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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
The power of storytelling
By Fergal Keane
BBC World Affairs correspondent

Fergal Keane
Fergal Keane was the BBC's Southern Africa correspondent from 1990 to 1994

It is quite simply the best programme we have in news. It seeks out the thoughtful and literate and sets them apart from the cliche-spouting, whiny-voiced clones that abound in today's news environment.

It is a programme that promotes storytelling rather than story processing.

I first started writing for the series in 1991, soon after I'd been posted to South Africa.

The editor in those days was Geoff Spink, a marvellously inspiring (and mercilessly witty) journalist who knew how to plead with, wheedle and chide the correspondents at the other end of the line.

He had an extraordinary range of colourful terms of abuse when he needed, but usually resorted to flattery.

Making the lead

I might have been exhausted after days of covering township violence, but Geoff's promise - "write it as you saw it and I'll make it the lead" - was all the encouragement I needed.

Over the years I've written pieces on everything from the collapse of apartheid to the birth of my first child in Hong Kong
On the morning of transmission, Geoff would hide away in the studio while his wonderful assistant, Lucy Wade, chased down the last despatches and cues.

It meant something to be the lead on the programme. Going on a book tour at the end of my stint in South Africa I was pleased to discover that the audience felt exactly the same way.

Time and again in halls across the country, Radio 4 listeners would come up and praise this or that piece I'd written. It got me far more attention than any other programme I worked for.

Geoff moved on to other things and was replaced by the present incumbent, the inspired and inspiring Tony Grant.

It is one of the features of the programme that its editors tend to stay in the job for a long time. In the past 15 years, there have only been two: Messrs Spink and Grant.

In this, at least, the editorship resembles the papacy.

Both have also been subject to years of confidences, confessions and tirades from errant correspondents, usually delivered in the murk of a "morning after" or on the discovery that they have been denied this job or that prize.

Public reaction

Over the years I've written pieces on everything from the collapse of apartheid to the birth of my first child in Hong Kong.

The latter, which was called Letter to Daniel, provoked an astonishing public reaction with thousands of letters from appreciative fans of the programme.

One of the many gratifying outcomes of Letter To Daniel was the degree to which it irritated a few cross old bores in the right-wing press.

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I still thrill to their harrumphing.

The point of the series is to tell stories in a way that is not possible elsewhere on the airwaves. It is a chance to report from a deeper, richer hinterland.

Over the years there have been many despatches which have stopped me in my tracks.

I recall Malcolm Brabant's powerful Letter To Yeltsin (for which he deservedly beat me to a Sony award), Diana Goodman's account of a visit to a Russian orphanage, and Allan Little describing lines of refugees in the Balkans.

They had in common an ability to use words that brought the listener directly into the picture, and they were engaged, not as partisans, but with a clear sense of moral astonishment at the wrongs they were witnessing.

Long live such voices. Long live From Our Own Correspondent.



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