The hottest; spot for a radio reporter

John Simpson salutes 40 years of the BBC's `From Our Own Correspondent'

Around the corner from Broadcasting House in London a Chinese embassy official had just tried to hack off a policeman's arm with an axe. In Peking, Mao Tse-tung was threatening to march on Hong Kong. It was 1967, and as a new sub-editor in the radio newsroom I had to ask the superb figure on the foreign desk when we could expect a report from our man in the Far East, Anthony Lawrence. "I couldn't possibly interrupt Tony now," said the superb figure, himself a recently returned foreign correspondent, "he's in the middle of a FOOC." Someone had to take me aside and explain what it was Tony was in the middle of.

From Our Own Correspondent was only 12 years old then, but it was already the radio correspondent's best outlet. Writing for it was, and remains, pleasure rather than duty: a chance to spread oneself, to explain some of the detailed points that couldn't fit into the uncomfortable pint pot of the 40-second radio news report.

If you work for a broadsheet newspaper you always have the chance of a longer piece where you can let yourself go a little with the colour. If you work for television, Newsnight or Channel 4 News may ask you for a 15-minute film; Panorama may offer you much more. Radio has plenty of longer outlets, but nothing that offers quite the freedom of the five- minute FOOC.

It is the closest thing in broadcasting to writing an article for the Spectator. FOOC isn't primarily looking for analysis; what it wants is style, insight, the account of some incident which can reveal an underlying truth about a city or a country or a way of life. When you write a FOOC you are free - free of producers, of tape-recorders, of the predictable format of so many radio "packages". With a FOOC it is just you and your word-processor.

In the past, of course, it was you and your battered typewriter (who ever heard of a foreign correspondent with a new one?) established under a palm tree or in the corner of a bar. If it wasn't often like that, it should have been. One of the great pleasures of celebrating FOOC's 40th birthday is to hear once again the voices and read the words of BBC correspondents from the past: Ian McDougall, Christopher Serpell, Ronald Robson, Angus McDermid, Erik de Mauny, Hardiman Scott. The names sound as if they were created to be followed by the words "reports from Saigon" or "has just made contact from Kinshasa". In our workaday world, where banality pours from every radio, we broadcasters don't have names like that any longer.

Or, I am tempted to think, experiences. What about John Osman saving his wife from rape and himself from death at an army roadblock in the Congo by producing his American Express card? He never, alas, wrote a FOOC about that, but Charles Wheeler wrote one about the sheriff in Mississippi who had a Ku Klux Klan recruiting poster outside his office, and Angus McDermid wrote about the censor in revolutionary Zanzibar who kept a revolver and a hand grenade on his desk, just in case, and Christopher Serpell wrote about Fidel Castro bursting into the room with a bevy of tightly sweatered sweethearts, "clasping his firearm as if it were some religious symbol".

Today radio is less inclined to let its correspondents wander off - it wants them, day and night, on the end of a telephone line. At times of crisis it's hard for correspondents to leave their hotel bedrooms: the hydra-headed beast demands a constant diet of 40-second dispatches. Only when things die down can they pause to think over what has happened and get out into the streets, where a reporter belongs.

Fortunately for us, and for FOOC, these feeding frenzies soon pass. The 40th anniversary programmes, and the book that accompanies them, are not restricted to the work of chaps with grand names in the hot-spots of the distant past. The reporting now is at least as good: Carole Walker watching a lynch mob in the streets of Tbilisi in 1992, Allan Little experiencing the shelling of Dubrovnik, Martin Dowle with the paramedics of Medellin in Colombia, Elizabeth Blunt on the killing of President Samuel Doe in Liberia.

Yet one of the best things in the FOOC files is by Daniel Counihan, on an internal flight in Vietnam in 1965, looking at the coffin of a man killed in the fighting: "Next to the coffin sat some of the man's relatives, completing a family grouping of which you felt the reality - it was not just a box and some people. And at the centre of it all was a small baby that the young widow was suckling. My American friend said: `I'm going to write my piece around that.' And of course he was quite right, that little vignette of life and continuity, so closely linked with what we had just seen, did symbolise what makes it possible for the human mind to tolerate the horror of death in war without utter loss of hope and with a little less shame."

Anniversary editions of `FOOC', Radio 4, 11.30am, Saturday 23 and Thursday 28 September. `FOOC: The First 40 Years' is published by Macmillan on Friday at pounds 9.99.

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