Whirlwind 48 hours of television news

Adrian
Tennant on how ITV Central News coped with two extraordinary days of
breaking news in Birmingham – including terror arrests and the
destruction wreaked by a tornado

IT WAS 6.20am. As I tucked
into my customary early morning dose of three Weetabix, I was
contemplating a particularly tough day at the coalface. Today’s
prospects (I’d sneaked a look the night before) had a real summer feel
to them – there wasn’t a great deal of what you might call news.

My mobile rang. Not used to receiving calls at such an hour, I answered to find it was our early presenter, Philippa Tomson.

“Just
thought I’d better alert you,” she said. “Four people have been
arrested in Birmingham in connection with the attempt to bomb London.”

Little
did I know then, but this call was to spark 48 hours, the likes of
which I’d rarely experienced in my 17 years as a journalist in
Birmingham.

Before I left home at 6.55am, two reporters and three
cameramen were already en route to the two addresses concerned, joined
soon afterwards by our satellite truck driver Graham Dobbs, who I
disturbed during an early-morning appointment with a treadmill.

As
I got into my car, my phone beeped again. This time it was a text from
West Midlands Police urging me to ring its voicebank. It was the
official confirmation that something big was indeed stirring.

Philippa’s
diligence in following up reports of traffic problems prompted by a
“police incident” meant we were already well ahead of the game.

After
a brief call on my way to the ITN newsdesk to confirm we were on top of
this breaking story, I arrived at work to find the first pictures from
the scene already being cut and simultaneously dispatched to London.
Shortly afterwards, one of our reporters, Eric MacInnes, filed a phone
interview, which was recorded straight on to our desktop editing system
and aired, along with the pictures, at 8.05am during our GMTV opt-out.

Eric
followed that up with a full live broadcast from our dish on GMTV at
8.30am, followed by lives for the News Channel and CNN.

At
9am I sat watching the bank of TV screens over the newsdesk with quiet
satisfaction as both Sky and the BBC were still illustrating this
monumental event, which later turned out to be the arrest of the first
would-be bomber Yasin Hassan Omar, with maps and phone interviews. I
could only imagine the glee of everybody down at the News Channel.

Once
the ITN troops arrived, we pooled resources and satellite trucks. A
police-imposed air exclusion zone was circumvented by our hiring of a
cherry picker to get the best pictures of the search of the property
where the key arrest had taken place.

The day culminated in our main six o’clock programme being presented from the arrest scene.

We had our anchor, Joanne Malin, at ground level, with MacInnes live in the air on the cherry picker.

The
next day the adrenaline rush had subsided somewhat. Omar was being
questioned in London and there were only the routine follow-ups.
Except, that was, for the outrage caused by a local Muslim cleric who
dared to suggest that the London bombers may not have been Muslims at
all, that al-Qaeda was a figment of the CIA’s imagination and that Tony
Blair was a liar.

Then, just before 3pm, the sky outside the
windows of our Birmingham city centre offices darkened, followed by the
kind of torrential downpour you’d normally associate with the heady
climate of the Caribbean. The roads were awash with water and I
suggested to the producer we ought to do a live about the crazy summer
weather.

Within seconds came the first call from the public.

“There’s been a mini tornado in my street,” he yelled. “The roof’s gone!”

Having
fruitlessly followed up a similar call two days earlier (“A wing’s
fallen off a plane at Coventry airport!”), my scepticism could have
been forgiven. After all, we’d all heard of small tornadoes propelling themselves over rural or coastal areas. But Birmingham?

Then
one of the staff in our building rang internally to say his mate had
alerted him to similar scenes a couple of miles away in Small Heath.

Reporter
Lisa Dowd, busily preparing herself for a typical ITV Central News
appointment with 10 “football playing” dogs, was relieved to be sent to
check out the latter report. She was followed on the road by other
reporters and crews as the phones lit up with similar tales of mayhem
and destruction.

It was to prove a major triumph for Central News.

An
independent cameraman called to say he’d been blown off his feet while
filming a children’s project in a local park – and had carried on
filming as the violent wind ripped through.

He’d offered the
pictures to the local BBC first, but they refused to pay. We snatched
his hands off for £50 (although when we saw just how good his pictures
were we upped the ante, with ITN, Channel 4 and GMTV each also bunging
him £100 or so).

These pictures, along with others taken by our
despatch rider/cameraman Craig Cotterill (who’d also taken the first
pictures of the terror arrest the day before), were winging their way
to London before 5pm and were soon aired by the News Channel. Again,
not a single frame was seen by viewers of any of our opposition –
including Sky – until after 6pm.

But perhaps our greatest single
achievement was getting cameraman Malcolm Powell on a 5pm helicopter
flight from Wolverhampton. He travelled alongside the local news agency
photographer who was taking aerials for the national press the next day.

Again,
somehow, unsung hero Cotterill managed to bike the pictures back from
Birmingham airport in time for them to squeeze on to our programme just
before it ended at 6.30pm. These were the pictures that, for the first
time, brought home the true magnitude of what had happened that
afternoon.

Adrian Tennant is deputy news editor of ITV Central News (West)

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