When radio voices paint vivid pictures of far away places
Having often contributed to 'From Our Own Correspondent' prior to his kidnap, Alan Johnston explains why he's now delighted to present this World Service classic
Monday 21 January 2008
A ny BBC foreign correspondent will tell you the same thing. In these days of rolling-news channels, when your story hits the headlines, the torrent of demands from London can almost sweep you away.
As you try to get out into the streets and see what's happening, the interview requests pour in: BBC News 24, World TV, World Service, Five Live. You scribble dispatches and try to stitch together telly and radio pieces as your manic day unfolds. In the frenzy, and under the pressure of time, it is sometimes difficult to do more than just put across the hard facts – the bare bones of the events that are changing the world around you.
But there is still one corner of the BBC where there is the space and time for much more. There is From Our Own Correspondent, or FOOC (pronounced "fook"), as we know it for short.
The programme asks for a straight dispatch over four clear minutes, which in our business feels like a lifetime. This is where you really get a chance to reflect and observe a little more, and try to bring alive the extraordinary place in which you find yourself. You get a chance to show the people who you meet there as more than the news stories that they inhabit – more than just refugees, or fighters, or politicians, or demonstrators. By exploring the backgrounds of their lives, their hopes and fears, their ways of seeing, and perhaps even the things they laugh at, you can make their world more vivid, more real.
A quick example. When an Israeli tank rolls down a Palestinian street, parked cars can often be completely crushed under its tracks. And I remember hearing of a few people in Nablus gathering quietly round an old Fiat that had just been flattened into a long strip of metal only a few inches high. Then the car's owner said, "Anyone got some jump leads? Perhaps it'll still start". That sort of black humour is part of the stuff of life in the West Bank, and in its way, it is significant. It helps people cope with the stress. As a correspondent, if you want to highlight this, then FOOC would be the place to do it.
Revealing the memorable, human detail is one of the programme's trademarks. In a Hugh Schofield piece, for example, we heard that France's now-retired last executioner keeps a replica guillotine on his mantelpiece. It is a small detail that says much about Fernand Meyssonnier's attitude to his work.
But perhaps more than anything, the programme is a bastion of good writing and strong storytelling that can conjure a sense of place. My colleague Allan Little captured all of that in a piece he wrote in Kinshasa as he awaited the fall of President Mobutu of Zaire: "We know the rebels are coming to take the city, and we know that when they descend it will be decisive and immediate, but we don't know how far away they are, or how imminent their strike.
We wait in the highly charged city, gripped by rumour and feverish counter-rumour, and we try to separate fact from fancy, legitimate, balanced concern from mounting paranoia. Everyone feels this. Mobutu's soldiers are behaving with more and more brutal abandon. I have seen this ready impulse to violence everywhere in this country; that single heart-stopping moment when a red-eyed, angry soldier holds you at gunpoint and you wait for his bitterness and fury to spill over into physical cruelty."
The personal nature of FOOC allows glimpses of the sometimes terrible emotional pressures of the job. Jim Muir lost his friend and cameraman Kaveh Golestan (pictured below) on a trip to northern Iraq when they strayed into a minefield. "Lives were changed and one ended in much less time than it takes to say these lines. My journey back to Teheran with Kaveh's remains was the saddest of my life," he wrote.
You feel that you can take a FOOC piece off in almost any direction, and as a result, the listener tuning in never knows quite what to expect. Perhaps that helps to explain why the programme has been one of the BBC's longest-running and most popular shows.
Like all correspondents, I loved the freedom that the programme offers. Writing FOOCs was always the best part of the job. In the hours after I was kidnapped in Gaza, as I struggled to stave off rising fear, and in a vain attempt to cheer myself up, I remember thinking, "At least there ought to be a decent FOOC in all this..."
When it was suggested, after my release, that I might become the presenter of the programme's World Service edition, I was delighted to accept. Perhaps the show will benefit from having a regular presenter, one who has both contributed to it and been a fan for many years, although the FOOC formula would be very hard to improve.
One of the programme's many admirers has written that, week after week, it proves that pictures painted in words on the radio can be more vivid than pictures on television. "The invention of radio would have been worthwhile," he wrote, "even if the only programme ever broadcast was From Our Own Correspondent."
Alan Johnston will be presenting 'From Our Own Correspondent' on the BBC World Service from Sunday 27 January, at 11am and 3pm
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