10 things I know at 40

1. “And for the rest, we live because we cannot afford not to, because that is life” – Renato Serra

Renato Serra quote on bicycleI first read this quote in the chapter titled Obsession in Mira Liehm’s Passion and Defiance: Italian Film from 1942 to the Present while studying at Manchester University (same drama course and year as Benedict Cumberbatch, not that I knew him) in the late 1990s. It has stayed with me – I even have it in the original Italian on my bicycle.

2. Learn to ride a bicycle

There are few inventions which have done more to liberate the individual. From the glory of Fausto Coppi, to Rwandan hill farmers able to get coffee to market quicker for a better price and Nobel Peace Prize nominated Afghan women’s cycling team‘s liberation from a repressive lifestyle – the bicycle has enabled so much freedom for individuals.

My Raleigh Burner MkII, which I had from about the age of seven to my mid-20s, represented freedom and escape. It was reliable transport that I could use no matter what.

3. You can get away with just about anything in a good suit

And the greatest suit ever is the one Cary Grant wears in North by Northwest. Grey Glen check, three button but cut so it looks like two, worn with a white shirt, oxblood shoes and silver silk tie (and here Arnel sunglasses).

Cary Grant in North by NorthwestUnimpeachable class – probably made by Kilgour of Savile Row and Esquire agree it is the greatest suit in cinema.

According to my research, so long as you’ve got a good suit, a working credit card and a full packet of cigarettes, life offers boundless opportunity for fun.

Equally important is that a blue shirt and beige chinos should never be worn to work by any man with dignity and the ability to buy his own clothes. It is the very definition of the death of imagination, aspiration and individuality.

4. Don’t be afraid to feel

Love, fear, excitement, joy, sadness. The myriad of human sentiment, don’t fight it, live and embrace it. Your life will be richer for every emotion you discover.

5. You will succeed in ways you don’t expect

I used to write an Atomic Kitten fan site/blog. It got me an interview at the BBC for the Top of the Pops website in the summer of 2002. I didn’t get the job. But they called me back and offered me a six month contract on a new site called Celebdaq – a celebrity stock exchange game. For a while we were the hottest site in town, we nearly got sued, we won a Bafta.

I’ve worked on Panorama, Virgin Media, BBC Radio 5 Live, broke the news of Lady Thatcher’s death on @BBCBreaking, verified the footage of Gaddafi’s capture,  produced all the social media that was seen on the BBC’s London 2012 Olympics television coverage, been part of the team that named Jihadi John as Mohammed Emwazi, produced Laura Kuenssberg on the 2015 General Election results programme.

And all because I wrote about being an Atomic Kitten fan.

6. Creating music with friends is untold joy

I’ve been in two bands – one at school where we played indie covers that we loved but no one else did (Homeboy by Adorable, In The Mouth A Desert by Pavement to name two) and one with two very dear friends in my 20s, where we got a track on a BBC One trailer and I swear we were briefly hotly tipped in Albania (thanks to BBC World Service). That song was Sunshine, and I still love the sensations and emotions it brings back.

As our lives changed, so did the music and we eventually parked our dreams. Sometimes I listen to those tracks and regret not pursuing it harder. Then I remember how much fun it was and regret nothing.

7. The best seat in the cinema is Row 3 in the middle

The screen envelopes your field of vision, the overwhelming scale and sensation of cinema feels right. And these days no one else seems to sit down there, so there’s no distractions.

8. Be a stranger in a strange land

As life experiences go, being a foreigner is one everyone should experience. It helps you understand the world better to be the other person. It also taught me a lot about who I am and how people perceive others.

I lived in France for a year and a bit – I was the odd English guy in Vichy who liked to party. I was there for the World Cup in 1998, something I will never forget.

9. A dog will see you through the darkness

Fausto has been part of our family for four years. When we first got him he was a wild pup, now he’s a loving companion.

Walking him has been hugely important to me. When your job involves the sort of horrors I see and hear about from witnesses on a daily basis, having someone who will listen and then lick me in the face keeps me sane.

10. 40 is less than half the way through your working life

With retirement now likely to be at least 67 by the time I retire, it’s even longer than it used to be. That lottery win better happen soon.

BBC Digital Newsgathering Journalism Portfolio Social Media Verification

Finding Ken Brown & his photos of Virgin Galactic test flight crash

Virgin Galactic test flight crash
Ken Brown’s images of the moment the Virgin Galactic test flight went disastrously wrong, which he licenced to AP, used here for reference only, taken from BBC News report
These images tell the story of how the Virgin Galactic test flight crash was seen by an eyewitness, Ken Brown.

