Stephen Evans is the BBC's North America Business Correspondent. Before that, he covered industry and labour relations for the BBC. He has written for several newspapers on subjects from crime to theatre.
War the great educator 3
Stephen Evans - The biggest story of my life 7
Anthony Loyd - Cleanliness the first casualty of war reporting 12
Recollections of September 11 14
Ronald Stevens - Kate, and the call that didn't come 28
Paul Routledge - It may pay but journalism it ain't 31
Cal McCrystal - Yvonne Ridley wasn't the first 36
Clayton Goodwin - Sport, reggae and the Daily Gleaner 44
Tom Welsh - Can our courts handle human rights? 49
BOOK REVIEWSGerald Kaufman MP on the Press Association 55
Ian Hargreaves on Robin Oakley 58
David Shayler on Dame Stella Rimington 61
Michael Leapman on Rupert Murdoch 68
Joshua Rozenberg on court reporting 71
Cal McCrystal on the PCC 74
Anthony Delano on global news 78
Reporters obviously wear many hats at the same time. They have to do
straight reporting where their own beliefs don't intrude; they get involved
in the events on which they're reporting; they live among the people about
whom and to whom they report.
Being in the World Trade Centre when the first plane struck put me in fear of my life – although not at the moment of impact. It offered me the biggest story ever likely to come my way – and one set on an island with all tunnels, bridges and airports closed to outside reporters for four days. And it set me among a people coping with previously unimaginable grief and horror.
On the task of reporting, I didn't have time to think deep analytical thoughts about the nature of truth and how it might best be conveyed. Rather, I had the hack's natural instinct to get on the air for both television and radio and report it in a straight, factual way. I have a strong belief in the unobtrusive reporter and I don't like reportage where what happens to the reporter becomes the story.
On a purely practical level, when the first bang shook the building – and I still hear it whenever a loud thud echoes down a street – I wondered whether I should scrabble for my tape-recorder. Even though it was the North Tower that was hit, the impact shook the walls on the ground floor of the South Tower where I was. I didn't turn on the machine immediately because I automatically assumed an innocent explanation – a skip falling from a very high crane was my initial thought.
Only succeeding explosions, smoke and people streaming out persuaded me to leave and turn my tape recorder on. Outside, when I saw the flames at the top of the North Tower, I realised the enormity – though even then I was thinking about how I would rearrange the interview on the economy that I'd gone to the complex to do for the Today programme. It simply wasn't real – and it doesn't seem that real now.
SearchI decided to search for a phone. After failing to find one free in an office, I went into the newsagent's at the base of the South Tower and the shopkeeper let me use his phone, turning down the offer of my credit card. The broadcaster's equivalent of “Hold the Front Page” is “Put me on the air, now” which the World Duty Editor (news editor of the day for non-British stories) proceeded to do. I filed forty seconds live into the World Service news on the top of the hour – it must have been nine o'clock, New York time, a few minutes after the first attack – and then accounts for a string of BBC television and radio programmes both domestic and world.
The phone cord wouldn't stretch out of the shop so I didn't see the second plane hit, only the result of it as people who had previously assumed it was all an unthreatening accident decided to flee. I then moved on, curtailing a live two-way, to try to find another phone. After trying an empty office, I found one at a nearby hotel. I hired a room and started filing my account, at which point the South Tower collapsed sending out a woosh of dust and debris. I'd just said: “There's been a huge explosion” when the line went dead (causing much distress among my friends and family who were watching the live pictures at the time).
CameraNo phones meant no more live radio or television so I tried to find a camera I could hire. In the end, I only succeeded by offering a local television station my eye-witness account in return for a tape and the camera to film a stand-upper (where the reporter talks to the camera).
At the end of my account, the North Tower collapsed behind me and everyone ran. It was the only time I actually felt serious fear for my life.
