Spent the morning talking to our team who are heading out to cover the US presidential elections. In TV terms this means standing outside Washington DC landmarks and offering a knowledgeable commentary. Tourists should try it. If you’re in the States, why not cast a quick eye over the Miami Herald or the NYT and then video yourself pontificating over the race for the White House?
I’ve just finished Tom Holland’s Rubicon, an account of politics in the Roman Republic. Holland told a story of how the great jurist Cicero died.
The old man was murdered by bounty hunters – his throat cut, his head severed. The head was presented to the wife of one of his enemies who ripped the tongue out and stabbed it with a pin.
The blade won epic battles and settled private scores back then. These days people can be ‘slotted’ at a distance where they just seem to fall over.
Drones piloted from Las Vegas can rocket neighbourhoods in downtown Fallujah. A call to his mobile phone triggers a bomb in a Hamas leader’s SUV.
The blade is still with us, but now it too has a technological edge – the video camera. And that combination is the instrument of fear in the hands of the Zarqawi gang. Macedonians, Turks, Bulgarians, Nepalese and assorted minor nationalities have all been murdered for the cameras. Of course, it is people who can beg for their lives in English that get the attention of television news desks here. So today we have Margaret Hassan.
Five’s diplomatic editor James Bays profiled her a year or so ago in Baghdad, and strangely he appears in a library shot with her on the BBC’s news. But today she is not talking about the Iraqi people, or the work of her charity. Today, held by anonymous captors, she appears on video begging for her life, pleading with Tony Blair and the British people. She begs for British troops to be withdrawn. Other countries have removed their troops to save the lives of hostages, but they had dozens, not thousands of soldiers under arms.
So what is our job? To ram the cassette down the Prime Minister’s throat? To make him suffer? To wallow in our collective impotence, unable to help a fellow human being in distress? Just like the politicians, and just like the viewers, broadcasters have their moral get-out clauses. Ours is impartiality.
We don’t take sides, we simply have to decide if the video will upset people. And face-to-face with a brave, tearful woman wondering when her throat may be cut – well what would you do?
Norwich City make a stirring comeback against Everton and then lose.
On call. I was on call a fortnight ago, a beautiful autumn afternoon walking with the family and a deranged cocker spaniel near Penshurst. The video of Kenneth Bigley’s murder had been released. A four-way conversation between me, the programme editor, the reporter and the news editor as the signal came and went -bleak discussions about “usability”.
Initially we’d thought the tape would be how we learned of his death, but it wasn’t. The video, with its redundant pleas and grisly conclusion, was just the psychopathic postscript to a tragedy. Keith Doyle, the reporter, judged it best, saying only: “It doesn’t feel right.”
PJ O’Rourke guests on the 7pm show He signs a copy of his latest book: “With lavish thanks for putting me on television, which is the point of modern life.”
John Peel dies. It’s our lead. Andy Kershaw comes in to talk to Kirsty. He is on a studio processional of grief and still evidently in shock. He introduces himself twice, as if on a loop. His face is raw, but he is fond and funny and angry, almost, to be remembering someone he didn’t want to pay tribute to so soon, or so suddenly.
When a writer dies you can hear their voice again the moment a book is opened. But a broadcaster leaves only silence, a place where their voice should be. John Peel’s place, like Alistair Cooke’s, needs filling.
Elsewhere in the news, James Bays explains the vote on the Gaza pullout in the kind of clear, elegant way that reminds me why I’m so proud to work here.
Owen Smith’s funeral today. Owen was an ITN news editor of old.
I’m covering for one of our programme editors who’s going.
Owen I met only once, in Dunblane. I was with a correspondent and crew going to interview the local priest.
It was bright morning in the precinct of the grey, squat cathedral.
Dour locals eyed us aggressively as we walked quietly and purposefully to the manse.
From down the road a large, dishevelled figure, dressed entirely in black, pointed at our distinguished correspondent.
The correspondent’s name was bellowed, hollered so loud that the sound bounced off every granite wall.
“You old bastard!” shouted the figure, raising its thick arms.
The distinguished correspondent looked aghast. The priest was already at his door, watching us, as we continued to move respectfully forwards, ignoring the cries.
“It’s me, Owen!” the figure shouted, beginning to shamble and half-run towards us. The practised reverence of the priest’s face turned downward.
Arms out, Owen tackled and then bearhugged our reporter. The game was up.
The two men swapped greetings warmly. Passers-by stopped to glower.
Owen was with an agency in Dunblane, he explained. Observing the stares, he narrowed his eyes at the locals and quickly they looked away.
“Miserable bunch of bastards!” The correspondent disentangled himself and we recomposed ourselves for the last 20 yards to the priest’s front door.
Christ’s representative stared at us and then beyond to the retreating blackmass. The unspoken question- were we with Owen? Yes, we were with Owen. That was us.