Television: 'Hurricane' shows what News can do

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On Monday a documentary called Hurricane appeared on BBC1 in place of Here and Now. It was not only a powerful piece of work in itself. It was also a demonstration of what can be done when a news organisation decides to take a major story full on at breakneck speed, and of the power and speed of modern newsgathering technology. And it gives some idea of the sheer resources the BBC can summon for news coverage when it wants.

It was on Friday afternoon that those BBC executives, so lofty that they have snow on their shoulders, and known to the toiling workers in the vineyards below as "the masters of the universe", decided that Hurricane Mitch had wrought such devastation in Central America that they should pull out all the stops. For the first time for some considerable period the executives decided to give News a half hour slot in prime time.

Insiders speculate that the decision was not motivated only by the intrinsic merits of Mitch, though it was certainly a cracking good story, with powerful human interest, environmental and even political dimensions. But the mood among the BBC brass was that the Corporation had been on the back foot for too long.

The four news teams already in Central America were assigned to tell specific parts of the story. That involved commandeering the lion's share of the interview with the woman, Laura Isabella Arriola Batiz de Guity, who was swept fifty miles out to sea by the hurricane. Her three children and her husband made a little raft, but one by one were swept away. She survived for an incredible six days alone. First she clung to a tree, then a plank. She ate fruit that floated by and drank milk from a coconut, and kept her spirits up by singing "songs that nobody heard". In the end she was picked up by the British warship HMS Sheffield. The crew found it hard to believe it when she said she had got where they found her, far out to sea, without a boat.

Back in London, the "Masters" decided to send out George Alagiah with a producer to link the four separate reports together from Honduras. On Saturday morning they flew to Tegucigalpa. On Sunday they filmed two interviews, a package about refugees and fed over the links that held the whole half-hour programme together.

On Monday, at 4am locally, 10am in London, with transmission set for 7.30pm, they fed the whole story. A report came from Nicaragua with two magic moments: the remnants of a house high in a tree, and the reporter's question, in Spanish, to a woman feeding her family. "Es la ultima comida?" he asked: is that the last food?

Another reporter chipped in with a piece from the south of Honduras ("We are alive. We can work") and then did a two-way with Alagiah. She sorted out the distinction, between immediate and long-term needs, that seemed to baffle the aid minister, Clare Short, when interviewed on the radio. Her conclusion: it will take a generation to undo the effects of a few hours of winds that sounded like a thousand trains going into a tunnel and raging waters that could sweep a village away as easily as a car. It will take food, clean water and medicine now; seed and tools tomorrow, and debt relief as soon as it can be arranged.

A piece about the devastation of the banana crop, on which Honduras depends for more than half its hard currency, and how the big American owners (the same ones who are lobbying against EU help for Caribbean growers) may put 15,000 very poor people out of work, arrived with only minutes to spare.

All this had to be put together in London, like a television jigsaw, with two locally filmed reports, one on what the aid agencies are doing, and another on the probability that global warming will make serious hurricanes more common.

It is nice to be able to report that the programme was, all things considered, a triumph. Other news organisations did well too. On Tuesday, an ITN reporter, in white shirt and jeans, was doing his soldierly best, and not bad it was. But the sheer length, scale and diversity of the BBC's Hurricane really showed what resources and professionalism can do. Above all, I liked it because it proved once again the provincial absurdity of the "abroad is dull" brigade who have had too long a run in British journalism.

There is, however, one point that Hurricane addressed only in passing. Amartya Sen, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, has just won the Nobel prize for Economics for pointing out, among other things, that most, if not all, famines are man-made. Well, how man-made are hurricanes? It is not just global warming, which was discussed. How much was the ferocious run-off of Central American rivers, and the nightmarish mudslides, the result of soil erosion caused by deforestation? Perhaps there is matter there for another special.