The first draft of history – or the flat spin of a story breaking

28 February 2018
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The news-cycle, once traditionally hour-on-hour, is now minute-by-minute for most of us with a smartphone – the news agency in our pocket.

A slow news day: a transport policy review, a warehouse fire and a royal baby teething. An early production meeting allocates stories; producers scatter and camera crews are dispatched.

At the BBC, Newsgathering would loudly alert us to a breaking story. I’d say the major stories still warrant that, now that we are perpetually distracted by smaller screens and targeted alerts.

Wire copy would drop line-by-line; telex machines chattering out copy – like an on-screen ticker today, just noisier. What followed was a hive of fractious activity: reporters paged, phones grabbed; the yelling across newsrooms not dissimilar to trading floors of the same era.

Sky and BBC News channels compete to be first, or accurate – preferably both. The networks monitor each other and any live feed. A second source was always the guide for programme editors, but this is never more pressure-tested than with smartphone journalism now.

A story is quick to surface, with the authentication chasing. The conundrums come getting it to air.

   Is it news? Who else has it? It’s done already?

   Others have it, it’s kind of done…

   …so we have to do it. How many dead?

But the story needs a new angle: new images tweeted; authorities for balance; a company spokesperson to authenticate unconfirmed reports.

   Who knows about this? Can they comment? Any Brits caught up in this? Can we verify footage? Did it happen?

An eye-witness is tracked down by a local stringer. Producer sources b-roll video, images, map, tweets, commentators. Reporter arrives at scene and establishes a link. Editor wants to run this, has to drop two stories and move a third. He scans other networks and shouts at a producer to mic-up and sit in the studio, should the link fail.

   I can’t drop Baby, drop Transport… and move Fire. Have we a second source…?

   We’re on Fire, yells the director, trying his utmost to keep the programme on air, crashing out of the story early with a Breaking News strap. And cue presenter…

   We’re getting reports of…

And the audience channel-hops between Sky and BBC.

“The first draft of history,” I recall scribbled on a presenter’s script, after a week of momentous events – and back-to-back double shifts – following the death of Princess Diana.

Yes, it was a world of paper too as runners would dump sets of scripts, whilst I was concerned with missing pages. An absent page often meant the video-tape (VT) wasn’t there too; still being cut, waiting for latest pictures. I can tell you, a script is the first raft to the rescue of a newsreader when a live bulletin is about to fall off air.

TV news production is a factory, a continuum; the line doesn’t stop.

And a host of calamities… the wrong story on autocue, the interviewee isn’t there, we can’t get sound from the reporter, no count-out of VT leaves a black hole – a cardinal sin. Nothing unravels as quickly as live TV news output. And that’s an ordinary day.

But a breaking story should put the cat among the pigeons, right? It can when news has no warning at all, say a snap election announced, or a train crash…

Nineteen-years-ago: two rush-hour trains collide in West London. CNN – eyewitness accounts: 200 injured, one dead. The carriage behind the driver ripped apart like a sardine can. By the next morning 27 people were reported dead, with many still unaccounted for. I was paged to cover an evening News Special. It was becoming clear that passengers unaccounted for, mostly in the first carriage consumed in flames, were dead; their bodies impossible to identify and the actual number unknown. In the studio, as we came off air, a senior railway executive apologised to a lady who had been in the second carriage and had heard the screams, seen the carnage, from the first. She could barely walk.

You know when a presenter has been told to ‘fill’ because the story isn’t there. An interview is extended, there’s constant repetition… For those just joining us, the main headlines again… And again, the slow voice over blurry mobile footage that we’ve seen a dozen times – when there is barely a story at all. But you never dismiss the gravity of that first draft.

Standby content, with a shelf-life, provides another back-up, whilst for breaking stories we can expect – resignations, celebrity deaths – obituary packages are already filed. The known knowns, if you like.

Five years before Diana’s death we were rehearsing an uncannily similar scenario. Same car, different motorway.

Programmes, like Outside Source (BBC World), now provide an expectant edge to news just in where a large interactive screen appears to give a presenter the autonomy of a director. But surely anyone with a smartphone is an outside source…

Correspondents should be in the thick of events with a grasp of the culture and back-story, seeking out characters – doing exactly what it says on the tin: news-gathering. Tethered to a sat-link, blog-posting, tweeting and filing hourly updates, some don’t get further than the airport. Logic might tell them it’s not worth getting on the plane. The story is pretty much done before they land and journalism is the poorer for it.

With phone alerts we stay in touch, but, much like continuous news channels, it is hard to gauge a lead story, or qualify fact from informed opinion. The news bulletin, be it two minutes or 27, gives an order of things. It packages local and global events in perspective. It qualifies what matters; edits the wheat from the chaff.

A loose line – say, a presidential tweet – has impact in seconds. Millions jump on a comment, sensationalising the sensation it might well be. But rarely with context, it’s never weighed for balance, or even verified. And a headline runs, outpacing rationale.

A news organisation pins information down and makes sense of it. Else, like a loose cargo lashing in a storm, a detail may do some damage.


Jonathan Spencer

Crisis Response Manager

T: +44 (0)20 3326 8466


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