urged me to come and see them. After a few boring days with my school chums at the Intourist Hotel, I telephoned the comrades over at Radio Moscow.

The Radio Moscow people were all very charming, Kim Philby types, with far back British accents and quaint political observations drawn directly from Marx and Lenin. Even at 16 years of age I could discern that. They asked me if I would give an interview commenting upon my experiences in Russia. Being a co-operative sort, I gladly agreed.

I expounded at length on Russia and the communist experiment and was pretty pleased with the result. It seemed my lengthy contribution was destined to be treated with all due importance. After the broadcast came another pleasant surprise.

“Now please come to the cash room.” This was an unexpected turn of events, indeed.