The death of Sean Hoare, who is being dubbed the “News of the World whistleblower”, is not only a tragedy for his family and friends, but for journalism.
Sean was a natural reporter, a man with an unerring nose for a story who loved sniffing one out, and a journalistic character of the old school, despite his relative youth.
I first met Sean in the late 1980s when he was a trainee reporter with the Watford Observer in Hertfordshire, just north of London, and I was district editor of the Observer’s sister paper, the Borehamwood Times.
In April 1989 we both transferred to the Watford Free Observer, I as deputy editor and Sean as a reporter, and for about four years I sat opposite him, my view obscured by a constant fug of smoke and a the pile of cigarette ends overspilling from a giant ashtray that sat between us on the newsdesk.
Sean was instantly likeable, a welcome splash of colour in a local newspaper world in which young journalists were even then beginning to lose a lot of the eccentricity that made newsrooms such agreeable places in which to work.
Always smartly dressed, with Brylcreemed hair that gave him an appearance of having arrived from a slightly earlier age, he never wore socks.
In terms of traditional office rules he was not the most reliable of men. He was not a good timekeeper and would regularly vanish from the building for long periods, rarely telling me or our editor where he was going. “I’m just going for a mooch around town,” he would declare, as he left in a cloud of smoke. We never knew quite when we’d see him again.
But in one way he was 100 per cent reliable: he’d always come back with a notebook full of good, often offbeat, stories. His natural charm made it easy for him to make and maintain contacts from all walks of life.
Back in the office, he’d get a mug of coffee, light up another cigarette, and knock out his copy at great speed – before heading off to find more stories,
We all knew that local newspapers would not hold Sean for long. He was always meant for bigger things and he never made a secret of the fact that despite loving the work he was doing his heart was set on joining a national tabloid, which was his natural habitat.
He eventually achieved that ambition, transferring to The Sun, a paper big enough to hold and make full use of his huge character and talents.
I lost touch with him, hearing news of his exploits only from mutual fiends and colleagues. After a while he dropped out of sight completely until one day in Dublin in September 2010 I settled down in a bar with a pint of Guinness and the only English newspaper I could find in the nearby newsagent – The Guardian.
There, tucked away at the bottom of an inside page, was a piece about the interview with the New York Times in which he had claimed that Andy Coulson, under whose editorship at the News of the World Sean had worked as showbiz correspondent until being sacked, had commissioned unethical and illegal practices.
I texted another former Free Observer colleague in London to tell her to get hold of The Guardian and later spoke to a few people on the phone about Sean’s amazing claims.
None of us could have guessed what those claims would lead to – the closure of the Sunday paper he had once worked for, the arrests of a series of very senior journalists, the resignation of the UK’s most senior policeman and one of his colleagues, emergency debates in Parliament, and both the the Murdoch media empire and the British Government being rocked to their foundations.
News of Sean’s death came amid an amazing few days for Britain and is being reported as part of an international scandal.
But it is also a personal tragedy for Sean’s family and friends and for all of us who shared part of our lives with him, however briefly.
The lives of those to whom he was closest, and English journalism, will be a lot duller from today.
Charlie Harris is vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Journalists.