This is an account of how I found him and got him on to BBC News Channel by 21:15 GMT, then BBC Radio 5 live and BBC World TV.

Which meant there was a hunt request for eyewitnesses put my way.

So, scouring twitter I can find Doug Messier tweeting from @spacecom

I check how his tweets are geo-locating using one of the sites we use (Geofeedia), which puts him at the Mojave Space Port.

So I made a fairly standard approach that every news org does now in reply to one of his tweets

Doug was undoubtedly getting swapped with requests as the only visible eyewitness. You can see almost every big news company is contacting him in his @ replies

Then going through his timeline, saw he mentioned Ken in telling Virgin Galactic about what they witnessed:

So I ran a twitter search for “Ken Brown” (with quotes)”ken%20brown” to see if he had a twitter account.

That turned up a very old tweet which had a Ken Brown working for Masten

Now industries like aerospace tend to be quite small and committed communities, so how many Ken Browns working for Masten are there?

In somewhere like Mojave it’s also going to be quite a small community of people who are really into space travel stuff. And Doug Messier had tweeted this:

So we’re looking for a Ken Brown (or similar) who is a professional photographer and worked for Masten. Google search, first result: Google search Ken+Brown+Masten

Linkedin profile for a Kenneth Brown, who is a professional photographer and worked for Masten

Now there’s more than one or two Ken or Kenneth Brown Photography companies out there. So gave up that route. Instead, his most recent venture is “Mojave Locations”. Google search with quotes, fourth result:

Mojave Locations site, now look for a Contact or similar page. So there’s this form

You think everything comes through social? Well it sometimes does, but if you’re running a business, you’re going to have the email you use most frequently plugged into your contact form, right?

So I filled out the form:

“Hi Ken,

I work with BBC News and I understand you witnesses the crash of the Virgin Galactic flight today.

Would you be willing to speak to BBC News about what you saw?

If so could you email me at or my team on with the best number to contact you on.

Alternatively you can call us on [our office number]

Kind regards,

Alex Murray, BBC News”

(Yes, screamer of a typo. I’ve only just noticed it too)

And a bit later I got this reply to my work email:

“Just processing pictures at the moment and getting the registration done.

Can be available for interview.


Now an important thing to remember is always be human first. Having seen Doug’s tweets and bearing in mind what they had witnessed, I replied:

“Thanks for getting in touch so quickly. I hope you’ve not been too traumatised by what you witnessed.

Yes, we’d love to speak to you. What’s the best number to call you on? I’ll give you a call to explain what we’d like to ask you and who you’d be speaking to on air.

Would you be willing to share any of your images with BBC News?”

Next email back from Ken was a “Yes to all” with his phone number, indicating that we would have to pay for licencing photos and a further one with twenty or so samples, including the pictures you will have seen everywhere which appear at the top of this post.

I phoned Ken but it went to voicemail. I left a voicemail saying I would call him back in five or ten minutes. When you’re dialling from a strange number, leave a voicemail otherwise it just looks weird.

Top tip: make sure you’ve done everything to make your caller ID visible, not withheld – withheld numbers are always cold-calling idiots/spam.

Ever tried to watch a clock for five minutes? It’s a loooooooooong time.

When I phoned again, I got through to Ken.

I got him to talk me through what he witnessed, where he was at the time (Jawbone rangers’ station) and discussed his photos with him. He told me the sort of detail that I could match to the samples and which confirmed for me everything was genuine.

He told me he was talking to AP about his pictures. The BBC has an agreement with AP and I don’t get a company cheque book, so I was in no position to offer him better. So I left that to our picture desk to pursue.

He also gave me Doug’s number. At this point my best option was to pass this all on to our team at the scene to follow up. And that’s where I step out of this story.

Ken was such a calm clear witness and hearing him on air made me quite emotional as he gave such a strong account:

“Everything seemed to be going normally when they came overhead.

“They released the space craft, lit the engine. And it’s a little difficult to tell how long it was but it burned for a time, and then just exploded.

“It was quite horrendous.”

Listen to his full account on BBC News

Thank you Ken, for being there and being willing to speak to BBC News.

BBC London 2012 Olympics

London 2012 Olympics – how we used social media in BBC Television output

What was the aim?

To make social media from athletes and prominent figures involved in London 2012 an integral part of the conversation with our audiences.

Originally this was proposed with the emphasis on BBC Three with its younger audience more attuned to social media, in particular programmes presented by Jake Humphrey. Once we started developing the proposition, it became obvious that we could make this work as part of output across all timeslots and networks.

