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Lawrence of Asia

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 10:44 UK time, Monday, 13 August 2012

This year the BBC World Service celebrates its 80th anniversary: cause enough for celebration. But tonight, half a world away, the great and the good will come together to mark an even more extraordinary milestone.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Anthony Lawrence was the BBC's man in the Far East. First in Singapore, then Hong Kong, Lawrence was one of the BBC's "greatest generation" of foreign correspondents - a foreign legion that included legendary names such as Charles Wheeler, Erik de Mauny and John Osman. They built the BBC's reputation around the world, on crackly telephone lines and film flown back from distant shores*.

This weekend, "Lawrence of Asia" celebrated his 100th birthday, half a century after reporting on the communist insurgency in then Malaya, and the ousting of the British.

"Parked cars were set on fire. The steel blinds of shops came clattering down. Doors were bolted and barred. An all-day curfew was announced by radio and loudspeakers. Nobody could leave their houses. And all the streets of this big city were emptied like magic of all human beings, except for the odd mobile police patrol or military squads."

As the sun set on the British empire, Lawrence reported on the Vietnam War. One memorable despatch for From Our Own Correspondent in May 1972 suggests nothing much has changed. Reporting from the frontline with US troops in Vietnam, Lawrence could have been describing Afghanistan today:

"It's such a chancy business, this patrolling. You can go for months and meet nothing, and then three times in one week you meet some awful ambush or firefight. The man next to you goes down yelling with a leg blown off; the platoon commander is bleeding to death against a tree. It's over in 15 minutes, but it's a nightmare; and it may come again tomorrow night."

Much has changed in the four decades since Lawrence left the BBC - everything, and yet nothing. Lawrence's young "apprentice" in the heady days of the 60s was a young David Willey, still filing for the BBC from Rome, and this year himself celebrating his 80th birthday. Lawrence taught him to use the ordinary to explain the significant, the stories of real people - storytelling techniques at the core of contemporary BBC journalism today.

Lawrence moved to Hong Kong in 1958, and was forced to observe China from the outside for more than a decade before the mainland authorities let him in. He set about learning Chinese, and stayed in Hong Kong post-retirement. Having witnessed the suffering across south-east Asia, he founded a charity that helps refugees who flee to Hong Kong.

Tonight, at its famed Foreign Correspondents' Club, Hong Kong celebrates one of its finest adopted sons - and the BBC salutes one of its greatest generation. As the BBC marks 80 years of reporting the world, it is those like Lawrence who made it possible. Every day, we who follow seek to match the gold standard set by Lawrence and his contemporaries. One hundred not out! Happy birthday Tony.

Jon Williams is the BBC world news editor

*An earlier version mistakenly stated Lawrence was the last of his generation. But John Osman is still going strong at 80. Apologies.


  • Comment number 1.

    Indeed, a remarkable generation that was, projecting the "soft power" of Britain through its famed world service at a pittance compared to the cost of maintaining a fleet of aircraft carriers. Yet! we note that this power is being thrown away to save a few pennies, and the BBC has had its wings clipped, and can no longer claim to be The Standard in worldwide reporting.

  • Comment number 2.

    It's a pity about the lousy World Service cuts but I think the BBC is doing a great job regardless... if you can't adapt to the times (budget cuts included) you are doomed! In terms of coverage, I, for one, have not seen a drop in the quality - the wars may have changed but at least the reporting standard hasn't!

  • Comment number 3.

    Certainly something worth celebrating - he's a legend in his own right. BBC should produce a documentary on the reality of wartime journalism - it'd make for a telling human interest story, not to mention an educational one for some of the constant critics of BBC reporting in Syria etc

  • Comment number 4.

    @3. Pratish - I agree it would probably make for an interesting story given these journalists' experiences however I think the criticism with respect to Syria etc is not about process of wartime journalism but rather about the content and the bias BBC often displays in their reporting of events. Now wouldn't that make for a better documentary!

  • Comment number 5.

    A very happy birthday to this gentleman.

    Good luck to those "seeking" to match his gold standard, though I'm not sure how rigorously the BBC requires them to seek these days.

    As a firm it undermines itself with a webpage called "Have Your Say", where the reader is not allowed to comment on a single item, I'd say.

  • Comment number 6.

    BBC World Service is celebrating its 80th anniversary today, even though the actual date was some time in February. I heard the Director of the Service, Peter Horrocks on the domestic service Radio 4. He remarked on the Iranian Govt's jamming of the service & harassment of the families in Persian service. He said the jamming occurred because the Iranian Govt sees BBC World Service as a threat.

  • Comment number 7.

    Peter Hoorcks said that a report from the Iranian Govt, described BBC World Service as so dangerous because it’s impartial not because it’s propagandist or oppositionist but because it tells the truth as it is - an impeccable theory of journalism. This should sum up the history of the World Service in a couple of lines.
    May it always be so...May it always be the mantra of the BBC.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.



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