Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: From Our Own Correspondent; Dead Girls Tell No Tales

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: From Our Own Correspondent; Dead Girls Tell No Tales

Article excerpt

Two significant anniversaries, each very different but both reflecting the BBC's mission and the reasons for its continued success. From Our Own Correspondent has been on air for 60 years, reporting on events across the world not just as news but to fill in the back story to the headlines. Instead of bombs and bullets, we might find ourselves listening to a Russian-born piano teacher in Gaza who at last finds a grand piano and begins entertaining her neighbours with Chopin. A single episode might take us from shallots in Mali to the strange ways in which Norwegians celebrate midsummer via China's new passion for shopping, playing roulette in Russia, and the sorry state of Yemen, where Jeremy Bowen is told that trying to govern is like 'dancing on the heads of snakes'.

On Thursday last week Owen Bennett-Jones introduced a special celebration of the programme from the Frontline Club in London, a sanctuary for reporters on shore leave. He reminded us that FOOC, as insiders like to call it (being ultra-careful to enunciate clearly that double-O), is the only long-running programme that has never had a makeover. Since it was first broadcast on 25 September 1955, the format has never needed to change: short, five-minute reports from reporters 'in the field', designed to tell us something unusual or expected, or rather describing how something normal, like buying a loaf of bread, becomes abnormal when gunshots echo constantly through the empty, crumbling streets.

Given that so much has changed about news reporting since the advent of the new technologies, it might seem surprising that the programme has survived just as it is (with the only difference being a marked alteration of tone, from lofty delivery to a much chattier and more personal style). But that is what makes radio so special. It needs no adornment, no fuss, no decorative flourishes. It works best when at its most simple: a person speaking into the microphone not with a global audience in mind but just one person.

Lindsey Hilsum (who has reported from Rwanda, Kenya, Kosovo and Palestine) recalled the days when she had to record her contribution on a cassette and then take it to the airport in the hope of finding someone on the next BA flight to London who was prepared to take the package and deliver it to Broadcasting House. Now, of course, she can file her story on her mobile, 'live' from anywhere, no matter the chaos around her. But, she reminded us, although the way it arrives might have changed, the report itself stays just the same.

The biggest change for Lyse Doucet, well known to regular FOOC listeners, is the way in which what was once 'foreign' has now become local, as graphically shown by the refugee/migrant crisis. …

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