How did we reflect this in presentation?

By using it as a natural part of the script and flow of programmes. As far as possible it was treated as part of a conversation within the programme rather than something from outside the programme.

We applied some simple rules which we felt would enhance the audience experience and awareness of social media during the Olympics:

1. It should never get in the way of the action
2. It should to add something to the editorial output and should never be used for the sake of showing social media
3. Make best use of the strongest points of engagement – on air calls to action and engaged presenters on the home platform (in this case Twitter)

What we wanted to avoid was the jumping out of narrative experience where the social media is presented as “here’s the social media bit!” as if the conversation is entirely disconnected from what is happening onscreen.

We also looked to use new technology such as Kinetrak, Splashtop and iPads to offer innovative ways of presenting the information onscreen.

With Kinetrak, the feature was the presenter-controlled graphics, not the content – we used it for medal tables, stills and not just social media.

Who we worked with

The backend was an iteration of IMI Mobile‘s platform, better known to BBC staff as the MMC or WIN Multimedia Console. This console pulls in social media feeds from a variety of sources and allows the producer to output them, via selected feeds, to assigned destinations (eg graphics, presenter device).

The Olympics iteration took advantage of a broad range of functions that I knew existed in different parts of the BBC but which hadn’t necessarily been used together in the same iteration.

Each user was given a unique login, allowing me to track and audit usage, and training on how to make best use of the functionality for their output.

IMI also supplied functionality which allowed social media to be pushed to presenters on an iPad by the producer/gallery and skins to brand them with.

For onscreen, Mammoth Graphics handled presentation and worked with Kenziko to pass the output feeds from console to Viz RT graphics machines. They also delivered the Kinetrak solution for gesture-based presentation which you can see on their website.

Keep it simple and consistent

#bbc2012 was used across all platforms (broadcast and social) as the single point around which the audience could engage
#bbcthree2012 was unique to BBC Three and used specifically for the points where we wanted the audience to be part of the programme
#bbcmoment was about reflecting the biggest moments during the games and the inspiration it fostered among the audience

The power of the presenter and pundit

The key to making it stick in programmes is the presenter. If they feel comfortable and engaged then everything else can flow from that.

We were lucky to have a group of presenters who, across the board, felt able to discuss and involve themselves in how and when we could use social media in their presentation.

Jake Humphrey was probably the presenter who delivered the highest profile engagement. His track record with engaging audiences through twitter from F1 proved invaluable in driving the usage of social media in programmes he was presenting.

Even when faced with the logistical challenges of the Velodrome which meant he simply didn’t have space or time to use the iPad, Jake could be seen using his smartphone to find material and use it in the programming. His on and off air engagement certainly benefited the programmes he was presenting, opening them up to an audience who really appreciated him.

Clare Balding built a very strong engagement, not just in the studio but everywhere she went, through her calls to engage with #BBCMoment, rallying thanks for the Gamesmakers and in the way in which her dialogue with the athletes and celebrities around the games enhanced the BBC’s reputation on social media.

As a pundit, Ian Thorpe shows how strong a growth trajectory a considered and well-thought out attitude to social media can develop. From a standing start during the Games, he grew into an easily recognisable and engaged personality on twitter.

On BBC Three, Sonali Shah, Rishi Persad and Manish Bhasin were all genuinely engaged. It wasn’t uncommon for them to be requesting material to use in programmes rather than wait for it to be provided.

BBC One were more restrained in their use by the nature of output but they were receptive and willing to use content where they could. The use of it during the big interviews in Gary Lineker’s peak-time show worked well and allowed it to be woven in without having to explicitly refer to it on air.

Matt Baker and Jake Humphrey were both comfortable with using material and even more ‘traditional’ presenters warmed to the possibilities. For me the proof of this comes from a moment that happened in the studio, unseen by the audience: Sue Barker reading tweets off an iPad and then dropping them into her script on air as casually and naturally as Jake.

Secondary influencers

Output producers and editors are just as valuable in the process. The ones who made best use were the ones were most receptive and made the effort to figure out how and when to include material.

The BBC Three teams had more of a remit to do so, but I was really happy that the output editors all took the time to learn how to use to console and were willing to suggest ways of making it work for their particular programme.

Production teams, including the Multimedia Broadcast Journalists/TV Sub-editors, who engaged with the console and learned how to benefit from it inevitably gained the most in terms of reflecting the conversation onscreen.

Having support for what we were trying from all parts of the organisation, top to bottom, was also really valuable to me on a professional level, as it allowed me the confidence to try methods of working without the fear of what the reaction would be from senior management.

