It was almost as though Anne Darwin had picked her penthouse in Panama City to make it as hard as possible for broadcast news media to do their job. The cheek of it.
The flat was positioned above a bottleneck in a down-at-heel suburb, with a blaring tangle of cars, mopeds and vans beneath. Parked up across the street, the cameraman Mick Deane and I tried to get a live signal from our equipment, perched precariously on the searing heat of our hire car’s bonnet. This was the first time on the road with our BGAN satellite road kit, designed to get us on air quickly using streaming broadband. We both grew up with the relative luxury of broadcast trucks with their comforting smell of spilt coffee and slowly decaying fruit which producers buy to cancel out the effects of the trans-fat soaked doughnuts, but noone ever eats.
We were on air as soon as we found the satellite: the thirst for the story was pretty insatiable. The picture was shaky but we were there, at the shabby epicentre of this tale, and we were well ahead of any other TV or radio media. However the IFB (or ‘Interruptible Feedback’, which is what I need in my ear to hear the presenter’s questions) wasn’t. I spent the rest of the trip using a mobile phone pressed to my ear.
In between the countless lives we recorded interviews, listened to the British Embassy phone ring out and put finger to doorbell. Trying to send back the interviews however created near meltdown: on this kit, everything we shoot has to be saved on the ‘timeline’ and then compressed and converted before little fairies carry the pixcels through the air. I may have got that last bit wrong. Frustration mounted when it took 4 hours to send a 15 second sound bite.
Two pieces to camera never made it to air. Mick and I shouted, sweated, sobbed and then composed ourselves for another live ‘hit.’ On day 2 when a large white broadcast truck drove into the road, flaunting its handsome, proudly-positioned satellite dish, we both stared at it as if it were some cruel mirage, sent to try our resolve. When the man looked at us and shouted: “BBC?, I’m looking for the BBC,” we both stared away biting our lips, trying to hide our tears. We were buoyed when London sent sent Sky’s incomparable US News Editor Sally Arthy, to help us out.
Then there was the hotel. Panama City is popular. So popular, it appears, there are never any empty hotel rooms. They were probably full of ‘Splash’ operatives hired to keep Mrs Darwin away from those of refusing (or unable) to shell out for an interview. We ended up staying in a surreal The Shining-esque resort hotel, an hour away in the middle of a rainforest. We stayed 3 nights and never saw it in the daylight. Large posters taunted us with promises of trips to ‘Monkey Island’ and a 90 minute Canopy Tour as we trudged to the car laden down with equipment.
On our last day before Anne Darwin, and therefore the media, pulled out of Panama there was a spectacular car crash right next to our live position. That was after I had thrown a full cup of coffee down my shirt, a feat I remarkably managed to achieve a second time after buying a replacement at a department store.
On the plane back to DC, we decided we’d learned a great deal, from how to get the best of the new equipment in ‘anger’ to how to master the trick of drinking coffee out of a plastic lid. Roll on the primaries…