Monday, 20 December 2010

BBC Correspondent Brian Hanrahan dies: He represented a dying breed of journalist

This morning I heard the sad news that Brian Hanrahan, one of the BBC's finest correspondents had died. I've worked with Brian, many times in the last decade covering mostly stories related to recent German history. He was thorough, seeking the truth, a sticker for details, good research and facts and more facts. So many times when I rambled on, giving my personal take on events, he said to me "Just give me the facts"

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009

He was fair on those who worked with him and those he interviewed. He was a Mensch.

Today I remember after a heavy day of filming, the many thought-provoking conversations we had over dinner in Berlin and Leipzig and Dresden and Cologne.  We talked about the media, current affairs, history, books and art. He certainly shaped my view of the role of journalists in our day and age.  At every shoot I learnt something from him. In Dresden he encouraged me to still visit the world-famous Zwinger art museum with only an hour to spare on the morning we left.

Brian was far too young to die. May you RIP, Brian!

Here is an extract from my book, "From Rock to Kraut", about the first time I worked with Brian in November 1999 in Berlin to cover the 10th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.

"In late October 1999, almost ten years after the fall of the Wall, BBC News contacted me to ask whether I would be able to do some research for them on the fall of the Wall. I was busy celebrating my daughter’s 11th birthday party when the call came. As so often happens with the BBC, things were left way too late, and I had literally five days to try and find the people who correspondent Brian Hanrahan met on the night the Wall fell in 1989. 

Brian was in East Germany at the time and heard the Wall was falling via word of mouth. He went to the Bornholmerstrasse crossing. That night it was the first border post to open its barriers to the West. Brian and his camera team were there, going with the flow and talking to Ossis crossing into the West for the first time. Based on his footage, the Germans later made a film, and ten years later I had to find these people on the basis of very skimpy information……. 

For a start, the British, not being the greatest of linguists, made things extremely difficult. So all I was given was a list of people to contact, plus, in some cases, phone numbers from early 1990. Now it may sound as if my colleagues were being incredibly helpful. Well, there were some minor hiccups to start off with. For example, after unification in 1990, all old East Berlin phone numbers changed. I had also never seen the film and therefore did not know whether the names of the interviewees fitted East or West Germans. So where should I start to look? 

Single women may have married in the meantime and changed their names. And some names are very common. There was a certain Susanne Fischer whom they interviewed on that evening, and I counted seventeen Susanne Fischers living in Berlin. I gave up after phoning half of them. 

There was a particular waiter who Brian interviewed in a disco on the Kudamm—the famous and fashionable West Berlin shopping street—and who he was keen to have in the film as he was young and from the East. He came from Burg and I was given a number for him. With all East German telephone numbers no longer valid, this turned me into a super sleuth. 

There are only twenty-seven villages called Burg in Germany. So I required a map to try to work out which ones were in the former East Germany. 

There were three near enough to Berlin. BBC producer Paul Simpson, looking at the notes and having to deal with my calls of desperation then deciphered “Burg bei Magdeburg”. 

Now a young guy like that would have lived with his parents. I was told there was a restaurant in the castle in the village and assumed that he probably worked there. But then the restaurant no longer existed so I called the Tourist Information who passed me onto someone else: I called random people in the village, and it emerged that he had left Burg, like so many young people did after unification, and that he went to the West.

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009. Brian Hanrahan in Leipzig 2009, the last time I worked with him

Eventually I was given the number of a relative of his, who told me that he had moved to Munich, but was doing a course in Spain at the present time. Ten years after Brian filmed him, I reached him in Spain on his Spanish mobile phone and as fate would have it, he was going to be back in Munich on the weekend we were planning to finish filming. Having gone to such lengths to find him, I never met Marko. On the Sunday Paul and Brian flew down to Munich from Berlin to interview him, while I flew back to Trier, mission accomplished. Of all the sad stories of people who did not adapt to the pace of the West, Marko was one of the success stories, embracing the possibilities the West had to offer."