Missed opportunities or managed experience?

In some programmes we used less social media because it failed to pass muster with our rules.

For example, during Super Saturday on BBC One where there was so much happening that it simply made no sense to be trying to get the reaction from athletes into the programme because the action just kept coming.

On Olympics Tonight we had conceived there would be social media but given its late timeslot and that the action would be some distance from the time of the tweets, we questioned what it would add.

This was in the sense of asking what a tweet from mid-afternoon would add to an interview or discussion at nearly 11pm. We didn’t exclude material and it informed the programme where relevant, but we felt that featuring it would look dated given how moods change on social media and that the aim was to reflect the conversation happening relatively concurrently, not conversations that happened in the past.

My main disappointment was that I was not able to better support morning programmes as well as daytime and evenings. If I could have cloned myself, I think we could have made much greater impact by covering the beginning of the day when there’s the opportunities to use social media to talk up the upcoming action.

Mishal Husain was keen to engage and use her audience and experience from working across BBC News output and there were certainly opportunities to do a mix of review/preview of the day’s action.

The flipside to this is that on BBC Three, the morning gallery team were trained on the console and found ways to use it to deliver content unsupported by a social media producer.

Sonali Shah’s interview with Laura Trott was done entirely by the production team and presenter working with graphics and entirely on their own initiative.

Where does a social media producer fit into the production workflow?

Positioning of the social media producer is key. At London 2012, the role was new and so much of my experience was discovering what could be considered best practice and then trying to apply it.

Over the course of the fortnight, we established that the most effective way for the role to work is for it to be part of the output gallery so that they can gauge the programme demands and adapt to changes in live output accordingly.

With two live galleries running at the same time, this raised the question of whether one person is enough. My experience was that given the nature of live sport, it was rare that both BBC One and Three would be looking for social media output at the same time.

Part of the role is clearly identifying opportunities in the schedule for social media content, which requires knowledge of the schedule of live events and liaising with output editors to establish requirements and to offer content as appropriate. This is more straightforward at either end of the day when there are fewer major events to choose from, but it can be complicated during the peak hours when the number of events mean that programme running orders are much more fluid.

Given the ad hoc nature of live schedules during peak, this makes it challenging to work across the two galleries’ output simultaneously. Being mobile helped but I did feel there were times when it was impossible to be in two places at once. This would be best mitigated by having backup in the form of training for output editors and production co-ordinators so that they aren’t reliant on the Social Media Producer.

Where we think it worked well

#bbcmoment used unprompted by Clare Balding – which led to gallery and feature across platforms. This came from Clare, not from our prompting, showing that a simple proposition can be effective in moving the conversation from an off-air space towards broadcast.

Suggested by Clare Balding

became gallery from BBC 2012 team:

The pictures in the gallery represent a fraction of the engagement we got from the audience (a rought estimate says we received over 300 different pictures relating to this CTA)

Jake Humphrey punts out for questions for Brad Wiggins and gets hundreds.

This shows how a combination of presenter-led effort with a nice clear CTA and the support of the programme team to get it on air can really lead the editorial in a way that delivers something fresh and different from the standard interview. You can also see how Jake is using the iPad functionality to script the interview questions as part of his range of presenting options.


In the studio environment we experienced almost no issues in delivering a workable connection for the presenter to receive social media at their presentation point. This was done over a dedicated wireless connection. As much of what we delivered was text based, it was relatively low bandwidth.

We did not make any significant use of the technology for presenters on location due to lack of guaranteed bandwidth. This is an area we should explore for future events with the possibilities of 3g/4g or our own wireless provision.


So we used it, there were no major disasters or emergencies, and most people appreciated it. I’d say it’s worth doing it again. See you in Rio 2016, or maybe sooner?


Farewell to BBC Television Centre, Wood Lane, London, W12 7RJ

Tomorrow will be my last day based at BBC Television Centre, Wood Lane, London W12 7RJ. I first worked here in 2002, a few months after joining the BBC for the first time. It is a special place that will be much missed by many.

BBC Television Centre in the snow

Don’t believe the denigration of it by the likes of John Simpson, that’s just what BBC staff do: we publicly complain about what we can complain about because there’s lots we’re not allowed to complain about publicly. Deep down there is a strong attachment and genuine love for this eccentric building with its hidden genius.

The home of BBC Television

When I started at the BBC in August 2002, working as the Assistant Producer on Celebdaq, I was initially based at Centre House. Separated by the Central line and Wood Lane, we could see TVC as it’s universally known and wanted to be there.

