8 Sep 2011

How Channel 4 News reported 9/11

First a newsflash, then the seven o’clock programme and a special extra bulletin: how Channel 4 News covered the worst terror strikes in history, and Jon Snow recalls his visit to Ground Zero.

There’s not much, I think it fair to say, that I have in common with Sky News presenter Kay Burley, but we both called 9/11 wrong, writes a news editor who helped put together Channel 4 News on September 11th 2001.

Thankfully “the entire eastern sea-board of the United States” wasn’t decimated, but I also remember telling the colleague who called offering to come in not to bother since it was “just a tragic accident.” At which exact moment the second plane went in.

Some writers have remarked on the clear blue skies in New York, but here at Gray’s Inn Road the day began like any other; 08:00 cross-ITN conference, 09:30 C4 morning meeting, the usual boring routines.

Here was an event so without precedent or parallel that we were every bit as helpless and uncomprehending as everyone else.

In fact by midday my predominant concern was whether Jonathan Rugman‘s live two-way from the TUC conference in Brighton would be similarly disrupted by the protester who’d forced his way onto several lunchtime bulletins.

Then 13:46, and everything changed forever (trite, I know, but also in my opinion true). It would be nice to pretend that I thought or reacted in an appropriately elegiac manner, but in truth for about half an hour my colleagues and I just kept pointing at our monitors and repeating a word associated with manure.

There’s a common and highly-condescending fallacy that We The Media think we understand everything so that You The Viewer don’t need to. Not so. Here was an event so without precedent or parallel that we were every bit as helpless and uncomprehending as everyone else.

In such circumstances having to put together television – first a newsflash, then the seven o’clock programme, then a special extra bulletin – was almost a relief, as it returned some degree of structure to a day in which all structure seemed to have been torn up.

Read more: 'Survival and identity' emerge in debris of 9/11

I shall not trawl through the now-iconic images of the day because they have wallpapered news bulletins all this week. Their constant repetition makes it hard to remember them with anything approaching the appalling novelty with which they emerged a decade back.

In any case it’s odd I suppose but one of the things that stuck with me most was audio rather than visual; the calm robot-lady voice that rejected our constant attempts to reach the Washington Bureau with words to the effect of, “At this time it is not possible to connect to the United States.” A little like this motorway sign four years later, when London joined New York in the sad distinction of a day known simply by its numerals.

Eventually – as ever after a big story, and this was surely the biggest – the pub. I remember dark rumours about armies massing in the Middle East, and even hearing speculative talk for the first time since 1980s childhood of nuclear conflict. Newsrooms can be notorious for using bad humour to help cope with bad news, but there were no jokes that night.

‘The scale of it stunned me’

I was being lunched by some telecoms executives (a rare event), I can’t remember why, but it was in the London restaurant world of Charlotte Street, recalls Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow.

My mobile rang and my newsdesk told me an “aircraft has hit one of the twin towers in New York”.

Relieved of my somewhat dull circumstance, I pounded back to the studios on my bike, imagining in my mind’s eye a small Piper aircraft embedded in the glass of the tower.

The scale of what I saw streaming into our newsroom on the newsfeed stunned me. Within moments we were “on air” and talking live to the pictures as we saw them.

At one point we could see people falling to their deaths from the upper floors burning building – I began to wonder whether we were treating their desperate deaths with the dignity they deserved. We never rebroadcast them.

The searing memory of 9/11 itself for me is enshrined in a rare visit right into the very heart of Ground Zero a few weeks after the attack.

Journalists were banned – images had to be grabbed from the perimeters of the site.

But my friend, the celebrated American panoramic photographer, Joel Meyerowitz, had been given special access to record the site from day one for the New York Parks Department.

Read more from Snowblog: My 9/11