Complete mobility is now the way of life for TV news teams

Forget
the west and southern tourist beaches, our mission was to get to the
east coast – the land of jungle and the Tamil Tigers – and get there
first.

The coastal strip around Ampara in the east was the
worst-hit area of Sri Lanka: 10,400 people killed here according to the
government. The LTTE, the Tigers, say 11,400. Two languages, two
cultures, and since Boxing Day in Sri Lanka, two official body counts
issued to the press each day. It really is only a tiny strip of land
that has been affected – perhaps 300 yards wide at the most. But it was
densely populated and 30,000 people lost their lives. Nearly 800,000
are now homeless.

Some of the more excitable reporting about “paradise lost” is, frankly, a little wide of the mark, however.

President
Kumaratunga says the reconstruction of people’s houses, or rebuilding
elsewhere, will happen by June. Beach paradise will be resumed – though
“paradise postponed” doesn’t quite excite the subs as a headline.

In
Arugan Bay, as everywhere else we went, we were simply able to edit and
send back pictures to Channel 4 News whenever and wherever we chose.

Using
a laptop edit system and “store and forward”, digitally-edited packages
were sent without hitches over the satphone every day. I’d had the
fortune to link up with our Bangkok bureau cameraman Julian Hadden, who
could beam transmission quality pictures from anywhere he chose.

Cheap,
it isn’t. But complete mobility is now the way of life. The holy grail
of TV news getting close to, if not reaching, the kind of freedom
newspaper reporters have always enjoyed in terms of being able to file
anytime, anywhere, is now pretty much here. No more of the endless
phone-calls to book a satellite feed for your cut package to be
delivered to London via local TV stations. Which was handy, as there
were no TV stations in our vicinity.

No more having to drive at top speed to a remote station against the clock to make that feed time – all gone.

Of
course there are other checks and balances. Material is best edited in
sections of a minute or so, then sent in advance. Because of this, your
ability to make changes to the structure and the way you tell a story
can be difficult. I cannot honestly say that there weren’t any
problems, but it was at least a possibility to do this, and would have
been quite impossible not very long ago.

And you really needed
this flexibility in Sri Lanka, where there are stories along every
road. Indeed the road very often is the story.

At first it was
rubble-reporting. But things swiftly moved on to examining the aid
effort – how do you move all this national and international aid around
on roads often swept away?

When it rains there are times when it
is impossible to work outside. Cameras – even inside plastic bags
inside a rucksack- still fog up with the combination of ultra-humidity
in the air and a waterfall cascading from the skies that can go on for
ten hours at a stretch.

Technically, it means equipment gets
highly resentful. Mobiles just pack up and film-over for 24 hours at a
stretch, and my trusty and much-used mini DVD camera did much the same.

Professional
cameras are evidently made of sturdier stuff – though ours went through
a period of being moody every morning. Images appear with a slight blur
before the camera’s internal boiler gets going and warms things up.

“Condensation,”

the
redoubtable Hadden would murmur irritatedly before, inevitably, putting
much of this right with a few minutes incomprehensible tapping at the
laptop.

And how did the journalism fare?

That is much
harder to tell. Rarely have I found myself working in such isolation,
seeing so few of those familiar faces you run into around the world.

Seeing
few reporters at all, in fact. We were, they told us, the first to
reach the fabled surfing beach at Arugan Bay – no surfers, no villages
and no villagers, of course. And no other reporters. As we left,
Australia’s Channel 9 were trudging up the rubble-filled road coming
in. NHK from Japan had briefly stopped by the previous day, keen to
examine our means of feeding pictures back home.

But that really was about it.

So
we were heavily reliant on our foreign desk for gauging just how all
this was playing at home. I remember emerging from the jungle one night
to be astonished that the British public had stumped up £50 million in
the disaster appeal. I was equally amazed about three minutes of
silence being observed. Three whole minutes?

As you see, it is hard to realise the impact all this is having back home.

But
foreign desks are not on the whole content to let you repose in doubt
about such matters… So it was that on this running story at first
there was something akin to panic-appetite for stories from the desk.

Coming,
as it did, in the midst of holiday TV scheduling, matters were further
complicated by programmes suddenly becoming very much longer at very
short notice.

The point to wait for though, is when interest
begins to wane, when the calls and messages just suddenly become
slightly less urgent. Across this story it’s been the familiar change
from: “Ok – give us all you’ve got, don’t worry too much about length
we just want to hear and see as much of it as you can get over to us”,
to: “Look, the programme’s pretty full, so you could get a wee bit more
material and hold it over for tomorrow, what do you think?”

And
when the conversation begins to turn this way, you know the public
focus has begun to shift and – short of something unforeseen happening
all over again – it will not come back to where you are in quite the
same way again.

And when that happens it’s time to pack up the
kit into our beaten-up minibus that has served us so well and head for
the hills and then for Colombo and beyond.

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