When I started as a trainee journalist at the BBC in 1984, I was taught some things about the craft of broadcasting, and being a journalist, that just aren’t very useful any more. Razor blades no longer cut audiotape, which hasn’t been used for years. Videotape was made redundant more recently. News editors don’t use telegramese any more to communicate with reporters in the field. Once I really did receive a telex starting “uncan reach you phonely”.
Twenty-nine years ago, sub-editors at the BBC dictated scripts to typists. Older scribes would puff on their pipes as they studied wire stories ripped off teleprinters, a different colour for each news agency, pulling words out of the smoky air. The lunchtime exodus from Broadcasting House to the pubs of Great Titchfield Street stopped before the turn of the century. It is not permissible to write “recip. hosp” on an expenses claim to justify drinks, or lunches.
We had lessons in how to do pieces to camera, those moments when reporters look straight into the viewers’ living rooms – and back then most TVs were in the living room – and deliver around 15–25 seconds of words. One tip from our amiable instructor was to imagine our temples being held loosely in a vice. The face could occasionally move up and down, but on no account could the head nod from side to side. Sideways movement was considered off-putting, and possibly insincere. We were not encouraged to break eye contact with the camera, or wander about.
The idea of broadcasting with your head stuck in an imaginary vice is not fashionable in the digital age. But some of the lessons we learnt, or absorbed through a kind of osmosis, should not be forgotten. One is that TV reporters should not intrude too much into their packages. However interesting I might think my own experiences are on any given day, the news is about other people.
It has been a bit embarrassing, then, to find myself, for a brief moment, part of the story from the Middle East. Getting on for two weeks ago I was caught up in a shotgun blast fired by an Egyptian army soldier outside the military compound in Cairo where supporters of the deposed president, Mohammad Morsi, believe he is being held. Three Egyptian men, demonstrating in support of Morsi, were killed in the hour before I was lightly wounded. I saw one man lying dead in the road with the back of his head blown off. The shirts of the men who picked him up were smeared with blood and brains.
I had a lucky escape. I had an operation to take pellets out of my right leg, just below the knee, and my left ear. The pellet in my leg lodged near the bone, damaging neither muscles nor any important blood vessels. I was even luckier with the one that hit my lower left temple and ended up in my ear. When the surgeon took out the stitches, he said, “You know, there’s so much important in that part of your head that could have been hit. But it missed everything.”
On the street in Cairo some photographers snapped me as I was being bandaged up. Then one of them took a picture of me on his iPhone, and then started typing rapidly with his thumbs. I guessed, correctly, that he was tweeting it. Within 24 hours I had around 10,000 more followers on Twitter.
Some newspapers asked me for interviews in the days afterwards, which I did. I decided it would have been absurd to pretend that nothing had happened. Talking about the media, and how we work, is fine, at the right time and place.
But in my report for the BBC News at ten o’clock I tried to concentrate on the Egyptians. TV reports should have a sense of time and place, and I included a piece to camera with blood on my face. I hope the story said something about the day’s events in Egypt, not my personal experience.
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. A revised edition of his book The Arab Uprisings has just been released in paperback.
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