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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Freedom of expression
By Bridget Kendall
BBC Diplomatic correspondent

Bridget Kendall
Bridget Kendall was the BBC Moscow correspondent from 1989 to 1995

Why do we correspondents like writing for From Our Own Correspondent? The simple answer is that you can say things you cannot say anywhere else. You are freer to be yourself.

No agonising over whether there are enough pictures, or sound effects, or English-speaking interviewees.

You can write what you like, unencumbered by technical demands, devising a tale as you hear it in your head, writing as you would tell it to a friend.

In other words, an old-fashioned radio talk.

The other freedom is editorial: the convention that the programme allows you not just to observe and report but to react, draw broad conclusions and even step over that barrier so many BBC correspondents set up and say what you really feel about what you are doing.

Although let us not forget that these days even From Our Own Correspondent can hit the headlines, when BBC correspondents own up to unexpected emotions.

Tales of daily life

It often seems to me the most satisfying pieces surface when you're not quite sure what to write about.

"We've got a hole on New Year's Day. Could you possibly find something to write about?" asked one editor when I was Moscow correspondent.

I rashly agreed but with no idea what I would do.

What emerged was a tale of daily life in Soviet Russia:

The other day, the fine upstanding Russian lady who helps keep our office clean asked me for the morning off. She said she needed to pop down to the registry office to get married.

'But, Vera', I said, 'you've already got a husband who rings you nearly every day and two daughters. How come you are getting married again?'

It turned out she and her husband got divorced a few years back. Not because their marriage had gone sour, but because their flat was on the small side. They still lived together as man and wife and nothing had actually changed.

But it was only if he got divorced and told the authorities that he'd moved back to live with his mother, that he'd have any right to inherit his mother's tiny flat when in the end she passed away.

Now the rules are being changed. So Vera could remarry, and her ex-husband could make an honest woman out of his ex-wife, without jeopardising his right to two more rooms.

Soviet Russia was a treasure trove for pieces.

It was also a godsend - the only place on the BBC output where there was room to explain its paradoxes.

And it was not for nothing that the Russian nickname for the USSR was "Looking Glass Land", because so much was back to front and topsy-turvy.

But on occasion writing a feature for the programme was a much-needed release - a correspondent's therapy for when you are immersed too deep in a story to come out unscathed.

Dying too young

In 1991 Geoff Spink, the editor at the time, rang to ask for a piece on Kremlin politics.

I refused. I was in no mood to write about politics.

A close Russian friend had just died unexpectedly in hospital. I felt grief-stricken, frustrated and guilty too that, while I was cocooned in my comfortable BBC world, Russians of my age were dying far too young.

And so, at Geoff's suggestion, the piece I wrote was my response to the abysmal Soviet health system.

What's particularly sobering is that he's the third close friend to have died suddenly in the last three years. All of them no older than 40.

Maybe these personal experiences aren't typical.

Maybe you could argue that in many countries health care is much worse.

But this should be a rich country. It's spending billions manufacturing nuclear missiles. It's spending billions putting its own, and now foreign, astronauts into space.

And its politicians continue to sanction these costly prestige programmes while they spread their hands helplessly as hospitals go without aspirins, iodine and sterile needles.

No wonder Soviet people are cynical about their government.

I remember that as a cry from the heart. I was truly angry, unwilling to keep my BBC mask from slipping.

I look at the date now - 17 August, 1991 - and realise that a week later it would never have been broadcast.

By then an attempted coup had brought Gorbachev's perestroika to a halt and within a few months the USSR would disintegrate.


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