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Tuesday 21 November 2017

Michael O'Flaherty

Journalist who discovered Ronnie Biggs in his Brazil hideout, and went on to work as a volunteer in South Africa

Michael O'Flaherty, who died on February 12 aged 74, was a journalist who helped secure one of Fleet Street's greatest scoops -- discovering the Brazilian hideout of escaped Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs; he went on to be a travel writer, but in 2008 he decided to give up the good life and move to a poverty-stricken township in South Africa to work as a volunteer teacher.

O'Flaherty, affectionately known as "Oafers", never tired of telling the story of the unearthing of Ronnie Biggs, a saga which reads like the plot of an Ealing comedy.

Biggs was the world's most wanted man in 1974 when Colin MacKenzie, a rookie Daily Express reporter, was tipped off by a friend in Brazil who was convinced that he had spotted Biggs at a party in Rio de Janeiro. A member of the gang that stole £2.6m from a Royal Mail express in 1963, Biggs had escaped from Wandsworth Prison in 1965, 15 months into a 30-year sentence, and had been on the run for nine years.

After receiving the tip-off, O'Flaherty and MacKenzie, with the photographer Bill Lovelace in tow, boarded a plane to Rio. They found Biggs, who had spent most of his share of the robbery, in a seedy fifth-floor apartment near Copacabana beach. The reporters spent days holed up with the fugitive, not daring to go out for fear of being spotted by rivals. Instead, they used the time to win Biggs's trust over games of poker. As O'Flaherty later recalled: "I cleaned Biggs out of every penny he had. I like to think I won back at least some of the stolen money for the Queen."

Eventually Biggs agreed to give the paper an exclusive interview for £30,000, then return to London with the journalists and hand himself over to Scotland Yard in the hope of getting a reduced sentence. However, the Express editor of the time, Ian McColl, a Presbyterian Scot, felt it would be wrong to continue without informing the police. Accordingly it was secretly agreed that O'Flaherty and his colleagues would interview Biggs in Brazil and then "Slipper of the Yard" (Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper) would burst in on the criminal and nab him.

They decided on Rio's Hotel Trocadero as a venue and, when Slipper duly materialised in Room 909 on February 1, 1974, O'Flaherty was on hand to witness the confrontation. Biggs was in red swimming trunks preparing to go to the beach when he was greeted by Slipper with the immortal line: "'Ello, Ronnie. Long time, no see."

But the theatrics descended into farce when the Brazilian authorities (who took a dim view of British policemen throwing their weight around on their patch) intervened to order that Biggs should be released. Pointing out that there was no extradition treaty with Britain and noting that Biggs's girlfriend, go-go dancer Raimunda de Castro, was pregnant, they maintained that Brazilian law did not permit the extradition of the parent of a Brazilian citizen, even one in utero. Biggs remained in Rio for another 27 years.

Michael O'Flaherty was born in Middlesex on February 20, 1937, to parents of Irish ancestry. After leaving school and National Service in the army, he began his career on a local paper before moving to Fleet Street.

In 1970 he covered the bungled kidnap and murder of Muriel McKay, who had been abducted by brothers Nizamodeen and Arthur Hosein in the mistaken belief that she was the wife of Rupert Murdoch and then killed when they discovered their error. O'Flaherty later wrote a book about the case.

In 1974 he moved to the Daily Express, where he became a star reporter at a time when the paper was selling three million copies a day.

Known for his colour pieces, he was the first reporter to be allowed on the platform after the Moorgate tube disaster in 1975, filing a moving report that was published untouched in a double-page spread. He also won acclaim for his reports from Northern Ireland. On one occasion he went into the highly dangerous Twinbrook Estate to see the emaciated body of Bobby Sands, surrounded by (in O'Flaherty's words) "a balaclava-wearing Armalite guard of honour". He worked for the paper for 21 years until 1995, when he took up travel writing.

In his heyday, O'Flaherty made full use of the liquid resources of Fleet Street, though never at the expense of his journalism. Ashley Walton has recalled how, working the night shift at the Express during his first month as a cub reporter, he was told by the paper's night news editor Mike Steemson to go to the Cartoonist pub and tell O'Flaherty to return to the office. "He's the one wearing the Marks and Spencer pants," Steemson told him laconically. Sure enough, when Walton arrived at the Cartoonist, he found O'Flaherty propping up the bar, wearing only his Y-fronts. "Tell Steemson to **** off," came the reply. But somehow, when he arrived at the office to report back, Walton found "an immaculate suit-wearing Oafers being given his briefing for the next day's beat".

On another occasion, an Express news editor erupted in fury when O'Flaherty rolled in at lunchtime looking very much the worse for wear, when he should have been filing a piece on fading star Richard Burton. The same editor was left speechless when, an hour or so later, O'Flaherty presented him with 3,000 words of immaculate prose. It transpired that he had managed to talk his way into the actor's suite at the Dorchester, where the pair had spent the previous evening matching each other vodka for vodka.

Despite such fun and games O'Flaherty confessed that he was never happier than when, in his early-70s, he "swopped five-star hotels for a slum" (as he put it in an article for the Daily Mail).

After 30 years in journalism, O'Flaherty had become a freelance travel writer and it was a visit, on a press trip, to an orphanage in Nepal that convinced him that he wanted to do something to help. "Unloved children clustered round you, grasping your hands," he recalled. "It was heartbreaking."

O'Flaherty had family connections in South Africa: his grandfather had moved there from Ireland at the beginning of the 20th Century to find work, and his father had been born there. His ties to Britain, meanwhile, had been weakened by a difficult divorce which had left him living alone in Tunbridge Wells.

He ended up, at the age of 72, working as a volunteer in a school in the deprived black township of Motherwell, a place, as he described it, "which makes the grim industrial town in Scotland look like paradise". Yet the experience of teaching in "classrooms that would have given the Health and Safety police in Britain a seizure" was redemptive. "Mine is now a life of hope," he wrote, "inspired by the children of the slums in the city where the struggle against apartheid began."

Michael O'Flaherty is survived by his third wife, Bheki, an African princess whom he married in 2009, and by two daughters of his first marriage and a daughter of his second.

Sunday Independent

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