Post traumatic press: coping with the media frenzy after 7/7

My name is Rachel, and my train exploded a year ago. Later that day, having escaped from hospital where I was treated for shrapnel wounds and shock, I wrote about my day on an internet message board. My account was read by many Londoners, and I was swiftly co-opted by the BBC as a ‘citizen journalist'. Blogging for the BBC newssite brought my account to a much wider audience, which included other survivors from my train. They emailed me, telling me their stories. Humbled, I suggested that we all went down the pub. And so began an extraordinary year at the centre of a huge global news story. One train journey and 900 words about it, banged out because I could not sleep, glass still in my hair, the taste of blood and smoke still in my mouth; the story that changed my life.

The first thing I saw when I stepped out of Russell Square station, to see if ambulances had arrived to help wounded fellow passengers, was a camera lens pointing at me. It belonged to a Japanese tourist. He, without realising it, was filming the chaotic aftermath of the first suicide bomb attack on Western soil. Having made it to hospital in a cab, and got my shrapnel wounds stitched up, I went outside to have the cigarette that I craved to take away the taste of the vile-smelling black smoke that had flooded the smashed ruins of my carriage, where the bomb had exploded seven feet away, killing 26, wounding 340. I saw a woman, sooty-faced like me, quivering with shock and cringing as a microphone was thrust into her face. Our eyes met.

"Leave her alone,'' I said to the news crew, without thinking. "Talk to me instead." She shot me a look of gratitude, mouthed "thank you'' and hurried into A&E. I took a deep breath, and told my story for the first time.

It was a story I was to tell and re-tell many times over the next year. And the instincts that made me tell it were the same. It was a story that needed to be told, and the media were not going to stop asking people to tell it. And I thought, I can do that. I couldn't help the people I had left terribly injured on the train. But I could do this: I could tell the story. Maybe that would help.

By the end of the first week, several other survivors and I had met, and we decided to set up a website group so we could keep in touch. We called ourselves Kings Cross United, and as more people joined, having read my anonymous blog, the group became a useful source of support and information in the numb, shocked weeks after 7/7.

People swapped tips on managing panic attacks, tinnitus and eye and chest infections. Encouraged each other back on the trains, and shared worries about sleeplessness, survivor guilt, filling in complicated official forms. Helped each other fill in the gaps of the shattered journey.

As the 1 November official service in St Paul's to commemorate the victims approached, the 30 or so in the group began to wonder if they could help the other 900 passengers on the train.

Having contact with fellow survivors wouldn't be right for everybody, but so many people had said that talking to fellow passengers had helped them. So we decided to speak to the media, which had been sending interested emails to my blog since the summer.

People in the group offered their skills and help. Some would manage emails, others welcome new joiners. As the blogger, I would do the writing, so people could be interviewed and tell their stories to someone who was also on the train, and who would let them check the copy. This helped people who felt raw and vulnerable to have some degree of protection. We were wary of being sensationalised, even though most media approaches had been gentle and professional. But they were insistent.

Some of the group members who worked in marketing and advertising, such as me, decided to take control. We looked at the demographics of rushhour Piccadilly line travellers, researched what media they watched, read and listened to. Thus, we said yes to BBC North London local radio, and no to the New York Times. Some members did radio, gave interviews, were photographed, but the bulk of the communication duties fell on me. My day job had given me some skills in public speaking and so I did the TV stuff, as well as the writing. We did four days of this, then waited to see what would happen. It worked. The group tripled in size, passengers began emailing with their gratitude at finding others "who understood".

We thought that would be it, and our story would fade away from the public consciousness. I continued to blog, and the group continued to meet in the pub once a month and keep in touch via group email on our secure site. But I learned that once your story is out, you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Media requests continued to come in, and I passed them round the group email system, so people could choose to tell their stories if they desired. Some did, but many others just wanted privacy.

By Christmas, I and others had become increasingly concerned about the Government's refusal to hold a proper inquiry into the bombs. I heard from survivors and bereaved families from all the bomb sites who had been reading my personal blog, where I continued to write of the personal and political fall-out from 7/7. Realising the media were becoming interested in a court case I had been involved in, I decided to write my story myself in The Sunday Times, of how I had been attacked by a stranger in 2002 and left for dead. I batted back further media enquiries, figuring I had said all I wanted to say and had protected myself by ‘outing'

myself in this way. I continued to write, for writing had become a lifeline, my personal web diary the place to put all the mixed emotions and "7 July stuff'' that continued to touch my life.

I started to be offered mainstream media freelance work and was invited to speak at the BBC/Reuters "wemedia'' conference, about blogging and citizen journalism. In March, some survivors and I spoke publicly at the London Assembly hearing examining the communication issues from 7/7. Afterwards, I received emails from hard-bitten reporters who told me they had been moved to tears hearing the harrowing stories. In the spring came the Government narrative and Intelligence & Security Committee report, and the fact that it raised more questions than it answered was hugely disappointing.

The media enquiries redoubled.

Like the boiling frog analogy, I didn't realise how hot it was getting until my friends pointed out to me that I was rising at dawn, answering emails, fielding calls every lunch hour and working until midnight each night, having somehow become the unofficial press officer for all 7/7 survivor enquiries.

I was becoming stressed and anxious and felt out of control. By May, I was dealing with more than 100 calls and emails a week in my spare time, passing them onto survivors, replying to the ‘chasing' emails. All the requests were reasonable, but cumulatively, it was not reasonable, and I had effectively taken on a second, unpaid job.

I asked for advice, and was given the number of Max Clifford Associates.

I arrived at their offices three weeks before the anniversary, with 25 A4 pages of media contacts who had been in touch in the past fortnight. Ann Marie, the PR officer, took one look and said it was far too much to deal with. She offered her help for free.

Later that night, I cried with relief.

As the anniversary approaches, the story of the shattered journey, the cries in the dark and the help offered by strangers on the train to each other has been told all over the world. The campaign for an inquiry is intensifying, and I am grateful for the media support, for what use is a voice in the darkness with no-one to hear it?

There have been a few bad moments: the journalist who said she was on the train and hadn't felt the need for help, who then contacted the group pretending she wanted to join, and wrote a hatchet job attacking Kings Cross United as wallowing victims, though she had never been to a meeting or read the message boards. Also, the paper that superimposed the smiling group members in the pub over the image of the bombed train, causing huge distress.

But I have also met many good journalists, who have clearly been personally affected by the bombs in their city, and who have behaved not only with professionalism, but with real kindness, offering encouragement, wise advice and practical help.

I kept writing after 7/7, and that is due to two journalists whom I respect and admire, taking me under their wing. I have stood in the centre of what has felt like a media firestorm for 12 months, but felt protected, and when I needed help, it came. Not just from my fellow passengers and family and friends, but from people who looked not only at the story, but the person telling it, and to whom, at the end of an extraordinary year, I am grateful.

Thank you. You know who you are.

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