This column first appeared on Reaction.
The Nice Terror Attack and the EHRC Report into Antisemitism in the Labour Party, Sky News & BBC News Channel
The problem with breaking news for any broadcast organisation is that you often have very little information to go on. The challenge is to maintain the viewer’s or listener’s interest without being too repetitive.
I remember being on air when Flight MK 17 went down over the Ukraine. And that was all we knew, yet it was clearly a major event and we went into rolling news mode. It’s moments like this that you earn your money as a new presenter. You either sink or swim. Everyone in the newsroom drops what they are doing and it’s all hands to the pump. Contact books are raided for anyone who knows anything. Twitter is scoured for eyewitnesses. I’m constantly amazed at the resourcefulness of producers who manage to get people on the air within minutes.
In the gallery, the studio producer is giving you a barrage of information. Another barrage is uploaded onto the Google Document screen in front of you. To the audience, as a presenter, you’re as calm as can be – or at least that is the aim – but you’re like a swan, apparently calm and serene, gliding along, but underneath your feet are moving fast. You are thinking about ten things at the same time. Your brain has to sort the wheat from the chaff. Above all, your job is to report, not speculate. And deep in the recesses of your mind, you’re fully aware of the fact that one word out of place, one wrong fact given, and it could be career ending.
It is the ultimate in high pressure broadcasting. After a three hour programme like this, you are both physically and mentally exhausted, yet somehow also exhilarated. It may be an awkward thing to admit, but as a broadcaster, you live to be on air on stories like these.
The news of the terror attack in Nice was first reported in Kay Burley’s Breakfast Show on Sky News. She was presenting from a very cold Washington DC on a rooftop overlooking Congress. All she had was someone telling her in her ear what was going on and an autocue to read. If Twitter is to be believed, and I have no way of verifying this as I write, the BBC News Channel was at least half an hour behind Sky News in reporting the fact that the attack had happened.
When I switched on, Martine Croxall was on air and interviewing analysts and residents of Nice, getting their reaction. On Sky News, Emma Crosbie had taken over presenting duties. Normally she would have been presenting an hour of business news, but she’s an experienced general news presenter and handled it all with due aplomb.
Both news channels then had to contend with another big breaking news story – the EHRC report on antisemitism in the Labour Party was published at 10am. Normally, this would have been a rolling news story for the next few hours. It wasn’t until 10.27am that the BBC went to a reporter, with another hit half an hour later.
In reality the story never really got the prominence it warranted, especially given Jeremy Corbyn’s tone deaf statement, released on Facebook. However, by 11am it led the headlines. Sky gave it a bit more prominence initially, but stayed with the terror attack as their lead story at 11am, when Adam Boulton took over the presenting reins. Given his show is all about politics, it seemed a little odd that after starting the hour with the terror attack, he then launched into a feature on the latest Covid developments. The EHRC report wasn’t covered until the third story when Sir Keir Starmer started his live press conference.
In these situations, news channels are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Editors hope they’re making the right decision as to how to cover two breaking news stories at once, but inevitably they can’t please everyone. There will always be someone who thinks a wrong editorial decision has been made.