Magazine

Screaming from the only studio with a bidet

Ian McDougall

Ian McDougall, who died last month, became a BBC foreign correspondent in 1948 and went on to file more than 10,000 reports from dozens of countries. In the following classic dispatch from 1976, he reflected on changes in the trade in which he had risen to become a revered master.

The reason why a broadcasting correspondent has an easier time now than he did in the 40s is simple: it is that communications have improved. Communications are the only things that change in news. The news itself, despite what some may claim about there being more of it today, or less of it, remains remarkably similar from one decade to the next. And, in fact, the only really novel events that have happened in my time are space travel, political hijackings, mass tourism and the plastic explosion in household equipment - what one advertising man once described to me as "the breakthrough in plastic toys for budgerigars".

When I first started in the 40s, as number two in the Paris office, we had to send nearly all our stories at fixed times over a microphone hook-up, a "music circuit", as it's called in the trade, and only occasionally did we use the phone, because at that time for various tedious reasons the use of the phone for broadcasting in voice was forbidden. Tom Cadett, the Chief Paris Correspondent at that time, and myself used to scamper up and down a flight of stairs to a converted attic bedroom in a hotel and seclude ourselves behind a thick curtain, as if in a confessional, screaming ourselves hoarse till contact was established with London and praying that we'd emerge without dying from suffocation. It was, incidentally, the only broadcasting studio in the whole world equipped with a bidet. In that - as in so much else - the BBC led the field.

It wasn't until the early 50s that I recall being equipped with a portable recording machine. The first of these was unbelievably heavy and big enough to pack a fair-sized puppy in. The tape had to be wound back by hand, which is the perfect recipe for instant calamity. A two-year-old child would have been an easier travelling companion, and I once said so in a cable from Burma, which was the only message I sent from Burma that got any notice taken of it at all. Then we were issued, as a kind of over-reaction, with a sweet little machine about the size of a schoolchild's pencil box and about as robust as a piece of Dresden china. This also broke incessantly, but at least it was so small that one could forget about it, which was more than could be said for its predecessor.

Image caption Portable recording technology from the 1940s

As time went by, the telephone was rehabilitated as a legitimate means of sending despatches by voice, and the extension of the automatic system for international calls greatly reduced the need to maintain bad-tempered arguments with exchange operators in various languages. On the frontier between Malaya and Thailand, I once got through to London in a few seconds from a jungle telephone which was having its cord chewed by a sacred goat as I used it. And in the remotest part of the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, I was taken by a heavily-armed escort to a railway signal box half a mile away in the middle of the night - we'd been sleeping in a train while accompanying the then Soviet leader, Khrushchev - in order to receive a call from the BBC. I thought this was good staff work on the part of the Romanian Post Office. I thanked my escort who, however, stolidly informed me that they had only been protecting me from the packs of mountain bears which infested the region. I then understood for the first time why they had made me change from my light-coloured pyjamas into something dark - a disconcerting instruction at four in the morning in a communist country!

Broadly speaking, you can get almost anybody to a telephone these days, which is perhaps why some editors and producers think that there should be nothing very difficult about getting Ford, Carter, Giscard d'Estaing, Schmidt, Amin or whoever into a programme at very short notice. On one single day in Bonn I was asked to get Chancellor Brandt, then just installed in office, into three different BBC slots more or less at the same time. The trouble is that foreign politicians tend to give priority, just as do British ones, to their own audiences.

However, while improved phone systems - not to mention cable and telex and satellite - have made human contacts much faster, they've also reduced the frequency of the old-fashioned scoop, by which I mean a story which no-one else has got and which - and this is the crucial point - is worth having. There's no merit at all in being first with a load of boring old rubbish. My idea of a reasonable and feasible scoop today would be for a reporter to land on Mars, or authenticate the Loch Ness monster, or prove that Mao Zedong is already dead. But scoops cost money and editors tend to be closer and closer-fisted. When, some time ago, Henry Morton Stanley of the New York Herald questioned his editor about expenses for an interesting assignment he'd just been given, he received this magnificent reply: "Draw £1,000 now and when you've gone through that draw another thousand, and when that is spent draw another thousand: and when you have finished that draw another thousand, and so on. But find Livingstone." In fact, Stanley spent about £9,000 on the job, which would of course be equivalent to a far greater sum today, though still cheap at the price.

But my point is that today the editor wouldn't have put it like that. His message, probably in garbled telex, would have read: "Find Livingstone, but remember cost-cutting has absolute priority"' Stanley's great scoop, incidentally, was fully believed in by his editor, though at the time others had doubts. A scoop today is suspected by all.

I am nonetheless proud that the profession of foreign correspondents survives. Democracy needs it, even though some people claim to be vague about what foreign correspondents do, and whether indeed they do anything at all. There is a lunatic fringe which thinks they drink champagne out of their mistress's shoes and live at the local Ritz. There is another fringe, not entirely lunatic but almost so, which believes they're on Christian-name terms with everyone in their territory from the president downwards and are occasionally called in to advise on foreign policy.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone reading newspapers in Africa

My own experience throughout 27 years has been that the job is extremely arduous, both mentally and physically; that drudgery is of its essence, as in most other jobs; and that the advantages of not having to keep nine to five hours are more than offset by the disadvantages of being on call at every hour of the day and night - a requirement which correspondents share with, almost uniquely, medical general practitioners.

When all is said and done, however, it also seems to me a profession which teaches you to cope with literally any situation without flapping and without yielding to the pressures of interested parties. Over a very long time, and on a day-to-day basis, this is harder than it sounds. It defines, too, the frontiers of your powers of endurance and rubs in the valuable lesson that the way things appear on the spot are nearly always different from the way they are visualised by the reader or listener in an armchair. Now this has nothing to do with inaccurate reporting. It has to do with the human imagination, which seems unable to cope with anything smaller than twice life-size. I don't remember being seriously frightened on a story I was actually covering, but I was often terrified when I read other people's reports of it afterwards.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The reporter's tool box continues to change

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