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Eddie Mair: How helicopters are ruining live news broadcasts

The overhead menace drowns out audio for virtually no benefit, says the PM presenter

Published: Thursday, 12th October 2017 at 11:47 am

And now, let’s re-live, for a moment, some of the speeches hailed as being pivotal moments in the 20th century. Let’s start with 20 January 1961, and the inauguration of President John F Kennedy: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what chugga chugga chugga.”


Next, Martin Luther King Jr, 28 August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC: “I have a dream, that one day this nation will chugga chugga chugga its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are chugga chugga.”

Now let’s flit to the steps of Downing Street, 4 May 1979: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is chugga chugga chugga. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring chugga.”

Yes, that’s what those moments would have sounded like if we’d had 24-hour TV news back then. Because as you know it’s impossible to cover news events any more without there being a helicopter several hundred feet up, affording us unrivalled coverage of the distant bald patches of newsmakers. In recent years it’s been modish for British prime ministers, incoming and outgoing, to make announcements from a podium set up outside 10 Downing Street.

This affords the snappers and TV cameras a statesman/womanlike shot of the politician with the famous door behind them. Fair enough. But the demands of 24-hour TV news dictate that we must also see what it would all look like to a passing gull. And so, at considerable expense, a helicopter is dispatched to hover above the scene.

It looks fantastic on the telly but unfortunately the racket drowns out what the politician is trying to say and it can cause terrible confusion. Only when we got the official transcript of David Cameron’s remarks after winning in 2015 did we realise he did not say: “Ed Miliband sang to me this morning to wish me ducky with the poo government.”

Similarly, Theresa May in April of this year did not say: “I have just paired a meeting of the Cabinet, where we agreed that the Government should call a general erection, to be held on moon the 8th.” I fear that in the event the world survives into the 22nd century, historians will be somewhat bemused by what TV news did to history.

I’m old enough to remember when only Radar O’Reilly could hear helicopters. Now they’re always incoming. My particular favourite is the bird’s eye view we get after elections of the prime ministerial vehicle on its short journey from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace.

It’s imperative a helicopter traces every inch of the route, no doubt in case the new leader of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should tap the driver on the shoulder with the instructions: “Sod this for a laugh, take me to KFC for a Zinger.” Then, like tracking OJ Simpson on his famous sojourn down California’s highways, we could marvel as the Queen is kept waiting while the daring PM sits at a drive-through window waiting for their chips.

Having said that, I do enjoy a nice traffic tailback seen from the air. Miles and miles of vehicles not moving, with the bonus of taking in the majesty and grandeur of the landscape. A 24-hour traffic jam channel? You heard it here first.


Eddie Mair presents PM and iPM on 5pm weekdays, Radio 4


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