Respected and long-serving political journalist

Born: September 9, 1931;

Died: November 22, 2019

CHRIS Moncrieff, who has died aged 88, was a legend among journalists and politicians at Westminster, where he served for more than half a century as “lobby correspondent” for the UK’s domestic news agency the Press Association (PA). Such was his stature among his journalist peers and MPs that the Press Bar in the House of Commons was re-named Moncrieff’s in 2007.

Mr Moncrieff was the epitome of a news agency journalist, the reporters who do the legwork and dig up the facts but whose stories are often picked up and run by the major newspapers under the by-line of their own big-name reporters. (Confession: some of this obituary relies on the PA’s own obituary of him). When not at Westminster, he would grace the imposing Lutyens-designed office building at 85 Fleet Street which at the time housed both the PA and its sister agency Reuters. While the PA (now known as PA Media) covers UK news, Reuters handles foreign news.

Until middle age, Mr Moncrieff was as legendary for his drinking as for his reporting. When he was about to interview the Rev Ian Paisley, the latter smelt Guinness from yards away. “Moncrieff, is that the devil’s buttermilk I smell on your breath?” But in the late 1980s, after someone told him he could be dead from alcohol within a year, he opted for abstinence and remained teetotal for 30 years until his death.

In the House of Commons, Mr Moncrieff cut something of a Dickensian figure, notebooks in hand or stuff in his pockets, pen at the ready, a newspaper under his arm and scribbling in the shorthand which ensured he got his quotes from politicians accurately. He became known by MPs as “the man with the lived-in face and slept-in suit.” Working mostly in the pre-mobile phone days, he was a master of getting to a phone booth first.

He was once described by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair as “the gateway to the nation, the one journalist who mattered.” Another Prime Minister, John Major called him “a national treasure” and Margaret Thatcher ensured he was awarded a CBE in 1989. He formally retired as PA lobby correspondent in 1994 but even the day after his retirement, he couldn’t help but keep writing for the agency and giving advice to its younger reporters. In the words of a fellow journalist at the PA: “In his prime, he made workaholics look like couch potatoes. An 18-hour day, seven-day week was his norm. He took just a fortnight’s holiday a year – to Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast.”

Pete Clifton, current editor-in-chief of PA Media, said: "Moncrieff was the ultimate news agency journalist - great contacts, always close to the action, working some epic hours and obsessed by getting stories out before everyone else. He had no interest in any political agenda or viewpoint, just making sure he was first to write about it.”

Would that there were more Chris Moncrieffs - objective journalists who write with neither fear nor favour – at this current time of national division. He stuck to the facts, not even his closest colleagues knew his political views and he never went for aggressive, Paxman-style interviewing. “I like to give the impression I agree with everyone,” he said. “I don’t think you get the best out of people by asking them hard questions – all I want is to get the stories out.”

Ministers and MPs knew that if they gave Moncrieff a story, within minutes it would reach newspaper, radio and TV newsrooms throughout the country and maybe the world via the PA service. And on the rare occasions that he wasn’t at Westminster in person, MPs all had his phone number and knew they could call him at any hour, day or night.

Christopher Wighton Moncrieff was born in Derby on September 9, 1931. To his embarrassment, his parents sent him to the independent Moravian Girls’ School in the village of Ockbrook, Derbyshire (now Ockbrook School) because they did not consider the local state primary school good enough. He was one of only a handful of boys at the school before moving to Ellesmere College, Shropshire.

He was determined to be a journalist from his school days but found himself working in a London solicitor’s office before landing a job as a local reporter in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

After doing his national service as a lance-corporal in the army’s Intelligence Corps, he continued to learn his trade at the Coventry Evening Telegraph and the Nottingham Evening Post before being hired by the PA in 1962 to work with its political staff at Westminster. Officially declared a “lobby correspondent” in 1973, he would remain there as chief political correspondent until his formal “retirement” in 1994 but he continued to help younger reporters in the House of Commons until prevented by illness.

Over the years, he was also called in to cover news stories outside Westminster. After the 1963 Great Train robbery, he spent so much time on the story that a neighbour called the police noting that he had “gone missing” around the time of the heist.

Chris Moncrieff’s wife Margaret – “my good lady Maggie” – predeceased him. He is survived by their son and three daughters.