Sue Lloyd Roberts - the BBC must make sure her work continues

| 14th October 2015
Sue Lloyd Roberts, over a drink on a terrace next to Covent Garden, 2012. Photo: Bogdan Adrian Bisa via Facebook.

Sue Lloyd Roberts, over a drink on a terrace next to Covent Garden, 2012. Photo: Bogdan Adrian Bisa via Facebook.

Sue Lloyd Roberts, the brilliant investigative journalist who died yesterday, was a unique phenomenon in the BBC, writes Oliver Tickell - fearless, rooting out the dirtiest of secrets, fighting the cause of the oppressed, abused, exploited and downtrodden. Now the BBC must keep her mission alive with a new, independent unit dedicated to human rights worldwide.
No single person could reproduce what Sue achieved in her remarkable lifetime of journalism. But a new editorially independent investigative unit within the BBC, answerable directly to the Board, could keep her mission alive.

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.

But Sue was a one-off

Sue was, or 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, answerable directly to the Board, could keep her mission alive.

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 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 indgenous 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!



Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist

Oliver's report on From Our Own Correspondent (Radio 4), broadcast June 1996.

Vision 2020, Malaysia's plan to become a fully developed industrial economy within 25 years, is the theme that will carry Mahathir Mohamed, leader of the Barisan National political coalition and Prime Minster since 1981, to yet another election victory.

Of course it helps that his government has total control over the country's television, radio and press. But it has also delivered the economic goods: 8 percent per annum growth and ever-expanding job opportunities in the offices and factories that are sprouting like mushrooms around every city.

But this growth comes at a cost. Power stations, factories, offices, houses, dams, roads and plantations all need land, and all over Malaysia land held for generations by small farmers, rural communities and indigenous people is being expropriated with minumum compensation as the essential feedstock of Malaysia's continuing economic miracle.

So far the victims of this dark side of Vision 2020 have been impotent to change their fate, denied legal powers or even a voice in the media. But their anger and resentment are nevertheless real, as I found out among the swirling tropical rivers and rainforested mountains of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo.

For this is the site of the Bakun hydroelectric project, where a dam some 650ft high on the mighty Rajang river is intended to generate 2,400 megawatts of electricity by 2001, ten times the state's entire demand today.

According to both state and federal governments, the dam is essential to Sarawak's economic future and its implementation of Vision 2020. But the 10,000 Kayan, Kenyah and Punan tribespeople who now live in the dam's 200,000 acre reservoir area foresee nothing for themselves but the loss of all they hold dear, to be replaced by cultural dislocation and the thin gruel of poverty.

The area is both geographically isolated in Sarawak's unroaded interior and deliberately cut off by a government anxious to contain any rebellious sentiments. I only gained access after a three-hour helicopter flight through fierce tropical storms, so evading government checkpoints into this officially declared 'sensistive area'.

For a decade or more the Bakun region has been a focus of indigenous resistance, with its people erecting blockades on logging roads to prevent the destruction of their forests - blockades that only came down after the arrest and imprisonment of local leaders.

But now they are preparing for a new fight, this time to the death, to keep their farmland, their forests and their freedom, all threatened by the Bakun dam. At the moment, one headman explained over a meal of wild boar, forest vegetables and home grown rice, the people of the region can survive and flourish without money.

Meat and medicine come from the forest, fish from the river, and crops of dry rice, the staple food, are raised on a six year rotation on the steep riverside slopes. But after the dam, deprived of their homes, their land and resources, survival will depend entirely on the peoples' success in the cash economy.

And as the government plans to resettle the people with no land of their own as labourers on plantations of rubber, sago or oil palm on wages as low as £2 per day, their economic failure is virtually assured. "The government promises us we will be three times better off", the headman told me. "The truth is we will be three times worse off."

Living on the plantations, one young woman complained, was like living in prison. She would prefer to stay in her village home until drowned by the rising waters. Many others shared her feelings, and others again, mostly young male hunters of forest deer and wild boar, had their own ideas. Rather than remain passively until they drowned, they would die fighting.

What offends them is not just the enormity of the proposals but the contempt with which they, the Orang Ulu or original people of Borneo, have been treated. No one has sought their opinion or given them objective information. The thirty or so environmental and socio-economic studies of the dam prepared over the last decade are all Official Secrets. Even the first part of the Environental Impact Assessment, 'approved' several weeks ago, remains unpublished.

It was impossible to find any government figure willing to be interviewed on the issue. Malaysia's Minister of Primary Industries cancelled my appointment on my arrival in Kuala Lumpur. And the Chief Minister of Sarawak, a prominent supporter of the Bakun dam whose two sons happen to be major shareholders in the company contracted to build it, Ekran Berhad, was likewise unavailable.

Finally we caught up with him amongst the razzmatazz of a political rally as he submitted his nomination papers for the forthcoming election. A benign looking figure with a mild, saintly smile, he said that the dam would transform the lives of Bakun's tribespeople and lead them into a new age of prosperity. Malaysia, he insisted, had the world's best forest conservation policies.

A few hours later we were detained by Sarawak's secret police on "orders from above" as we checked in for our flight back to the mainland, to have film and tapes confiscated as suspected "prohibited materials". The dark side of Vision 2020, it seems, is something Malaysia is determined to keep firmly out of sight.


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