Radio

It Shouldn't Happen to a Radio Presenter: No 9 - Handling Breaking News of a Potential Terror Incident

22 May 2013 at 20:48

I’m writing this forty five minutes after coming off air from possibly the most challenging four hours of radio I am ever likely to be faced with. So forgive me if this is at all rambling or disjointed.

Sometime after 3pm this afternoon our Classic FM newsreader came over to my producer Matt Harris and said there was an ongoing incident in Woolwich. It looked as if someone had been killed with a machete or samurai sword and that armed police had shot the two people behind the attack. Eavesdropping, it was clear to me that this was a story which would dominate my four hour Drivetime show. At that point it had never entered my head that it could be a terror incident. As details started to come in I tweeted out asking for witnesses to phone our newsroom – frankly it was more in hope than expectation, but at around a quarter to four I noticed Matt was deep in conversation with someone on the phone. As the clock edged toward 4pm I wondered what on earth he could be talking about seeing as we needed to head down to the studio. It soon became clear. “Do a short intro telling people what we know – then get into the call quickly. James was there. He can tell us everything.”

And indeed he did. I’ve done some emotional interviews in my time. As it went on I thought to myself: “He’s still in shock”. It was gripping listening and in some ways very upsetting. I suspect I wasn’t alone in trying to hold my emotions in check. And for once I succeeded. I won’t go through exactly what James told us, but you can listen for yourself. It really is worth listening to the whole thing.

It was clear to me that this was far worse than we had ever contemplated. Calm, I thought. Just keep calm. Stick to what we know and don’t say anything unnecessarily provocative. The thing I hate in breaking news is when presenters hype up a story and keep on giving out unverified information. I was lucky to have my LBC colleague John Cushing in the studio with me, along with security expert Will Geddes. We then took a couple more eyewitness calls, including this one from Lauren, who had been on a bus which arrived at the scene shortly after it had happened.

We were later joined by Robert Fox, the Evening Standard’s defence correspondent and talked on the phone to various police, armed forces and security experts. It soon became clear that the Met and the government were treating it as a terror incident so our coverage needed to change to reflect that, and I hope we transitioned into that in a manner which our listeners found informative.

I then decided to give our muslim listeners an opportunity to tell me their reaction to what had happened. If I were a muslim my heart would have sunk and I’d have been thinking ‘here we go again’. We have a lot of calls, most of which I couldn’t get to, but they all had the same message. Not in our name.

By this time, the Daily Mail were using our interview with James, and Sky News flashed up a giant LBC logo as they replayed part of it. I was being deluged with texts and tweets from other journalists asking or James’s number. I’m afraid I had to say that he was in no condition to do more interviews, especially as I had finished my interview by telling him I thought he could do with talking to someone who could counsel him properly. It was the responsible thing to do, I thought.

So, as I travel on the train back to Tonbridge the professional radio presenter in me was grateful to have been on air during such a major breaking news story, but there’s a small part of me that keeps thinking ‘could I have done that better? Did I strike the right tone? Was I asking the right questions?’ Judging by the reaction on Twitter I did, but I’m sure as my head hits the pillow tonight I will be thinking of that one thing I wanted to say but didn’t.

A quick thank you to the superb LBC team today – Matt, Laura, Chris, John, Tom and Rachel in particular. And that’s what it was. A team effort. Without a cross word! Not bad over four hours. I love live radio!

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