Derek Round: 'Gung-ho' journo and a gentleman

02:06, May 26 2012
Derek Round
DISTINGUISHED JOURNALIST: In 2010, Derek Round was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to journalism.

Derek Round, a mild-mannered gentleman, rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous in his hey-day as a foreign correspondent based in Singapore and Hong Kong during the Vietnam War years.

In retirement, he often spoke of his foreign correspondent days and loved to talk about such people as his "old friend and colleague" the legendary Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent, Richard Hughes.

He would relate stories of sitting down to lunch with American columnist Joe Alsop at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong, and how author James Clavell had been a dinner guest at his home.

All this occurred when Round, too, was at the peak of his journalistic powers as a Reuters correspondent.

He was at his best while working in Asia for the agency, and the New Zealand Press Association (NZPA), particularly during the last stages of the Vietnam War.

He carved a reputation as a successful, "gung-ho" reporter operating in a challenging war zone.


His journalist colleagues in Asia, when he was bureau chief of Reuters in Singapore and Hong Kong and Asia Correspondent for the NZPA, rated Round.

For some of these days in Asia he and his family lived in Stonycroft, an old colonial mansion on The Peak where they were among the upper echelons of Hong Kong expatriate ranks.

The tragic, brutal circumstances surrounding his death in Whanganui last week, when he was beaten to death in his living room, could not have been further removed from those heady days.

When Round returned to New Zealand as an old Asia hand in the late 1970s, he was appointed to NZPA's parliamentary press gallery office as chief reporter. His colleagues recognised he had paid his dues as one of the first western journalists allowed into China after the so-called "ping-pong" diplomacy of President Richard Nixon. He also accompanied Prime Minister Rob Muldoon on a trip to China in 1976.

Back in the press gallery, this tall, fair-haired man, operated on an entirely different level from the Wellington-based hacks.

His reporting in those days focused on the big news breaks from Parliament. He never sweated the small stuff and kept the communication channels open – particularly to Government House, the prime minister's office and foreign affairs insiders at Stafford House.

His news judgment in his handling of the big stories was generally on the mark. This was evident in his treatment of Justice Peter Mahon's 1981 report on the Erebus air disaster. "Good God," he exclaimed as he transmitted the judge's brutally frank "orchestrated litany of lies" comments from NZPA's spartan third floor office in the old Parliament Buildings.

In the early 1980s he was appointed NZPA's Fleet Street-based chief European correspondent in London, where he exhibited the polish of a cultured diplomat in representing the agency. He worked closely with foreign affairs minister Sir Brian Talboys, who on his international travels sometimes found flowers waiting for him in his hotel room, courtesy of NZPA.

The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 was the highlight of Round's time in London. He was one of a small group of select journalists to attend the ceremony at St Paul's Cathedral.

On his return to Wellington in the mid-1980s, he was appointed NZPA editor. In this job it became apparent Round, like a lot of journalists, was never cut out for a career in management.

As the money screws tightened following the 1987 crash this unfailingly generous, well-met and hospitable man found difficulty making the transition from overseas correspondent to Newspaper House in Wellington's Boulcott St as the agency's "shop manager".

Overall management responsibility for circulating daily weather and stock market reports and 4pm horse racing scratchings roundups on Friday afternoons to the nation's newspapers were tasks unsuited to his undoubted journalistic skill-set.

He slowly abdicated these responsibilities to others, retreating to his private office. The loyal NZPA management structure which supported him through these days ushered him to a dignified early retirement door about 1990.

AWAY from journalism with its associated junkets and fully paid overseas assignments, Round enthusiastically embraced an exciting new world of public relations and book writing.

He was renowned for always having a project on the go. One of those involved being part of a delegation visiting Moscow in 1992, a trip that brought back cold war cloak-and-dagger memories of his early years in journalism, when he was at the centre of one of the biggest spy stories this country has seen.

In July 1962, prime minister Keith Holyoake sensationally expelled Russian diplomats Vladislav Andreev and Nikolai Shytkov from New Zealand for spying. The expulsion involved in part KGB attempts to solicit information from Round.

He told his friends Sir Keith's decision to expel the diplomats was made after Round was wired by the Security Intelligence Service in preparation for a car ride to the Kapiti Coast from Wellington with a KGB operative. He had earlier been approached by Erick Lutskij, an affable diplomat with the Soviet legation in Wellington, who sounded him out on taking up KGB spy duties. Round was quick to pass this information on to the SIS, who in turn set him up in a counter-intelligence wire-tap.

At the time, he confessed to being "scared stiff" that the SIS recording device might be discovered by his KGB contacts.

There was a sequel to the spy saga when he also told friends after returning from Moscow that he had been poisoned in Russia. He believed the poisoning was retaliation from remnants of the KGB for his counter-espionage work activities some 30 years before.

Following a large personal budget blow-out on the Russian trip, Round, the son of a Canterbury postmaster, separated from his very supportive and hardworking wife Jan, whom he had met and married in Whanganui in the 1950s.

He lived the remaining two decades of his life writing books, including Barbed Wire Between Us, a wartime story about a young woman who had once lived in the same house as Round and his family in Hong Kong.

His immediate family and a journalist colleague from the Vietnam War days kept in close touch with him during his retirement, during which he was an active member of the National Press Club in Wellington.

In 2010, he was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit award for services to journalism.

Round had been working on his autobiography, Deadlines and Headlines, but it was still a work in progress.

This outwardly suave, well-mannered, charming man enjoyed the company of thousands of acquaintances throughout his life, but few people outside his immediate family, ever really knew the man.

Derek Leonard Round, journalist: b Christchurch, February 23, 1935; m Jan Parsons (diss); 1s 2d; d Whanganui, May 16, 2012, aged 77.

Contact Tim Donoghue
General reporter

The Dominion Post