Heavy snow in Iowa made for great TV

It’s been a tough week for snow – and so early in the year. I mean Iowa, of course. There, the January snow fell, bleak, powdery and dry – but it made a tragic mistake this time. It fell bang in the middle of the caucus circus. And never, but never, has snow had to work so hard as a result.

There it was, plastered over commentaries from the BBC, Sky and ITN, and being metaphorically worked to death. The chill of the US economy… the winds blow ill for Hillary Clinton… the perma-frost of Iowa before the perma-tan of Florida – well, OK, I made the last one up. But you get my, ahem, drift.

In truth, let’s face it, there wasn’t much to say about the Iowa caucuses. Whisper ever so softly – they don’t add up to even half a row of beans. But they happen to be first in a medium which worships the concept of ‘first”. And they do it under cobalt-blue skies and pristine snow. 

Ergo: great TV pictures. And that ergo = ego. So send in the presenters from far and wide, working that snow in words and pictures for all it’s worth and then some.

But I’m just bitter and twisted. My journalistic climax of the week being a heroic attempt to get into London via Liverpool Street station.

I’d called ahead just to let the programme editor know that there would be no way I was going to make our 9.30am editorial meeting, said station still being closed after the deadline to finish engineering work had not been met.

My reward of course, was to be let loose on the story when I eventually made it in. And Liverpool Street was as nothing compared with the vortex at Rugby station.

Watching feeds come in across the day from around the country, reporter after reporter professed themselves nonplussed. For the first time in four billion years, they were faced with a major organisation standing in front of cameras and saying basically: ‘Yeah, sorry. We cocked up completely. It’s all our fault.”

It’s a lethal tactic: honesty. Just say sorry. And to an amazing degree Network Rail carried it off. I don’t remember any vociferous calls for resignations. Politicians in full Pontius Pilate mode saying it’s a matter for Network Rail, if they said anything at all.

The only obvious resignation was that of passengers – sorry, I mean victims – standing around for the replacement bus horror from Birmingham to Northampton. 

Central TV journalists were out vox-popping the luckless travelling public. Among them a cheery dude who said he couldn’t talk because he worked for Network Rail. But then he couldn’t stop himself and gave a lucid critique of the current mess.

In the end, we didn’t use him – he’d been far too honest, and besides, he’d have probably lost his job for speaking out. But, by this time, I couldn’t cope with anybody else just saying: ‘Sorry mate, it’s all our fault”.

Late in the afternoon, there was hope. A viewer emails to say the Liverpool Street problem is actually all Transport for London’s responsibility. It’s a cover-up. A scandal.

Twenty minutes to air and I’m on to something. A re-edit last minute to get this new angle in, perhaps. Quick call to Network Rail to stand it up and we are there – could be a new lead story at this rate.

But suddenly, this: ‘Er, no, Alex – we’ve been getting this at our end too,’says the exhausted Network Rail press officer. And then the dreaded words: ‘It’s not true. Nothing to do with TfL. It’s all our fault.”

Exactly the phrase you spend much of your career trying to wring out of press officers – now you don’t want to hear it and cannot stop them saying it.

On Friday, I visited a sixth form college in Hampshire to talk to the students there. When you work in a business which gives the impression everyone under the age of 18 is a behooded stabber or stabbee, such days out are never less than invigorating and uplifting.

Bright, talented, switched on – boy did I get a good grilling from them. Many were already heading out into universities and jobs and clearly on the road to fulfiling their dreams.

And joy of joys! One had already secured a traineeship with – you got it – Network Rail. I stifled any attempts at obvious cheap jokes, somehow confining myself to the observation that perhaps they need an injection of new talent and energy.

But out of that day arose the following parable of the week, which I leave you with.

Editor-in-chief, producer and trainee are cast adrift in a boat on the high seas. As they run short of food, editor-in-chief says: ‘Don’t worry – I’ll go to land and find food,’and he goes over the side and walks on the water to land. He returns, laden with supplies.

Time passes. Food runs low. Producer says: ‘OK – I’ll go for food.’He jumps overboard, walks on the water to land and returns with supplies. More time goes by and they are running low again. ‘My turn,’says trainee. He jumps overboard and sinks without trace.

Producer turns to editor-in-chief and says: ‘Ah – do you think we should have told him about the stepping stones, boss?”

‘What stepping stones?’replies the editor-in-chief.

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