Why? Because there was and is something incredible about being able to say “I work for the BBC at Television Centre”. Guitarist Steve Cropper said – in the BBC’s Dancing In The Street – that going in every day to Stax was like going to church. That’s how I felt about working at Television Centre (albeit with less religious observance).

I worked in the East Tower when we moved over at the beginning of 2003 for the television programme on BBC Three and I remember how validating it felt to be working at what was then, and still is in the minds of many, where the BBC comes from.

You got to walk down corridors and see the biggest names in broadcasting, many people you’ve grown up admiring and aspiring to be in the shoes of, going about their work. There was something really inspiring about knowing that just down the hall, Jeremy Paxman is prepping to put another politician on the rack while Top Of The Pops are recording performances by chart toppers.

Or that you look out of the window of the canteen and can see the Blue Peter garden. The memories are so varied:

  • Nearly knocking Sir David Attenborough and Sir David Frost out with a swing door while rushing along with a tape for broadcast.
  • Absentmindedly staring into the middle distance and realising that I was being stared down by Jeremy Paxman in the sandwich queue.
  • A colleague declaring their working life complete having seen Jeanette Krankie in a giant baby grow smoking a ciggie out by Stage Door where the taxis arrive and depart.
  • Having a wrap party gatecrashed by The Libertines in ponchos after they’d been recording for Jools Holland and our Production Manager throwing them out not knowing who they were at a time when they were the hottest band in the UK.

Catering to all

I’ve eaten a lot of meals at TVC, some of which you wouldn’t feed to a starving dog. It’s with good reason that The Filling Station, despite name changes, is universally known as The Killing Station – the twitter account is not a parody so much as a factual report from the frontline of BBC catering.

It’s always been a great leveller: that no matter how grand your job title or salary, you still are the same person as the lowliest receptionist when faced with the culinary options. You might be the Director General but in the canteen, you too will face the warm, fuzzy indifference to rank from the food and sometimes staff, as you try to identify whether the day’s special is actually a trick question.

When I started there were two full restaurants running lunch and dinner services with completely different menus in the Restaurant Building (Classics and Showstoppers). There was also The Foyer, where programme executives would take their latest star presenter for lunch to show them off the rest of the BBC if they didn’t want to risk them getting bare soused in the BBC Club Bar, where inexplicably the same food cost more.

For a sandwich there was Green Tea Bar, where portion control was an unheard of concept. Rarely have the limits of how much filling a baguette can take been so rigorously tested on a daily basis.

But the one place that never got the catering wrong was Snack Express. Out by the satellite dishes, housed in what was essentially a mobile kitchen van, it’s menu was pure British manual labour: Breakfast rolls with a choice of freshly fried bacon, egg, sausage, tomato or mushrooms ; strong tea; lunchtime burgers or sausage with onions and a full fat Coke; full range of condiments and sauces, both red and brown.

It’s where you took your hangover and came back cured. It was where you got the best gossip about what was going on elsewhere and where you promised to go to cheer everyone up with a round of bacon rolls on a grim midwinter morning. I cannot begin to explain how sad I felt the day I came in to work and realised it was gone.

Best bar in the world

The BBC Bar was, for many years, where the real business was run from. Everything of significance in the BBC could probably be traced back to the bar somewhere in its lifetime.

Coming in for coffee in the morning, you’d see a table surrounded the night sparks, scene shifters and other craft workers coming off the nightshift. They’d be on their second pint and the ashtray would be full. By the time you came back for lunch, they’d have probably sloped off to a quiet corner to sleep it off. Truly, it was a 24 hour operation.

It was where, mid-morning through to mid-afternoon, you’d deduce who was moving jobs and who had a grievance to air, loudly and for the benefit of whoever might happen to hear their conversation in passing. Going to the bar was sometimes the most sensible course of action in developing your career – if you could manage the politics of a round of lunchtime drinks in there, you could cope with most things that would befall you in the BBC.

And from about 4pm it was where you slunk off to drink, smoke and laugh about work. You were always certain to see familiar faces in there. It was less a joke and more a statement of fact that they best way to find certain reporters or producers would be to go to the bar. Sometimes you’d see someone looking worse for wear mid-afternoon and then delivering a brilliant report on the Six or Ten O’Clock News.

“Meet you in the bar”, such a beautifully phrase that holds so many great memories.

Over the years the departure lounge at Stansted furnishings were superceded by imitation private members club decor. At one point it was obvious that the place had been redecorated by someone who spent a lot of time in Century on Shaftesbury Avenue – perhaps making the talent feel at home.

These days, it’s glory has passed, with shorter opening hours and staff with far less time for  simply talking to each other.

