Dead at 39: The shining light of African journalism goes out

Anthony Mitchell died when Kenyan Airways Flight 507 plunged into a mangrove swamp in Cameroon on 5 May.

Based in Nairobi, he had become one of southern Africa's most respected journalists since leaving the Daily Express six years ago.

He was working for Associated Press when he died, aged 39, leaving wife Catherine and children, Tom, three, and one-year-old Rose.

Close friend Oliver Harvey, The Sun's chief feature writer, remembers him.

He would have said: "Spin it up; just make me look great."

The truth, at the end of Anthony Mitchell's his short life, was that he didn't need any help being remembered as a wonderful journalist, father or friend.

The one-time Fleet Street pub raconteur had become a devoted family man and latterly one of Africa's finest journalists. After his death, a syndicated column across the USA headlined his obituary "A Shining Light Goes Out in Africa".

Anthony – his humour Sahara-dry – would have laughed hysterically. Yet it highlighted the high regard in which his fearless reporting was held. It saw him expelled a year ago from his adopted homeland of Ethiopia for reporting its government's brutality.

"Only last month his exclusive report on the illegal detention of terror suspects in Ethiopian prisons not only made global headlines, but also saved lives.

Surrey scoops It all began about as far away from the mangrove swamps of Africa as you could get – at the sleepy, suburban Richmond and Twickenham Times.

Born in Chertsey, Surrey, to John and Jackie Mitchell, Anthony had followed big sister Jo Jotischky into journalism in 1993, after graduating in philosophy and politics from York University.

His contemporary Thomas Whitaker – now at The Sun – remembers Anthony discovering that Hounslow Council had charged white groups to use a local hall while for Asian groups it was free. Another splash revealed how a councillor had built an extension without planning permission.

Thomas remembers: "Both stories sat uneasy with our management, being a bit too ‘red-top' for us. The truth is that they were excellent."

Anthony soon headed for the London-based National News Agency, where I first met him.

Irreverent and razor sharp, he relished the cut and thrust of tabloid reporting and the dark arts of Fleet Street.

Photographer Jeff Moore remembers being sent to confront a "dirty" doctor with Anthony. As the doctor returned home carrying his shopping, he saw Jeff's camera and stuck the bag on his head.

Tins of beans rolled down the street and the doctor's wife rushed out of the house to attack Jeff with a broom.

Jeff said: "Anthony came to the rescue and grappled with the doctor's wife as they both rolled around on the tins of beans. It became one of his pub anecdotes."

He also joined the National football team – electing himself centre forward, naturally. He was actually pretty good for the first 30 minutes, before the booze and fags began to tell.

After a day of doorsteps, we adjourned to The Fox in Old Street to keep the adrenaline flowing. Anyone who has been on a night out with Anthony knows what a white-knuckle ride it could be.

A showman and brilliant conversationalist, he perfected the uncanny art of ripping someone to shreds yet making them like him all the same. He loved a reaction, any reaction.

He was also happy to laugh at himself. A drag queen strippergram sent to humiliate him on his stag do was himself left embarrassed when Anthony stripped off the man's sequined dress and wig and began cavorting around the pub, refusing to give the clothes back.

After a year at National, Anthony moved to the Daily Express in 1996, making his name with a six-week stint in Kosovo and Macedonia.

The desk had asked Anthony to find an injured Kosovan girl in a 25,000-strong German-run refugee camp. Anthony saw the Germans used loudhailers at the camp, so he found one, and began walking around the tents shouting the girl's name.

A German patrol raced over to Anthony and demanded he stop using his megaphone. Anthony turned around and barked through his megaphone: "Go away and let me do my job."

He refused to talk to Germans unless he was using his megaphone. Bemused, they eventually let him get on with it. Anthony, of course, found the girl and got a great show in the paper.

On another occasion, working with photographer Jonathan Buckmaster, he beat his way through the jungles of Sierra Leone to find Pinky, a white chimpanzee. "I don't know if it was the shock of being interviewed by Anthony, but Pinky died a few days afterwards," Jonathan remembers.

Off to Africa Then, long-term girlfriend Catherine Fitzgibbon was posted to Ethiopia to work with the Goal aid agency.

Anthony gave up his beloved Fleet Street in 2001 for a fresh start in Africa, working as a freelance. He soon married Cath – who went on to work for Save the Children – his undoubted rock who anchored him to reality.

Shortly after, I visited him and we took a guide, a guard and mulers trekking for a week in the remote Simian mountains.

Waking early on the first morning, I opened the tent flaps to see Anthony – swigging from a bottle of the local firewater – drilling the men military-style in the local Amharic language. Africa had got under his skin.

He loved the wildness and unpredictability of Africa. In Addis Ababa, he had a large circle of friends and journalistic contacts – he was soon filing for The Times, Guardian and Telegraph and landed a job at Associated Press.

Grilling Geldof On a trip to Ethiopia with Bob Geldof, I joined Anthony as we followed the Live Aid hero around Aids clinics. Anthony – by now an expert on African geopolitics – asked Geldof an intricate and testing question about the effects of Live Aid cash.

Geldof spun round and retorted: "What's it to you, slaphead?" Later Geldof asked who Anthony was, admitting he "knew his stuff".

Anthony then helped me find Birhan Woldu – the girl seen dying on the big screens at the original Live Aid – in northern Ethiopia.

It led to a meeting with Tony Blair who was visiting Addis – me in a suit borrowed from Anthony – and saw the relaunch of the Band Aid single, earning £12 million, and later the Live 8 concerts.

Returning alone to Addis Ababa, by plane, Anthony later told how the flight had taken off, then both engines had cut out and the plane had glided, slowly, back to the runway. He just laughed it off.

By now, his dogged reporting style, honed on the tabloids in Britain, was bearing fruit on stories that really mattered. During the 2005 election, Anthony repeatedly uncovered government efforts to influence the vote's outcome and obtained secret European Union reports that detailed allegations of rigging.

Expulsion In January 2006, the Ethiopian authorities gave him just 24 hours to leave the country that had become home. His expulsion attracted widespread condemnation from human rights groups and was front-page news there.

Ian Gallagher, a close friend from his Express days, said: "He was threatened, arrested, bugged and followed by police. Despite being in great danger, he persisted in exposing government lies. That took real courage. He always made light of his talent and achievements."

Relocating to Nairobi with his family, he became one of the continent's most dogged newsmen. AP dispatched him to Somalia, Djibouti and, finally, the Central African Republic.

"Anthony was an extraordinarily talented and dedicated journalist," said Tom Curley, AP's president and chief executive. "His loss will be deeply felt by anyone who cares about Africa and its future."

His last scoop was discovering markets that sold elephant meat and gorillas to international smugglers.

To many of his family and friends it came as some solace that he died with his journalistic boots on.

His wife Cath said: "He lived life to the full and died doing the job he loved. He was a fantastic father and husband."

If there is such a thing as a journalistic Valhalla, Anthony will be centre-stage at the bar tonight bragging of past scoops. Waiting for the newsdesk call to send him on the next one.

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