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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick