Life is full of people or events that have an impact on us. Some are small and seemingly inconsequential, while others have “impact” stamped on them from the beginning. All take on more meaning as time passes, often subtly changing our outlook. Sometimes they can dramatically alter the course of our lives.
As an eight year old during the first Gulf War, I remember mornings filled with news reports on BBC Breakfast News. They invariably featured Kate Adie with wide-brimmed hat atop her head. Her constant and unflappable demeanour was very much a part of her effectiveness as a journalist. She came to epitomise the reporting of that and successive conflicts, from the former Yugoslavia to Rwanda. Her impact on me has been subtle. But I owe much of my journalistic ambition to her breakfast dispatches from the Persian Gulf.
Adie again guides that ambition. As the host of Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent, her clipped tones provide a knowledgeable introduction to the reports from BBC foreign correspondents. Known as FOOC, and broadcast for almost 60 years, it is one of the BBC’s most significant programmes. It has been a gradual but defining source of personal ambition.
Tony Grant is the long-standing editor of FOOC. On the 50th anniversary of the show he wrote that “It gives listeners a unique personal link to the BBC’s army of correspondents.” It is, he continued, “an opportunity to share in the enthusiasm they feel in covering what are often momentous events in exotic locations.”
From Our Own Correspondent is at once both personal and professional. It is both evocative and informative. Reporters get to tell a story in their own voice. But they are stories rooted by place and context. The programme’s website states that some reporters find writing for FOOC to be cathartic. Listening to the programme, it is evident that many relish the opportunity to go beyond the headlines and the sound-bites. It is their chance to give a small flavour of a place or a people.
Storytelling is at the heart of FOOC, no doubt a feature of its decades-long appeal. Descriptive in nature, it enlivens the context of what is in the news. Most of all, it is about experiences.
The most recent episode featured stories from countries as diverse as Hungary and Mali, France and Syria. Petroc Trelawny got the number 54 bus to a flea market, which he described as recycling Hungary’s tumultuous history. In France John Laurenson informed us of changing wine consumption while his daughters were at hip-hop dance classes. Mark Doyle was in Mali. He told us of French troops in tightly fitting tropical shorts making an 800 mile dash across the Sahara to fight Islamic militants, while Nick Thorpe pleasurably described his odyssey across west Africa 32 years ago. And Lyse Doucet reported from Syria, where “even sympathy is suspect.”
The past year has brought tales of holidays on the Riviera Romagnola from Dany Mitzman, of white asparagus season in Germany from Stephen Evans and of a shortage of eggs in the Falkland Islands from Allan Little. But the most poignant report came from Jon Donnison. His story was of an attack in Gaza in which the young son of a BBC video editor was killed. Donnison’s impressive telling of the story highlights the professionalism of BBC staff. It was balanced and delicate yet emotionally gut-wrenching. Take five minutes to listen to the tale of Omar and how the beds in his home “are now only good for charcoal.”
From Our Own Correspondent resonates because of its international outlook. It brings the world to life and challenges the domestic focus of news reporting. The programme makes far-away correspondents feel like old friends. It is as if we are gathered round the kitchen table having a late-night drink. Some feature regularly, such as Steve Evans in Berlin, Steve Rosenberg in Moscow and Alan Johnston in Rome. But there are always fresh voices, with fresh perspectives.
For all of this, and for the fact that it has given voice to my own ambition of wanting to feature as one of the eponymous correspondents, FOOC is my favourite piece of broadcasting. It took a long time for me to discover its pleasures. But its past absence has been replaced by a commitment to never miss an episode.
I have but one quibble. On Radio 4 it is broadcast year-round on Saturdays, with an additional episode on Thursdays for about half the year. And what is my quibble? For 27 weeks of the year, once a week is just not enough.