Working with Sue Lloyd-Roberts 'was an adventure'

Sue Lloyd-Roberts and Tony Jolliffe
Image caption Tony Jolliffe and Sue Lloyd-Roberts, pictured here on the Greek island of Lesbos, first worked together on a trip to North Korea

On Tuesday the BBC journalist Sue Lloyd-Roberts died at the age of 64. Former colleague Tony Jolliffe remembers her "infectious energy and irreverent sense of humour".

It was sometime in the spring of 2010 when Carly called from the Newsnight office.

"Could you go to North Korea with Sue Lloyd-Roberts?" Definitely I could.

Assignments like that don't come round very often. But I knew it would be challenging, the sort of place you really need an ally.

Just the two of us would be travelling. I'd never met Sue and I don't speak Korean. I hoped we were going to get along.

At Pyongyang airport we were greeted by two poker-faced minders from the Ministry of Information who'd drawn the short straw of ensuring we couldn't cause any trouble.

In as long as it took to confiscate our phones and check our baggage for anything counter-revolutionary we were out of arrivals and on our way to our hotel.

Spy-film conversation

Essentially an internment camp for suspect foreign types like us, the hotel was on an island in the river near the city centre.

There was no way in or out other than in an official vehicle and no phones, internet or anything else that could be used to contact the outside world.

Our minders were in rooms down the corridor fiddling about with whatever they were using to listen in to our conversations.

It was a claustrophobic, slightly intimidating and thoroughly joyless place. But it had a bar.

Hunched over glasses of Chinese red wine, foreheads almost touching and hands over mouths in comedy spy film fashion, I had my first real conversation with Sue.

Image caption Sue Lloyd-Roberts, seen here in Hanoi, was appointed MBE and CBE for her humanitarian journalism
Image caption "I never met another person who was immune to her effortless warmth"

Half an hour later we were laughing and joking about the absurdity of it all, and picturing our minders twiddling their dials and exchanging baffled glances. I'd made a new friend.

That's the way it worked with Sue: If you met her you liked her.

It was the same for everyone. OK... not our North Korean minders.

It began frostily with them and went downhill from there.

It's really a tribute to the ministry training programme because I never met another person who was immune to her effortless warmth, infectious energy and irreverent sense of humour.

Driving with lights off

Over the next four years I went to 16 countries with Sue, making films for Newsnight - from Burma to Burkina Faso to Peru, usually on our own, coping with gruelling journeys, long hours and often challenging conditions, and I can't remember a day she was anything other than cheerful good company.

Working with Sue often brought adventure - driving with lights off through sugar cane fields to cross the border from China into rebel-held territory in Burma.

It also brought some heart-wrenchingly emotional encounters - grandmothers in Argentina reunited with their grandchildren nearly four decades after they were stolen as new-borns by the state from their imprisoned and soon-to-be murdered mothers.

And there was the unhappy story of female genital mutilation.

I worked with Sue on films about FGM in five different countries.

Image caption Sue Lloyd-Roberts speaking with an FGM victim in Burkina Faso in March 2014
Image caption Those who told Sue Lloyd-Roberts their stories were "not forgotten"

Many journalists feel that once they have made a report on a subject, it's done with, and they move on.

It was different for Sue. As long as the practice continued, it was definitely not done with.

You read a lot about the motivation of journalists who work in challenging locations.

The usual explanation is that we feel the story needs to be brought to a wider audience.

I take a slightly different view. Much like someone telling stories at a dinner party, we want people to listen to us. The better the story and its telling, the closer attention the other guests pay.

There's nothing wrong with that.

It's human nature and it applied to Sue too.

Sue Lloyd-Roberts: Selected reports

The unopened 'Pleasure Hospital' of Bobo (March 2014)

Vietnam's illegal trade in rhino horn (February 2014)

Syrians accuse Greeks of pushing back migrant boats (June 2013)

Argentine grandmothers determined to find 'stolen' babies (April 2013)

Have India's poor become human guinea pigs? (November 2012)

The difference with Sue was that her involvement with a story didn't end with a broadcast.

Long after the attention faded, Sue was still engaged.

People who had taken the time to tell us their stories were not forgotten.

I don't mean the powerful and the influential, but the ones made vulnerable by misfortune or persecution.

Sue would keep in touch, help with useful contacts and advice, send money and make representations on their behalf.

Image caption Sue Lloyd-Roberts was known for her "mischievous sense of fun"
Image caption Tony and Sue with the Emmy she won for her reporting from North Korea

While Sue was modest and self-deprecating, she still enjoyed winning awards and gaining recognition.

Who wouldn't?

But so much of what was best about her was out of public sight and she did nothing to try to change that.

For all her virtues, my overarching memory of Sue is of her mischievous sense of fun.

Arriving at Ouagadougou airport on the last trip we made together, we were confronted by a yellow fever certificate check in the arrivals hall.

I'd forgotten mine, and I knew what that meant. I'd be taken to a back room and given an injection there and then.

Image caption Sue had "effortless warmth" and an "irreverent sense of humour"

No disrespect to the facilities at Ouagadougou airport, but I didn't much fancy that and told Sue so.

The solution was immediately obvious as far as she was concerned: "OK, I'll distract him while you slip under the barrier."

The distinctive set of vowel-sounds they must have issued on enrolment day at Cheltenham Ladies College in the early 1960s started to fill the hall.

"Hello, yes hello, could somebody help me please?"

The certificate inspector glanced up with a weary 'There's a nutty woman in the hall' look on his face.

"Yes you! Yes that's right, you! Would you help me please?"

'Oh no, she's talking to me,' said his face.

"What's this paper for? What does this mean? Where's the railway station?"

'Oh no, she's coming this way...'

By the time Sue let him go, I was safely in baggage reclaim.

Jump straight in

I can recall only one time Sue came close to a grumble in my direction.

We were on our way to Dharamsala in the Indian Himalayas to interview the Dalai Lama.

I would later realise that he was probably the one person in the world around whom Sue became a little star-struck.

On a turbulent, nerve-fraying light aircraft journey from Delhi, we were discussing the filming ahead.

Suddenly Sue fixed me with a frown.

"Tony, must you keep referring to him as Sergeant Bilko?" I got the message.

Image caption "She didn't hang back - she jumped straight into the middle of it"

Sue loved to dance. If she saw people dancing, she joined in.

We were in Santiago in Chile, having a bite and a glass of something local one evening.

Across the room a dozen or so stylish young Santiagans were doing a traditional dance that involved some elaborate waving of handkerchiefs.

I'd got caught up in a conversation with our friend Gert, so I didn't immediately notice when Sue went missing.

That was the Sue I knew and loved.

She didn't hang back thinking how much fun something looked - she jumped straight into the middle of it.

It didn't matter that she didn't know the moves - she made up her own as she went along.

Dance on Sue. I'm going to miss you.

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