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Bitten nails and goose bumps - the 2011 Reith Lectures

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Sue Ellis Sue Ellis | 14:37 UK time, Tuesday, 21 June 2011

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When I walked into the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House there were many 'unknowns'. Would there be enough people in the audience? Would the main guest be able to join us? Would John Simpson be arrested?

We were about to play the first Reith Lecture in the 2011 'Securing Freedom' series to an audience who were hoping the lecturer, Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, could join them, somehow, to discuss the lecture.

By now I'm used to 'unknowns'. Back in January, we decided to approach Aung San Suu Kyi, recently released from house arrest, to give this year's Reith Lectures. I turned to both Fergal Keane and John Simpson for advice and it was Fergal who led me to the family of Michael Aris, Suu Kyi's late husband. They offered to put the proposal to her. At the same time Tin Htar Swe, the head of the Burmese Section, also tried to contact her on our behalf.

It took weeks before finally... 'yes, she would be delighted. She knows what the Reith Lectures mean.' I'd already enlisted the help of BBC Newsgathering, who offered to send in a team experienced in evading the secret police. They would record two lectures. And it was to protect their safety that we kept the whole thing secret. Any secret mission worth its salt needs a code name and rather randomly, Aung San Suu Kyi became a.k.a. Maggie Philbin. Naturally, we also considered carefully the security implications for Aung San Suu Kyi, but, true to form, she wasn't concerned in the least.

I learned that Daw Suu, as she's known affectionately, wanted to talk about dissent and the struggle for freedom. We sat back and waited again. For an editor having no control over content is not easy. One day I grew impatient and rang Suu's house on a number I'd been given. 'Ah, the Reith Lectures, yes, we know about them, please send an email to this address....' So I emailed the NLD (the National League for Democracy) from a gmail account, making no mention of the BBC. Back came a reply to my BBC address from someone called 'John'!

Communication by email was sporadic and presumably monitored by the authorities, but, finally, I arranged to speak to Suu. It was quite a moment. She told me she was very nervous about giving the lectures and apologised for being so busy. When I told her they would be filmed, she groaned and said, 'but I thought this was radio!'

By the time the Newsgathering team went into Burma, in secret, I'd only seen a draft version of one lecture. We'd sent back some suggested changes and then waited. The two days that the team were in Burma were nail-bitingly tense. Even if they managed to record successfully at her house, would they get the lectures out intact? And would they be any good?

They did and they are, as the audience at the Radio Theatre can testify. The final unknown: would we get Daw Suu on the line to answer questions about her lecture. And this is where John Simpson stepped in. He and his producer bravely, under the noses of the Burmese authorities, took satellite equipment to her house to enable us to link up with her. The line dropped off a few times, but as the lecture ended, she was there, asking not to be given any 'nasty questions'. There were tears. Nail-biting gave way to goose bumps. It was a truly moving and memorable experience.

In the run-up to the broadcast of Aung San Suu Kyi's Reith Lectures, Radio 4 is podcasting a selection of programmes from its archive exploring the themes of Burma, democracy and dissent.

Aung San Suu Kyi's Reith Lectures will be broadcast at 0900 BST on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 28 June and 5 July and will be available for download via the programme podcast. During each live broadcast, the Radio 4 blog will be hosting a live discussion - join in on the Radio 4 blog, or on Twitter, using #Reith. Follow the Reith Lectures on Twitter.

Sue Ellis is Editor of the Reith Lectures


  • Comment number 1.

    Dear Sue,

    "Not available in your area". That is what foreign, non-license fee paying, users of this blog see instead of the video of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is rather ironic, as she says in that video that the BBC was important to her as foreigner.

    I do know that the BBC World Service will broadcast the Reith Lectures. Therefore, do the proper thing and make the video available to the international users of this website.

    More and more, the BBC force foreign users to use VPN or proxy servers. Maybe the next Aung San Suu Kyi in the world will not be so "fortunate" as she was and will indeed see "Not available in your area".

  • Comment number 2.

    One of the few occasions when having BBC UK national output being broadcast on BBC World Service is appreciated.
    In this case - it will be on BBC WS - so the links could do with an update (as well as addressing the blocking of international access to the video that Piet Boon highlights).
    Appropriate link for BBC WS info http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003drl8

  • Comment number 3.

    Piet and Paul, You're right to point out that the video can only be viewed in the UK. This is a mistake: I'm afraid that the video was uploaded using the default settings which are for the UK only. I'm checking to see if I can change that. In the meantime, you should be able to watch the video on the BBC's YouTube channel from anywhere in the world (let me know if you experience any difficulty there).

    And I'd like to reassure you that, as usual, all of the Reith lectures will be available from anywhere in the world. Not only on-air on the BBC World Service but also on iPlayer. You'll also find that the Reith Lectures podcast is available internationally, as is the special series of 'Reith Extra' programmes on the Documentary of the Week podcast.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, About the BBC

  • Comment number 4.

    From Australia, I look forward to the groundbreaking opportunity BBC provides.
    What an achievement for listeners to hear this brave lady. Thank you.

  • Comment number 5.

    Dear Mr. Bowbrick,

    Malta is admittedly a small 'somewhere in the world', but we do have access to the internet here and, so, to YouTube, but not, unfortunately, to the Aung San Suu Kyi video on the BBC blog webpage http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/aboutthebbc/2011/06/reith-lectures-2011.shtml .

    The 'on the BBC's YouTube channel' link in your comment on that webpage leads to a YouTube webpage with the message 'The uploader has not made this video available in your country. [Written white on black in a larger font.]' Followed by 'Sorry about that. [Written grey on black in a smaller font.]' ('Sorry about that.' Indeed!)

    Would you please investigate to see who at 'the uploader' decided Malta is 'nowhere in the world' and ask them to reconsider, so as to bring the country back into the community of nations, and able to watch the Aung San Suu Kyi video?

    James Wiegert


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