According to one Fleet Street veteran- natural disasters in the Third World are usually three or four-day stories. By day two the dimensions of the situation become clear and after days three and four, as the aid relief gets underway, the news agenda begins to move on.
But in the words of Daily Telegraph foreign editor Alan Philps the Asian tsunami was: “extraordinary and unprecedented because it started off slowly and just got bigger and bigger”.
Philps said the Telegraph found itself well-prepared with stringers in Delhi, Sri Lanka, Bangkok and Indonesia.
Guardian foreign editor Harriet Sherwood said: “Fortunately, one of our senior correspondents, Jonathan Steele, was on holiday in Sri Lanka and he swung into action very fast.”
Jakarta-based John Aglionby was dispatched to Phuket and Indonesia; Beijing-based Jon Watts was also sent to Thailand; India correspondent Randeep Ramesh was called back from holiday and Berlin correspondent Luke Harding was sent to the Andaman Islands.
Sherwood said: “On the Monday morning we underplayed it a bit, it was on the front and pages three, four and five but that morning we felt we hadn’t given it enough space.”
She added: “Having been quite slow on the first day I think we then picked up and covered it pretty well. We all felt bamboozled by the figures.
One problem was trying to reflect the scale of it when you are not sure how much more people can read of this terribly distressing stuff.”
Daily Express news reporter Nick Fagge was one of dozens of journalists who flew to the disaster zone on 27 January. He had intended to fly to the Maldives but left his plane at Colombo when it became clear that the devastation was worse in Sri Lanka.
He said the usual herd instinct of the London press pack was nowhere to be seen in the early stages of this disaster.
“I have been very much operating on my own, I haven’t seen anyone else. A local family whom I met on the plane have been looking after me and aid organisations like Save the Children have also been extremely helpful.”
On Thursday 30 December, the Daily Mail was one of the first titles to respond to the crisis with the launch of its own appeal for victims of the tsunami. It was kick-started with 5p from every copy sold (£100,000) donated to the fund.
At the time of going to press the Daily Mail Flood Aid Appeal stood at £2.5 million. This week the paper had six reporters and four photographers reporting from the crisis-hit areas.
The Daily Telegraph’s tsunami appeal had topped £1 million by Tuesday this week.
The Sun printed the pledge phone number on its front page on New Year’s Eve along with the headline: ‘Remember them all at midnight’.
Sun agony aunt Deirdre Saunders was on holiday in Sri Lanka with her family when the wave struck and found herself filing for the news pages. Managing editor Graham Dudman said the paper currently has seven staffers in different parts of the disaster zone.
He said: “It’s been a balance between covering the horror of this story with some amazing stories of courage and bravery. On Saturday Duncan Larcombe found a girl from Surrey who had studied tsunamis in geography and managed to warn people, helping to save hundreds of lives.”
News International boss Rupert Murdoch has given $1 million (£532,000) to the disaster fund and promised to match any money raised by his employees. He has called on other media companies to boost the relief effort by giving charities free print space and airtime.
The Daily Mirror sent seven reporters to the disaster zone. After consulting Oxfam, it decided to encourage readers to send donations to the Disaster Emegency Committee, rather than setting up a separate fund.
Deputy editor Conor Hanna said: “It was an unusual story because it grew in scale as time went on rather than diminished .We prioritised three areas: Indonesia, because of the impact the Tsunami had there, Sri Lanka for the same reason and Thailand because of the presence of British tourists.”
By Dominic Ponsford