All lost in the maze

It’s a confusing building to find your way around, not helped by the ad hoc placement of operations over the year. But you strip it back to the core function of broadcasting studios and there’s a briliance that goes un-noticed by many.

Take for example the circular shape of the main hub in which studios TC1 to TC8 are based. There’s a ring road that runs along the back of them and each one opens out onto it, meaning that loading in and out is universal to all of them and can be done without fuss or bother to anyone who doesn’t need to see it. No crates being hauled down corridors, no vans or trucks blocking up other areas. It’s a small thing that actually makes a significant impact on working here.

Like the catering, finding your way around was a leveller, initiative test and brainteaser wrapped into one. Here’s an example: Where is TVC 5556? Next to TVC5554 or opposite TVC5555? No, it’s inside TVC 5550.

You were only as good as what you knew. Being able to find your way to an obscure meeting room in the basement of Stage 5 TVC or how to get from the East Wing to TC11 was as valued a skill as whether you could type an Aston without a typo. Actually, the former skill was probably seen as a key requirement to be able to progress to the latter.

Family breakup

Sometimes people forget that beyond the presenters, producers and journalists, there’s an entire family of people who make this place run. And I mean it when I say family. There’s people here who I’ve seen almost every day of my working life here, whose names I can’t remember or don’t know but who I can smile at without feeling like an idiot.

When I was at BBC Radio 5 live there was Martha, the Polish girl who ran the cart on the Second Floor which served the Newsroom with tea and coffee. She loved working here and the opportunity of talking to the biggest journalists in the world which also gave her the perfect opportunity to improve her English. And we all loved talking to her. Her successor, Dorothea carried on that tradition of caring about her customers as if they were friends. It’s people like that who bind this place together.

There’s the porter with a magnificent moustache who always has a smile and a nod as he goes about his business of moving our parcels and boxes from one end of the building to another.

There’s the lovely West Indian lady who has worked in Centre House, White City and Green Tea Bar in the time I’ve been here and who always has a friendly word for you. No one minds that she still can’t remember where everything is on the till.

 So this is goodbye

a sign at BBC Television Centre detailing the move to Broadcasting House
“When News moves to Broadcasting House in 2006”

Tomorrow, for perhaps the last time, I’ll come in through the Frithville Gate on my bike, park next to the massive satellite dishes that nestle next to the Hammersmith and City line, somewhere on what was the site of the 1908 Great Exhibition at White City.

By March 2013, it will join the long list of former BBC buildings deemed surplus to requirements. In my time that includes Bush House,  Centre House and Kingswood Warren. Even if – following redevelopment – it becomes the base of BBC Studios and Worldwide, it will be nominally a BBC building again, it won’t be returned to what it was as the BBC will have abandoned W12 as its London base.

The list of property the BBC once owned in London is longer that the ones it still does: Lime Grove Studios, K-West Hotel, The Langham, The Lawns, Shepherds Bush Empire (Television Theatre). We even built over the 1908 Olympic stadium with ‘Ceaucescu’s Palace’, better known as White City.

No one has really mentioned the long term economic impact on the area: the BBC’s departure represents a lot of people to take out of the local economy. Anecdotally, one of the falafel shops in Shepherds Bush Market claims to have lost 40% of their trade now that Sport, Childrens and 5 live are no longer providing regular custom since their move to Salford, taking roughly 1500 BBC staff with them.

With everyone from News being moved back to New Broadcasting House and other parts shifted elsewhere it’s in the region of between 5000 and 7000 people no longer contributing to footfall and purchasing in the W12 area on a daily basis. That’s a lot of passing trade that simply won’t be there anymore.

I will miss TVC. Broadcasting House may be shiny, new and exciting, but it will never be BBC Television Centre, Wood Lane, London W12 7RJ, the place I always wanted to work when I started my career in broadcasting.

Digital Newsgathering Journalism Social Media Verification

The hazards of war reporting from the other side of the world

Inspired by Alastair Leithead’s very insightful piece on The hazards of war reporting from the Libyan frontline, I’ve been meaning to write about my own experience of the Libyan revolutionary war as a journalist. Now that the world has witnessed the end of Muammar Qadhafi in all its grimness, I can’t put this off any more.

I am part of a team of people who do this role. We’ve all experienced this conflict and dealt with it in different ways. We all depend on each other for support in dealing with it on a day-to-day basis, something which has made the experience far less painful than it could have been.

Am I really part of this?

