The Week in Radio: From Our Own Correspondent is a jewel in the BBC's crown


I can't remember the first time I heard From Our Own Correspondent on the radio. What I do recall is that it was part of the background noise of my childhood alongside the Blue Peter theme tune, the sound of farmyard animals and the words: "You're not going out dressed like that."

Of course, it wasn't until adulthood that I began to pay attention. And there is rarely an item on FOOC, one of the BBC's longest-running programmes (the first one was aired in 1955), that doesn't make you sit up and listen.

Specialising in journalistic dispatches from far-flung corners of the world, and introduced by Kate Adie, FOOC is an institution in the BBC World Service and Radio 4 schedules, its format of five-minute segments chiselled in stone. Its reports are less functional news bulletins than sharply observed essays that can move you to laughter or tears.

It has the capacity to transport you out of your kitchen and straight into to a sub-Saharan war zone or a remote mountain village in India or an Antarctic ice floe. It brings colour, character and humanity to familiar issues, enabling the listener to visualise, reflect and empathise. Unlike so many of its news-driven rivals, it puts the plight of fellow human beings into sharp focus. FOOC really is in a league of its own.

And so it was with one of this week's reports, written by the journalist Andrew Harding, who we found sitting in the dark on a damp mattress on what was left of a patio belonging to a woman named Rosa. He told us that his host had been apologising repeatedly for the state of her home: "And there is plenty wrong with it," he noted. "The roof is missing, so is the garden. And so are most of her neighbours' houses."

Harding was in Giwan in the Philippines, formerly a beauty spot known for its idyllic beaches, where the typhoon first met land nearly a fortnight ago.

Sitting in what was formerly a residential street, but was now a shredded mess of wood, concrete and debris, he listened to the sounds of families sitting in the rubble of their homes and cooking their dinners in the open on campfires. In the background he heard the whine of sirens as police attempted to impose a curfew, along with the frenetic burping of frogs.

In the past week, Harding said, Giwan had finally started to receive aid after days of anxious isolation. Bearded Belgian doctors had arrived and were setting up tented clinics; airlifts were expected the next day.

Walking around that morning, Harding had noticed how anything tall that was still standing, from lampposts to trees, were all leaning sharply to the west. Amid the wreckage of one house he observed a plastic Christmas tree still upright, a dirty flip-flop wedged in its branches. It was almost comical.

Harding had also spoken to a man, an ex-sailor, who lived two streets away from Rosa and who hid with his wife and children in the downstairs lavatory when the storm hit. The noise, he recalled, was like four 747s taking off in their toilet. The air pressure hurt their eyeballs and their ears popped painfully. "To be honest, we didn't expect to make it," the man said. "But we survived this storm so everything is fine. This is our second life."

Harding's report was not simply about a country in distress. It told us, with economy and skill, what was happening in a small street in a small town in which lives had been devastated and homes obliterated, and yet in which the spirit of survival had already taken root. This is what FOOC is for, to tell the individual stories and reach the places that news crews in helicopters cannot reach. Long may it continue.

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