The Big Idea

The Big Idea

Type:AudioLanguage:EnglishCategories:HistoryArts & CultureStatus:On going Description: Our presenters Douglas Kerr, Vanessa Collingridge and guests explore the history, meaning and significance of ideas in contemporary society.


  Podcast: Weekly update and available after its broadcast. 



Douglas Kerr

Douglas Kerr is Professor in the School of English at the University of Hong Kong, where he teaches courses in literature and rhetoric. He has lived in Hong Kong since 1979.

He was born and brought up in Scotland, but went to Cambridge University in 1969 to read Modern Languages and English, and then moved on to the University of Warwick, where he studied English and French literary responses to the First World War, leaving with a PhD in Comparative Literature. During this time, a penurious year working in the French National Library in Paris gave him a taste for living some distance from home. He satisfied this taste by moving to Hong Kong, and has been here ever since.

A continuing scholarly interest in the literature of the Great War eventually produced a book on the English war poet Wilfred Owen, and this was published by Oxford University Press in 1993. This was followed by George Orwell, published by Northcote House in their Writers and their Work series. Living first in colonial and then in postcolonial Hong Kong, it is no surprise that he became deeply interested in the way Asia (or the East, or the Orient) was experienced by foreigners, and this became the subject of his next book, Eastern Figures: Orient and Empire in British Writing, published by Hong Kong University Press in 2008.

Like many others, Douglas had first encountered the Sherlock Holmes stories as a child, but it was a lot later that he began working on their author, Arthur Conan Doyle. Though he is best known for his detective fiction, Conan Doyle was a prolific writer in all sorts of genres and subjects, and an important figure in the cultural history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Douglas's book Conan Doyle: Writing, Profession and Practice, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2013, is a "cultural biography" of Conan Doyle and a study of all his writing.

Douglas is a regular book reviewer for the South China Morning Post, and was on the Board of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival for five years; he still acts as an Advisor to the Festival. Though Hong Kong is a small place and he has been a resident here for more than thirty years, like other professors he still has a tendency to get lost.














Vanessa Collingridge

Vanessa graduated from Oxford University in 1990 with a first class honours degree in Geography and started working in television, quickly moving into the field of science, environment and history which remain her passion both on and off screen. Since then, she has been a regular face on all the major UK TV channels (BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5), along with Discovery and The Learning Channel (USA) and The History Channel (worldwide). In Spring 2007, she took over the chair of the long-running weekly series Making History, the flagship history series for BBC Radio 4. Her 4x1hr documentary series, Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery (2007-8) based on her best-selling book, has now won five major international awards including a Canadian “Gemini” (“Oscar”) for Best History Programme, Australia’s prestigious National Culture Award and the Sydney Morning Herald Readers’ Award for Best History Programme. The series has so far been screened in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, North & South America, North Africa and most of Europe.

A former columnist for the Daily Telegraph, The Scotsman and BBC History magazine, she writes a monthly column for BBC Who Do You Think You Are magazine along with features for the national newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. A reviewer for The Literary Review, her own books include Captain Cook (2002), Boudica (2005) and The Story of Australia (2008) plus multiple chapters for Thames & Hudson’s Seventy Greatest Journeys in History and The Greatest Explorers in History (2010).

Vanessa is currently researching her PhD on the history of cartography of the Great Southern Continent (Antarctica), based at Glasgow University and Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute. She lectures on science, history, geography, presentation skills and the media across the UK, including at Cambridge, Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities, the RGS and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. She is a Fellow of the RGS and RSGS and co-founder & host of Glasgow’s Café Scientifique to stimulate debate between the scientific community and the general public. She is a regular speaker at Book Festivals including Edinburgh International Book Festival, Cheltenham and Christchurch (New Zealand).

She is director of her own production company, Monster Media Productions, which makes radio and television programmes for broadcast and corporate clients; the company also provides a range of training for media and presentation skills. She moved to Hong Kong in November 2010 with her husband and four young sons from where she continues to write and broadcast, and research her PhD.

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Programme 57: Free Speech 00:28:00 2015-01-24

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." While we all might like to be able to express ourselves freely, it is a surprising and radical notion that everyone should have a right to exchange information and ideas. In practice, everyone agrees that these rights, if they exist, are not unlimited. Some information and ideas are protected as the property of individuals or institutions: others may be interdicted on the grounds that disseminating them would be harmful – obscenity, libel, incitements to violence are examples. In any case, can speech ever actually be free? Who are the advocates and who are the enemies of free expression, what are its benefits and risks, and who decides its limits?

To answer at least some of these questions, Douglas Kerr talks today with Simon Young, Professor and Associate Dean of Law at Hong Kong University and a specialist in constitutional and human rights law, and Chris Hutton, Professor of English at HKU, a scholar of language, politics and law and a historian of ideas.