As far back as I can remember, I have always loved to watch the TV news. My earliest memories are of serious-looking men with clipped accents, reading from sheets of paper. This progressed to outside broadcasts, with interviews, and footage of grey men walking into Downing Street, to debate worrying events at home and abroad. Then came the heyday of the foreign correspondent, embroiled in revolutions and wars across the globe, or reporting on terrible outbreaks of disease and famine, from countries we had never heard of. There was film from Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Angola, and other wars in yet more places we knew little about.
This footage was often startling. Napalm exploding, dead bodies in the streets, people being executed, others dying of malnutrition. All beamed uncompromisingly into your living room, as you relaxed after your evening meal. Home news also went up a gear. Industrial disputes, strikers fighting with the police, demonstrators in huge numbers protesting about foreign wars, nuclear power, and anything else that they opposed. Reporters began to challenge politicians, asking them awkward questions, and delving uncomfortably into their private lives. Celebrities became news; their holidays, love affairs, and frailties, all shown on TV, as if it was something that everyone needed to know.
Then came the age of the pundits, experts drafted in to explain difficult issues to the viewers. Election specials, swing-o-meters, military commentators, medical specialists, and university academics. All found a seat next to the familiar anchorman. It seemed that no report was considered to be worthy enough, unless accompanied by comment from someone who was speaking from experience or study. Once the features became so widespread, with excited journalists in five different places at once, we soon saw two newsreaders; working as a team, feeding off each other as they bounced from Northern Ireland, down to the Falklands, then segued seamlessly to events in Beirut. After twenty years of dedicated news viewing, I was still lapping it up. I rarely considered the fact that all this was easily edited back in Britain, and that we were only ever seeing what producers, sponsors, and governments, either wanted, or allowed us to see. It wasn’t that I was especially naive, It just didn’t occur to me.
In 1997, the BBC launched a dedicated news channel, ‘News 24’. This was my first real experience of ‘rolling news’. This is essentially a twenty-minute round-up of the news, repeated constantly, over the whole day. Unless anything new happens, they continue to rotate the stories, adding sports results, weather forecasts, and some interviews, to break up the monotony. I was soon addicted. I got to know the different presenters by name, and I had my favourites. There was no advertising to disrupt proceedings, so I could watch what was happening to my heart’s content. It was as if they had invented the perfect channel for me, and I had it on all the time, when I was not watching drama, documentaries, or films. After a busy run of shifts at work, I used to enjoy doing little on my first day off. Getting up late, and eating breakfast at lunchtime as I watched the new news channel, was my idea of a perfect morning.
That is exactly what I did, on the 11th September, 2001.
Early afternoon in London is after the end of the morning rush-hour across the Atlantic, given the time difference. People in New York were still arriving for work in some places, though many had already been in their offices for some time. The BBC interrupted their routine news, to bring an item of ‘breaking news’, concerning an explosion in the iconic twin towers, part of the World Trade Centre complex. I noticed that they were using images supplied by both Fox News, and Sky News, so I immediately changed channels to Sky News, to see if they had better information. They certainly did. More people on the spot, different angles, helicopter cameras, and eye-witness interviews. I settled down to watch this, noting that they had decided to suspend all advertising, such was the serious nature of this event. It was soon obvious that this was going to be something memorable, and then another incident happened, a second aircraft struck the other tower.
I confess that I was riveted. As well as the usual reporters trying to get to the scene, and reporting from some way off, the new technology now available provided mobile phone footage, home video footage, and eye witnesses being spoken to on the telephone, as the events unfolded. TV news companies from other countries, documentary film-makers, static CCTV, and individuals with their own equipment, all this was thrown into the mix normally controlled by a handful of established media companies. Nothing was considered unacceptable. Wide-eyed, I sat transfixed by terrible images. People jumped to certain death from the windows, their last moments filmed in detail, as they plummeted hundreds of feet onto the street below. Trapped occupants waved frantically for help, standing in the wreckage of their offices, flames clearly seen roaring a few feet behind them. Then the towers collapsed, one after the other, with some interval between.
Now we could see the plight of the rescue services, as fire engines, police cars,and ambulances were consumed by thousands of tons of falling rubble. Presenters speculated on the fate of anyone left in the building, and whether or not anyone involved in the rescue attempt could possibly survive. Dust clouds gathered, rushing along the streets of the city, overwhelming and choking anyone unable to get away in time. All on film, all on video, all commented on constantly. Injured casualties stumbled into view, covered in dust, bleeding, fighting for breath. They looked dazed and confused, yet microphones and cameras were thrust into their faces; inane and unanswerable questions posed, time after time. Shot from across the river, the sight was incredible, almost beautiful to behold. A masterpiece of destruction, unparalleled on live television. I could not tear myself away, and sat for hours, not even leaving to use the toilet, or to make a drink. I sent text messages to Julie, and others unable to watch, giving them constant updates on the unfolding story. This was something huge, something historical, and I was watching it happen. I wasn’t about to miss a moment.
I began to feel uncomfortable though, Did I really want to watch this? How many times should I watch someone jump to their death before it became acceptable, on TV news? What of the families and friends of the victims, and of the hundreds of rescuers? Should this really be allowed to be televised, knowing the devastation it would bring them? There were other incidents that day. An aircraft supposedly flown into the Pentagon, though there was less convincing film of this; and the damage did not seem to add up to what would be caused by a large airliner, full of fuel, hitting a building at ground floor level. Another aircraft, saved from destroying the White House, by the brave actions of some passengers, had crashed into a field in the countryside. Film of this crash site was unconvincing. A little debris, a large scar on the ground. Where was the wreckage, and the scores of bodies that would have been scattered all over? I began to feel uneasy, something wasn’t right.
By now, the TV companies had almost all of the reports back under their control. They were using the other footage as they saw fit, editing film to show the aircraft hitting the second tower, time and again. They were showing the collapsing towers, and bringing in teams of ‘experts’ to say why this had happened. Not long after, the claims began that it was known who the culprits were. They had names and photographs up on the screen, and were blaming it all on a plot by Osama Bin Laden, carried out by Al Qaeda operatives. By the time Julie got home from work, I was still watching all this. I had to go over to the shop to buy something for dinner, as I had not made my usual supermarket run. My legs were stiff from sitting, and I was literally ‘newsed-out’. Over the following days, I watched some follow-up reports, with a growing sense of unease. Something did not seem right about this whole event.
A lot changed that day. Since then, we have become used to surveillance film, cockpit cameras, even cameras inside cruise missiles, capturing the moment of impact on a building in Baghdad. We were treated to the war against Iraq shown in high definition, explosions in glorious technicolour. We are familiar with journalists being ’embedded’ inside specific military units, and filming combat up close, as it happens. The Internet has completely changed the way news is viewed around the world, and there are even brutal executions posted online, almost daily it seems. Rolling news has expanded, and now includes film previews, technology and financial advice, as well as book reviews, and short documentaries. I still watch it, but never for so long now. I prefer the local news, like something made in the mid-1960s, that has taken fifty years to reach the screen. Farming reports, local football clubs, problems with the fishing industry, wind farm objectors, and charity fundraisers.
Because something else happened on that day in September. I stopped believing what I saw and heard, and began to question what was really going on, behind all that hysterical footage. I lost trust in the news, and it will never return.