Unlike Alastair, I’ve never got my “boots dirty”. I have absolutely no concept of what it’s like to be in a war zone. Part of me is glad of this, part of me feels like a fraud, this being the first war I’ve been properly involved in reporting in a newsroom and being a foreign correspondent still being something I might aspire to becoming.

The nearest I can claim to have been to a hostile environment is a survival weekend being chased around the woods around Aldershot, as a Royal Marine cadet when I was at school. Having been a military cadet and shot rifles throughout my school years, I understand how loud gunfire and munitions are but I’ve never experienced it in a conflict.

That is ultimately of little relevance when I’m sat at a desk in west London, connected only to events on the ground by a network cable, a screen and a phone line.  To some I am a proxy, reporting a war by remote control, no better than a drone. Sometimes it can be hard not to feel like one.

The war reporter on the ground can witness what is within their eyesight. They can say “I saw these events today”. I can only say that I have seen videos and spoken to people, both of which describe events but I am unable to independently verify that this is indeed what happened.

I can tell you pretty definitively which corner of Tripoli Street in Misrata was the place in which a tiny group of civilian resistants turned the tide against the full force of Qadhafi’s military. Until I see that street with my own eyes, I will always feel that there is something missing in my experience and understanding of the events.

The objects are familiar: shipping containers, 4×4 trucks, sand, shops and domestic dwellings. But some days it feels difficult to comprehend warfare in that space without the experience of senses like the smell and physical presence of them.

As you walk along the street today, look up at the trees and tops of buildings. Consider how much your sense of their scale and relation position is shaped by the physical sensations of bending your neck, turning your head, having to step back to see them better.

You don’t have to get shot at to be traumatised

But the war has been very close to me, too close sometimes. When the sound of gun fire, mortar explosions and screaming explodes into my headphones it still makes me jump.

Sometimes it’s diegetic and you can pre-empt it, others it’s only a vicious crackling noise somewhere around my head, like a swarm of wasps in a tin. I can take the headphones off, I can step out of the war, but that feels like a betrayal of the people who risk their lives to document their experience in my absence.

Long ago I lost count of the number of casualties I’ve seen this year, but many of the injuries are hard to forget. It’s not always the most graphic ones that are hardest to deal with.

An empty house, a market devoid of stalls and food, the stillness of a dead body prepared for burial. All these can be as visceral as the sight of a gaping wound.

Viewing the videos that emerged in the hours after Qadhafi’s capture and death was uncomfortable, because the information emerging  as I viewed them already gave a sense of the likely course of events and what the deposed despot’s fate had been.

Watching the clips uploaded by Misrata Post (ripped from Al Jazeera Arabic) and Freedom Group Misrata was tough. I was viewing events before many people in the newsroom, and before some of those on the ground in Libya would have been fully aware of them.

Viewing them in a corner of the newsroom on a screen with nobody else sharing the experience at that moment is a dissociative experience. The process of analysing it, effectively repeatedly exposing myself to the same brutal events, does not make it easier.

In the field, where these events happen in realtime and with real physical danger, you see a blast once and run for cover. At a desk, you watch it over and over, looking for clues and markers, trying to decipher the information to place it in context.

In the field  you will be with a cameraman and/or producer, plus a local fixer if you don’t speak the language and likely a security adviser. They all share in that experience in a way that doesn’t exist for those of us away from the events, where we’re analysing video material and contacting eyewitnesses.

(I know that some people on the ground were shown these clips by members of the al-Gheryan Brigade and other units from Misrata who captured him, but they emerged online before they appeared through agencies.)

This is traumatic and we’ve all had to learn how best to deal with what we’ve witnessed. I ride my bike and use that time to process events or to simply forget about them. I intend to write about the issue of dealing with prolonged exposure to distressing material at length elsewhere.

In the place next to the witnesses

In a strange way we come closer to seeing what is happening than some correspondents. Sometimes we see events before them, as I’ve mentioned already.

We watch the videos of people bleeding to death on our screens from about the same distance as many of them have been filmed. You can’t speak to them or say anything to a bunch of pixels darting across the screen. That in itself can be traumatic.

That much of this material is shot point of view and handheld does have an impact. When this sort of video is edited, it’s pretty easy to treat it simply as “material”. When it is a single continuous shot, there is something about its unified perspective – as the point of view of a real person, not of a piece of a broadcast – that can be difficult to cope with.

This isn’t journalists trying to sort facts and report “the story”, this is people showing you what they are experiencing, as if to say:

“I don’t understand why this is happening. Why are they doing this to us? If I show you, then perhaps someone will explain what is going on.”

When it was material from armed fighters on both sides, I would frequently find myself asking why they felt a need to film the events. Battlefield filming is as old as moving pictures, but this new point-of-view filming by combattants is far removed from what was the norm before digital devices shrunk to become portable.

