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
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
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: Marketing Manager - Manchester - Urgent Requirement!

£30000 - £35000 per annum + 20 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Marketi...

Sauce Recruitment: Senior Management Accountant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for a independently owne...

Sauce Recruitment: Senior Management Accountant

£17 - £20 per hour: Sauce Recruitment: Working for a independently owned and c...

Guru Careers: Mac Operator / Artworker

£Negotiable (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Mac Operator / Artworker to ...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore