'Sometimes it's impossible to stay totally objective, as the tsunami showed'

Sky News presenter Julie Etchingham responds to criticism of their coverage in South-east Asia
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The Independent Online

Returning from a big story to the day-to-day rhythm of a newsroom can be a tricky experience. Returning from the Asian tsunami disaster zone has been extraordinary - not due simply to the overwhelming nature of the story, but because reporters and news teams are realising that their work has been scrutinised in the sharpest manner and criticised in similar terms.

Returning from a big story to the day-to-day rhythm of a newsroom can be a tricky experience. Returning from the Asian tsunami disaster zone has been extraordinary - not due simply to the overwhelming nature of the story, but because reporters and news teams are realising that their work has been scrutinised in the sharpest manner and criticised in similar terms.

In last week's Independent Media Weekly Helen Boaden, the director of BBC News, regretted that rival channels Sky News and ITV had reporters who spoke too freely of their own travails in getting to the scene. "The reporter as hero is not what people want for this story," she commented. I agree. The notion that there is glory to be gained by highly personalised reporting from a disaster, and the work that may involve, is deeply distasteful - and we didn't do it. But it shouldn't rule out the reporter responding to a story as a human being - and perhaps communicating some of the experience to the viewer.

One of the most moving pieces I've read since coming back was by the BBC's Ben Brown, who described how, while he was filming in Indonesia, he was seized by a woman hysterical with grief at losing her family and home. To a greater or lesser extent, most reporters will have experienced a similar moment on this story - where the line between journalism and personal, emotional involvement will have been blurred. At the disaster relief centre in Phuket, where Jeremy Thompson and I were based during the coverage, we had many occasions where people would simply come to our camera position and want to share their stories. At about half past midnight one evening, a young Canadian holidaymaker called Sarah Brown came up while we were on air, exhausted and carrying her backpack. She'd just spent three days as a volunteer helping to lift bodies from the beaches of Phi-Phi island to a makeshift morgue. She'd witnessed genuine horrors and wanted to talk about the experience - repeating throughout that she felt guilty at having left the beach when there were still so many corpses to be moved. Like many of the conversations we had during those days, it was no moment for a dry, factual interview but one for sympathy and reassurance that she deserved a rest. One of our producers, Sally Arthy, gave Sarah one of the rooms we'd booked at our hotel. It was perhaps the least we could do.

The head of BBC News 24, Rachel Attwell, said that Sky News concentrated its effort in Thailand because it is where the tourists were missing. It's true that Sky had two full teams and satellite systems in Thailand, but given that it was the scene of the largest number of British deaths in peacetime since the Second World War, the move was perhaps understandable. We were the only channel, for example, to carry live coverage of Jack Straw's visit. It is not true, however, to suggest that our representation and coverage in other areas of the disaster zone were limited. We had senior presenters and reporters on the ground in Sri Lanka - and were the first UK broadcaster to report from the Tamil north.

We also anchored from Indonesia, backed up with a team of reporters. Many hours of our coverage were split evenly between the locations.

Ms Attwell's implied criticism of Sky is that because our teams of presenters and reporters are mobilised more quickly, it follows that Sky's journalism is less considered and less accurate. Of course all news channels make errors, but her unsubstantiated claim that both Sky and ITV get a story wrong once a week - and further that no one notices or cares about Sky or ITV errors because only the BBC is expected to be accurate - is an affront.

Having worked at the BBC for 10 years, I recognise that our style and sometimes emphasis may indeed be different, but that doesn't compromise authority. If we weren't reliable too, then why would anyone bother to watch? It's not a question of heroics, but of simply doing the job.

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