Some thoughts occur about the coverage. Before September 11, the big American broadcasters had toyed with trivialising the news – getting in prettier faces at the expense of authority, and not seeming to see the value of a core of correspondents who could report and analyse at first hand. CNN in response to Fox News's increasing ratings was revamping itself as what you might call CNN Light. One wondered which network would be the first to “sack the news” altogether.
September 11 changed all that. The audience turned to the heavywieght broadcasters, including the BBC. (It was a continual delight and source of eye-misting pride to have New Yorkers spot a BBC logo on a cameraman's bag on an underground train and come up to us and say they watched every night on WLIW, the cable channel, or listened to the World Service overnight on WNYC, the public-service radio station).
Which is not necessarilly to say that the case against the airheads on the sofa is proven. The difficulty for broadcasters where audience size matters is how to maintain authority while entertaining an audience with its finger on the multi-channel zapper. In a story as big as the attacks on the World Trade Centre, it's the authority that counts. But when the news is thinner and frothier, how can news keep the ratings? There aren't easy answers. I would say, though, that we shouldn't underestimate the public's appetite for news nor its ability to see through thin journalism.
DilemmaThe other dilemma broadcasters have is when to parachute in big names to cover a story. Clearly, this was one story where reinforcements had to be sent in force: the British ones from all channels arrived by a charter plane to Canada from Stanstead (known, apparently, as Ego One) and then by stretch-limmos from Montreal.
There is a big debate going on within broadcasting over the value of specialism and expertise (whether it be about a country or a subject) versus the familiarity and pleasantness of the face on a particular programme. My own view, for what it's worth, is that broadcasting skills are very important (newspapers wouldn't employ people who wrote badly). On the other hand, I wouldn't want to go back to the bad old days where all a television reporter needed was a wadge of cuttings. It's a matter of balance and perhaps the pendulum's swung too far back from expertise (though, those of us without big hair and bigger teeth do tend to say that).
Some reporting issues arose. I filed a piece to the World Service using the phrase “the terrorist cell” and was told that a great debate had taken place and we weren't to call them terrorists. Now, I know as well as the next bar-room philosopher that today's “terrorist” is tomorrow's prime minister. This refusal to use loaded language helps make the World Service such a treasure and so trusted where, say, Voice of America is not.
But I did wonder if we were bending over too far in our desire to be fair to the killers (neutral term) of six-thousand people. After all, these gentle-men (loaded but ironic term) were elected by nobody and sought to bend the will of a great many people to their will simply by terrorising them. These people aren't gallant fighters against colonial oppression. They are people who themselves oppress others, not least by killing them. They want to impose on others values which have not obviously benefited the masses in their own lands (notwithstanding that most of the hijackers seemed to have enjoyed European and American education).
Even having said that, though, in the cold light of day, I still applaud the Bush House habit of always seeking the neutral term. It seems to me that it's best to let people form their own views – they're not daft, you know.
SneersOn this point of neutrality, I noticed that some British reporting seemed to sneer at President Bush, and particularly at his failure to find what the British chattering classes might call le mot juste. This, it seems to me, is a form of loaded reporting which serves the audience badly. Report, yes; sneer, no. Ernest Bevin, after all, made Bush seem like Shakespeare when it came to linguistic misuse – but he was a very effective politician.
Looking back at it all, was I lucky? Of course, I was. If the phone lines hadn't gone down, I would have stayed with the fire trucks. And if I'd been a bit earlier I would have gone to the Windows on the World restaurant for breakfast. And nobody imagined that those towers would collapse. We imagine a guaranteed safety.
I don't really feel my luck but I do feel an immense privilege. As a reporter, I inhabit one of Manhattan's villages. I know and like the people in its bars and its launderettes and its diners and its buses. I delight in their richness. The real, massive privilege was to witness New York cope with its grief. Its mood changed by the day from stunned quiet to loud assertions that it would not be bowed. I have witnessed so many small instances of human warmth that I feel utterly, utterly uplifted by what remains in my soul a numbing experience.