Terror in america: How the press and TV fared

It was a huge story – so how well did the media do?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The adrenalin flowed, pagination increased, staff worked double shifts, even precious advertising was dropped.

The adrenalin flowed, pagination increased, staff worked double shifts, even precious advertising was dropped. For newspapers and TV, it has been an unforgettable seven days, with the startling circulation rises showing that even with a story so dominated by searing images, the public is not content to rely solely on television.

Those circulation rises can be cited as evidence that every paper was a winner. And that is largely the case. The broadsheets all benefited from a better display of pictures than the tabloids; The Guardian had an impressive array of big-name writers, while The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and The Times all had challenging comment pages, as well as exhaustive news coverage.

The first day saw rapid and dramatic decisions taken, with the prevailing view that there was only one story. UK news, business and sport were downgraded. The Times and The Daily Telegraph used their sports sections for American news and pictures. The Independent took pages from its review section, including the front; even the Financial Times used 72-point capitals and a white-on-pink headline for the first time in its history. Most tabloids gave 30 pages to the story. The Mirror and The Telegraph had, of course, to produce papers amid fears that Canary Wharf might, too, be a target and (incorrect) rumours of an evacuation.

As the week progressed, amid the powerful eye-witness reports and pictures, there were notable positions being adopted. The Sun's first double-page leader, "Islam is not an evil religion" argued against mob instincts with great good sense. And, more parochially, Andrew Neil's column in Sunday Business refused to indulge in mutual Fleet Street backslapping, declaring: "Those who want a foretaste of the slime that is about to come America's way when its rolling thunder of retaliation begins should scan the apologists for terror that this week have dominated the opinion pages of the hard-left Guardian, henceforth better known as the 'Daily Terrorist'."

The Daily Mail, surprisingly, offered puzzlingly lateral coverage at the beginning. Putting the never-to- be-forgotten image of the towers burning on the back page was bizarre, as was a full-page list of 110 facts about the World Trade Centre.

One of the most interesting editions of any paper in the last week might prove to be yesterday's Mirror. It said that the American President risks acting like a "despot", and "demands retribution because he cannot think of anything else to do". It's not a pacifist stance, but it is a note of caution, doubly interesting as The Mirror is thought to be close to Downing Street.

There were few tricks left for the Sundays to try. And it showed. The Sunday Times is rarely a market leader in photography, but it can usually be relied upon to put its lavish resources into investigation. Yet there was no Insight front page on how the terrorists did it, where they were trained etc (indeed, if a moment's blowing of a sister paper's trumpet can be allowed, the infinitely less well-resourced Independent on Sunday gave rather more information on Bin Laden).

The life of a New York correspondent is a curious hybrid at the best of times: finance, showbiz, politics, high society – all, sometimes, in the same day. But covering a disaster on the doorstep meant flexing different muscles; and it had to be covered on little sleep, under great emotional pressure, often without the support of colleagues stranded by transport difficulties, and interspersed with personal pieces telling readers about their own experience of the week. As The Independent's David Usborne showed, it can be achieved with aplomb; but it demanded a flair for hard-nosed reporting and colourful writing, as well as stamina and a strong stomach.

The two winners in TV were Channel 4, which dropped commercial breaks and had a two-hour special every morning, authoritatively presented by Krishnan Guru-Murthy; and News 24, which came of age with its mixture of breaking news and high-level analysis. Its coverage was also used on BBC 1 from the first day onwards.

There are two important points that follow on from this. First, the fact that BBC 1 immediately took News 24 coverage and leant on it in the following days shows that the two services can and should be more mutually dependent. The BBC likes to rule out the possibility of News 24 running all the TV news bulletins, claiming that production values are different. But after last week's success, I predict that the case for more collaboration – and an eventual merger – could prove irresistible.

Second, part of Channel 4's success is due to its immediately putting The Big Breakfast on hold for a situation that demanded grown-up presenters and programmes. Years of early-morning, sofa-based trivia make it impossible to accept light-entertainment hosts reporting on tragedy and foreign-policy issues. GMTV was embarrassing, with its presenters Eamonn Holmes and Fiona Phillips lacking anything resembling gravitas. Miss Phillips's remark, "Now to the city that never sleeps, or at least hasn't slept for the last couple of days" made one wince. ITN did extremely well all last week, as one would expect. It services GMTV and runs a 24-hour news channel. GMTV should, like Channel 4, have handed over the reins completely.