Intimacy and responsibility

Telephone conversations are usually intimate by their nature. Two people, in isolation, communicating with each other, telling each other things they might not otherwise share.

For all the advances of video-conferencing and Skype, the bread and butter of finding out what was happening in places where journalists couldn’t go in Libya was audio calls gaining eyewitness accounts.

Feb17Voices are the most incredible example of this, their brilliance in documenting of events in hard to reach places is one of the most underrated pieces of journalism to emerge from the Libyan war. Lots of bigger organisations have benefitted hugely from the work of John Scott Railton and the rest of the team.

I’m sure that they have also developed relationships with the people that they have spoken that go beyond simple binaries of reporter and witness. Their use of trust networks to gather material means that the person on the ground is always speaking to someone who they either know directly or who is contacting them through a trusted intermediary.

This is different to the traditional mode where people aren’t known until they get in contact. With Libya that has changed to a degree in that many contacts came to us via friends or family and they entrusted to us private numbers to reach people on the ground.

As with any contact, the more you speak to them, the more a relationship develops as you become familiar with them. Additionally, talking to them in a time when they may feel isolated and threatened means that the nature of your conversation is intensified by circumstance. What they are saying is massively important to them, so you must treat it with equal importance in your engagement.

In Benghazi the late Mo Nabbous personified that energy. I spoke to him several times in the middle of the night as he explained what he had seen and how he had documented it. At the time of his death our team were in contact with his wife trying to reach Mo.

It’s difficult to explain how others feel, but I felt there was a collective sense of being unsettled by it. We always tell people not to take risks for us, but Mo wasn’t risking his life for us, he was risking his life for what he believed in. How could anything we could have said stopped him?

In Tripoli, Niz Mhani was an internationally renown source of information. It’s fair to say his email list was said to be notable for the news organisations not on it, rather than those on it.

A testament to the relationship we built with him is that he was willing to risk meeting Wyre Davies while Tripoli was still under Qadhafi’s control, as you can see in this video report. I believe this was possible in part because we took responsibility for the BBC’s relationship with Niz.

What usually happens when a contact becomes available to outlets is that everyone wants a piece of them. For Niz, it was an endless stream of calls that cut into his time. We decided that to reduce the stress for him, he only had to take calls that were agreed through our team or the producer who was his original contact.

Then we agreed to put him in direct contact with producers on the ground and allowed the judgement on when he felt safe to contact them to be entirely his own. Again, this relies on trust between all involved.

For me it was the people we spoke to in Misrata whose voices stick in my mind most. “Dr Abdullah” was one of our most faithful witnesses at a time when there were no journalists in Misrata. Almost nightly he contacted the BBC to speak about what he witnessed in a city under brutal siege.

Without him, other medical staff and civilians such as Isra, what happened in that city would have gone far less reported. They provided us with information that allowed us to locate events, both in space and time, and to confirm the veracity of video material.

Simple things such as: the location of buildings; the types of weapon they could see and hear being used; the weather; the number of casualties reported. All these informed reporting of the battle for the city when international journalists could get no closer than the junction near the bottom of Tripoli Street, and then only under regime escort.

Every time I spoke to Abdullah I would end our long conversations about what was happening by telling him “please stay safe and don’t take any risks on our behalf”. He would reply with words to the effect of “Thank you for your concern Alex, but who else is going to document what is happening here?”

I’ve never found an answer to that but I made sure that whenever he made himself available to speak to the BBC, I tried my hardest to make sure programmes found time to speak to him.

Why it matters

Foreign deployments to high risk environments are expensive and obviously dangerous. Increasingly few organisations are willing to pay for the benefits that it brings to reporting of conflict.

There’s a rise of freelancers self-funding their presence in conflicts but, for all their benefits, there is a power that big news organisations have to force their way into a story – both in confronting authority and safely deploying people – that they lack.

The digitalisation of media has pushed the barrier to entry in generating reportage material down to several pounds where it used to be several thousand. On an economic level, the business aspect of news will always look at ways to reduce cost.

People like me are no substitute for people on the ground, and if you don’t have to pay for them, then there are plenty who will take that option. It’s a stark analysis of one option, but it’s an option that I’ve seen become fairly widespread in less than a year.

Engaging with the people formerly known as the audience cannot be a one way transaction. Conflict reported in this way will become the norm for an increasing number of journalists.

We need to start understanding how it works and how it affects everyone involved, regardless of whether we designate them citizens, journalists, activists or eyewitnesses.