Emily Maitlis: “Reporting on the Manchester bombing hit me so hard”

The Newsnight journalist reveals the emotional repercussions of her coverage of the bombing

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It is a thankless and ultimately futile task to start comparing one terror atrocity with another. I have covered enough. Too many. In Paris, in London, in Orlando, in Charleston, in Virginia. And recently in Manchester. I know what time and where the vigil will be without asking. I can predict the moment they’ll colour up, or darken, the Eiffel Tower in solidarity. I do not say this glibly. I say this with a knot in my stomach that’s like a rock. There is a pattern: prayers and poems, hashtags and hugs – it’s the aching familiarity of it all that’s so painful. Which is why I’m struggling to understand why the bombing of the Manchester Arena hit me so hard.

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On the day after the bombing 
I reported for Newsnight from
 Manchester. I spoke to Ian, a tough-looking Glaswegian 
barman who’d made Manchester 
his home for 20 years. The morn
ing after the attack he turned up at the blood bank for the first time in his life, and he started crying as soon as he spoke to me. He didn’t really stop for the whole interview.

I talked to Colin Parry, who’d lost his 12-year-old son in an IRA attack on a shopping centre nearly 25 years ago. A boy going to look at a pair of Everton football shorts. “He didn’t even have enough money saved up to get them,” he joked. A father who’s had decades to think of the ramifications of that one tiny act, and its devastating result.

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“What advice would you give these parents?” I asked. “I wouldn’t,” he said. “You spend the first months just surviving. You sleep and eat and sleep and eat and nothing else is required of you until finally you think, maybe I’m now able to hold a conversation.”

It devastated me to hear his raw honesty of a life reduced to that.

Much has been said about the loss of such young life in Manchester. The concert will have been a rite of passage for every teenager, every kid, falling in love with music for the first time, tasting what it means to leave your hang-ups – and your parents – at the door, and enter a sublime brave new world, which is all yours.

But I think it hit me particularly hard because it strikes right to the heart of what parents constantly ask themselves: am I doing the right thing? Am I getting it right? Is she too young for a phone? Or a pop concert? Should I let him catch the Tube alone or insist I come along too? Am I being paranoid or protective? Am I suffocating or sensible?

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A friend of mine laughs at her own ridiculous inconsistencies: “I don’t mind them bowling in one shopping arcade, but I’d never let them go to the other,” she tells me. It chimes with my responses to my own 12- and ten-year-old children: yes to the bus, no to the Tube, yes to Madrid, no to Brussels. We make seemingly random choices for our kids, the whole time. Mostly, with little repercussion.

This time it was different. I have found myself imagining every conversation between mothers and those dead daughters. Did they have to beg to go? Was it a birthday surprise? Did the mums hang around the nearest coffee shop, an easy mobile phone call away from harm?

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The suicide bomber was too cowardly to go for anything other than the softest target. The arena was no military barracks, no government office. There will have been no confusion in his mind: he came to kill the young. This was an attack on kids just trying to grow up and parents just trying to let them – on an ordinary Monday night in Manchester.