Judy Stowe

Diplomat-turned-journalist who became Head of the Thai and Vietnamese sections of the BBC
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The Independent Online

Judith Ann Stowe, broadcaster, writer and diplomat: born London 19 October 1934; staff, Foreign Service 1952-69; staff, BBC 1974-94, Head of Thai and Vietnamese Sections 1986-94; (one son); died London 13 September 2007.

The broadcaster, writer and diplomat Judy Stowe led an eventful and dedicated life. She started her career in the Foreign Office, where her aptitude for languages proved invaluable during her many overseas postings. Then, after leaving the service, she had a second, highly successful, career as a journalist, eventually rising to head the Thai and Vietnamese sections of the BBC.

Judith Stowe was born in London in 1934, the elder of two daughters. Although she was much tempted to go to university, her father thought she might not be bright enough to win a scholarship and encouraged her instead to take the Civil Service examination. Faced with a choice between depending on her father for a subsidy at university, or starting to earn her own living, Stowe chose financial independence. This choice was in the event to give her invaluable experience in the virtue of self-reliance, not least because she battled throughout her life against nystagmus, a rare disease of the optical nerve which was to impair her vision seriously.

Accepted for the Foreign Office in 1952, she set out in 1956 for Manila in the Philippines in a characteristic spirit of adventure, arriving by air during an earthquake. She made many Filipino friends and began writing and broadcasting a series of programmes on local radio and hosting sessions at the Anglo-Filipino Centre in Manila's university district. Impressed by her initiative and her sensitivity to South-east Asian culture, the Foreign Office in 1959 appointed her to her first full diplomatic posting as Third Secretary in Bangkok, where she specialised in press and publicity.

Before her next posting, Stowe was sent on a crash course to learn Serbo-Croat at the School of Slavonic Studies at London University. (Her linguistic abilities were considerable: she had studied French, German and Latin at school and over the course of her career, she also learnt Spanish, Thai and Vietnamese.) She departed for Belgrade in February 1961, where she took over the running of the Anglo-American Press Bureau, whose task was to analyse the Serbo-Croat press. Her knowledge of Serbo-Croat meant that she was much in demand and she translated for both Edward Heath and Lee Kuan Yee when their official interpreters were not at hand.

By 1963 Stowe had been sent to Latin America and the Caribbean, where she spent three years as a roving diplomat. Her short tours in Brazil, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic were eventful. In Santo Domingo Graham Greene descended upon her; having been refused a visa to visit Haiti, he besought her to go there in his place and do some research for the book he was working on. Instructed by the Foreign Office to humour the great novelist, Judy did his bidding: the book was The Comedians (1966), one of the author's most chilling and prophetic novels.

In late August 1968 she set off for Jakarta to which she had been posted once more as a roving diplomat, a position she particularly enjoyed. With her infectious enthusiasm and vitality, she made friends wherever she went. By late 1968 she found herself in charge of the Consulate in Surabaya, Indonesia's second city.

This was to be her last posting in the new Diplomatic Service. Although never short of male friends and indeed ardent admirers, Stowe had not married – in those days to do so would have meant her resignation from the service and the abandonment of her career overseas. At 34 years of age, Stowe returned to Britain to have a baby son, Michael.

Though the Foreign Office was supportive, Stowe decided that she had no future in the Home Civil Service, and set about the task of rebuilding her life while caring for her young son. The going was not easy, and it was not until late 1972 that the BBC Far Eastern Service gave her a contract to write commentaries on South-east Asian affairs. These were exciting times in South-east Asia: Kissinger was working to secure the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, and there were coups in Thailand in 1973 and again in 1976.

In 1974 her permanent career with the BBC took off when she was appointed producer in the BBC Thai Section. Later that year she was transferred from the Thai to the Vietnamese Section. The fate of Vietnam was slowly being sealed. In March 1975 Stowe left for Saigon, but the tour of the provinces she had planned was sharply curtailed when the North Vietnamese launched their all-out, final offensive in the South. In April 1975 she was summoned back to London, where she arrived with only days to spare before Saigon fell on 30 April.

Stowe was then appointed a full-time commentator and talks writer in the BBC, specialising in South-east Asian and Far Eastern Affairs. She covered the October 1976 right-wing coup in Bangkok on the ground. Stowe extended her field to cover China, Japan and Korea and by 1979 had been appointed BBC chief commentator on Asian affairs.

Her reports on Thailand were not appreciated by the army commander General Arthit Kamlang-ek, who made it clear to Stowe that she would return Bangkok again at her peril. This only encouraged her to visit Thailand whenever possible. By 1984 Stowe was back again in Vietnam, but found the country depressing. Later in the year she was invited to the Khmer Rouge sanctuary of Phnom Malai inside Cambodia where she upset Prince Sihanouk by asking about his seemingly total support for the Khmer Rouge, who had murdered so many of his close family. This almost induced a fit of apoplexy in the Prince.

In 1986 Stowe was in charge of both the Thai and Vietnamese sections of the BBC. She set about restructuring and modernising both, recruiting journalists rather than translators, and inspiring colleagues with her vitality, the breadth and depth of her experience and her contacts throughout the region. She also found time to write a book on recent Thai history, Siam becomes Thailand (1990), about the political and diplomatic intrigue in the kingdom following the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

Her greatest journalistic coup, which earned the wrath of the Vietnamese government, was persuading Col Bui Tin, who had decided to stay in France following a visit in 1990, to publish his memoirs and give a series of interviews. Bui Tin had been Deputy Editor of Nhan Dan, the Communist Party daily and so was close to the Vietnamese leaders. Bui Tin's memoirs, Following Ho Chi Minh: memoirs of a North Vietnamese colonel (1995), were adapted and translated into English by Stowe and Do Van, a senior producer in the BBC Vietnamese Service.

Stowe retired from the BBC in 1994, but maintained close contact with her many Thai and Vietnamese friends. She led a valiant, but unsuccessful battle to prevent the closure, in January 2006, of the BBC Thai Service, a victim of budgetary constraints, and which had broadcast since 1941. No sooner had the decision to close been taken in 2005 than there was a military coup in Thailand. The Voice of America at once rescinded their decision to close their transmissions. The BBC lacked that flexibility.

She also continued to lecture widely on South-east Asian affairs, and she was the principal obituary writer in recent years for The Independent on leading Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino personalities. Although diagnosed with cancer in 2003, she led a full and scholarly life until the end.

Derek Tonkin