Sue Lloyd-Roberts a unique phenomenon at the BBC

Investigative journalist Sue Lloyd Roberts who died this week, fought for the oppressed and downtrodden. The BBC should keep her mission alive with a unit dedicated to human rights worldwide.

Oliver Tickell
15 October 2015
Facebook/Bogdan Adrian Bisa. Some rights reserved.

Facebook/Bogdan Adrian Bisa. Some rights reserved.Today I woke up to hear sad news of the radio. The BBC's most outstanding journalist, Sue Lloyd Roberts, had died after a long battle with cancer.

Sad, of course, for her close friends and family. Sad for me too: Sue was a friend going back to my teenage years in 1970s London, when she was already working as a reporter for ITN.

We also worked together on an BBC assignment in 1996, investigating the thoroughly evil and pointless Bakun dam in Sarawak, Malaysia - of which more below.

But her death is also a tragedy for the wider world, and oppressed, abused and marginalised people everywhere.

If there is one thing that her journalism was all about, it was to delve deep into the heart of darkness and bring the stories of the powerless and downtrodden out into the light of day - and in so doing, to give them some hope of justice and improvement in their lives.

Among the causes she took up were the plight of the Tibetans, forcibly assimilated into China, and made a disenfranchised minority in their own land.

She picked up the cudgel for domestic slaves in London, refugees from Syria's murderous civil war, women subjected to genital mutilation, and the people of North Korea and Burma, their entire lives subject to the whims of brutal dictatorships. And others too numerous to mention.

Sue was, of course, unique. Very few journalists have her courage, her dogged insistence on getting her story, her personal authority, her technical ability, and her insistence on investigating both where angels and demons fear to tread - never mind all of these qualities in combination.

But she was also unique for another reason: her ability to get the support of the ever risk-averse, conservative BBC and its executives, to extract big dollops of hard fought-over budget for her investigations, and to get her reports, no matter how controversial, broadcast on prime time television.

And perhaps that is the single biggest way in which she is - journalistically speaking - irreplaceable. There is, literally, no one to take her place. And that is not just because of her, but also because of the BBC which has become, over the years, ever more reluctant to stick its head out and be the first to report on the most important and controversial issues.

So how did Sue do it? For a start she got into the BBC when it was itself less oppressed and fearful than it has since, with good reason, become, and established her own particular niche.

She had friends, supporters and admirers in high places, a reflection of her own force and magnetism of personality. People who mattered believed in her, and were prepared to take risks for her and the causes her journalism advanced.

And now that Sue is gone, the danger is that her style of journalism will simply disappear from the BBC altogether. This is an outcome we must seek to prevent by demanding a renewed commitment in the BBC to hard hitting investigative journalism that uncovers inconvenient truths and rattles the protective cages of the powerful.

No single person could reproduce what Sue achieved in her remarkable lifetime of journalism. But a new editorially independent investigative unit within the BBC dedicated to human rights worldwide, with its own ring-fenced funding, answerable directly to the Board, could keep her mission alive.

This is something well worth fighting for, all the more so with the process of BBC Charter renewal under way.

Sue's other irreplaceable quality: luck

But Sue had another quality that was equally essential: luck. Or rather, a full-time, highly effective guardian angel. That's one thing I discovered while working with her investigating the Bakun dam in Malaysia, which was then set to flood out a huge valley in the rainforest-clad mountains of Borneo, home to dozens of indigenous communities.

Ultimately the dam was built, flooding 700 sq.km of rainforest and farmland, and displacing some 10,000 indigenous people from their homes and villages. And it has proved every bit as much of a white elephant as Sue reported on BBC news. Latest reports are that while capable of generating 2,400MW of power, it is actually generating just 900MW due to a lack of demand for its electricity.

It was only by a miracle that we made it to the dam site at all, in two helicopter journeys flying low over the rainforest, including a perilous encounter with a fierce tropical storm as we flew low over the treetops, somehow defying a government order to keep us out of the area altogether.

After shooting on location with our indigenous Dayak guides, we returned to Kuching by boat, on foot and by bus, ready for our next task: to ask Sarawak's all-powerful Chief Minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, why he was so determined to build the dam. Our requests for interview were ignored. Eventually we caught up with him at a huge election rally with tens of thousands of supporters.

Making our way through the thronging crowd as best we could, it seemed impossible that we would ever come to face to face with him. But suddenly, as if from nowhere, the Chief Minister was right in front of us as the crowd parted to make way. Sue put her question to him as I held the camera and, taken by surprise, he replied.

Our next task was to escape from Sarawak as quickly as possible knowing that his secret police would be after us and our video tapes. After frustrating delays and traffic jams we reached the airport to catch the day's last flight to Kuala Lumpur. Only to be detained by airport security, who searched our bags and systematically confiscated all our videotapes - about a dozen of them.

Our mission was, surely, blown out of the water. Only it wasn't. Sue had somehow concealed just a single tape among her underwear, a tape which, somehow, miraculously, contained just the miscellany of footage that was needed to assemble the entire story - helicopter shots of the forest and indigenous villages, views of the dam site, interviews with Dayak leaders and subsistence hunters, a piece to camera on a small boat on the swirling Rajang river, and, crucially, the brief interview with Abdul Taib Mahmud.

It was enough. The piece went out on BBC news. Abdul Taib Mahmud publicly denounced us and the entire BBC as congenital liars in Malaysian media. And while we did not stop the dam from being built, the adverse publicity made it harder to secure funding from western banks and the whole project was set back for some years.

Sue's guardian angel served her well for 62 amazing years, and me too for that memorable week in which we worked together. Now Sue's nine times nine lives have reached their untimely end. But may her work continue!

 This article first appeared in The Ecologist

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