The biggest story in decades. How did TV news measure up?

BBC staff were in the canteen. ITN roped in Kirsty Young's husband. It was the day, for once in the media, when the ratings took a back seat
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On Tuesday, as the towers of the World Trade Centre burned, David Dimbleby was heading home. He had just completed his interview for the chairmanship of the BBC and was winding down when the newsroom called. America was under attack, and just as the nation invariably turns to the BBC when crises happen, the BBC turns to Dimbleby.

Like hundreds of other news broadcasters he switched on his professionalism to bring to the screens a news event that was to put television journalism to the test as never before. Nigel Dacre, the editor of ITV News, says without hesitation that "this was the biggest story for television news ever. There hasn't been a story before in which people saw events unfold in front of their eyes, knowing that thousands of lives were being lost".

Richard Sambrook, the BBC's chief executive of television, agrees. "This is the biggest news event I have been involved with in 25 years." In terms of deployment, the Gulf War was a larger-scale operation, and in terms of audience interest the death of Diana was as potent. But for scale and immediacy, nothing in modern broadcast news matches the events in America. "I haven't known anything like the unpredictability and unthinkability of this story," says Mr Sambrook. "As well as the brutality of it."

And, he acknowledges, there has never been this degree of expectation from audiences that news will be continuous from dawn to dusk and beyond. Last week the quantity of rolling news on air was unprecedented, from a multitude of services from the BBC, ITN, Sky and CNN.

The first moments of the story broke on the digital channels. Sky was the first British broadcaster to report that the World Trade Centre had been hit, seven minutes after it happened. At ITN's fledgling 24-hour news channel presenter, Leyla Daybelge was soon speaking over NBC pictures of the first burning tower. While on-air, she saw the second plane hit, and reported it. It was the first firm indication on British television that a terrorist attack was happening.

At the BBC's News 24 channel, the initial pictures of the north tower of the World Trade Centre in flames came in the middle of a business programme, which was quickly switched back to the main news studio. Immediately, the decision was taken to put News 24 on to BBC 1, which was the first terrestrial broadcaster to start rolling news. Off-air, the news-gathering machine was cranking up as fast as it could.

The scene in the BBC canteen at Television Centre has stuck in people's minds. "Everyone was sitting around quietly having their lunch," says an executive. "The television was on in the corner. As the World Trade Centre went up in flames most of the people silently stood up and made for the door. They were heading for the newsroom."

Normally, when big stories happen, journalists and production crews pile on to planes to get to the event. In this case, it was clear from the outset that airports were down and communications from what was the communications capital of the world were incredibly difficult.

"You have to think about who is where, and you also have to think about what partnerships you have," says Vin Ray, who was in charge of the BBC's news-gathering. The Corporation's big partner in America is ABC, and Mr Ray was trying to make contact with them. When he got through the response was: "We'll try to help but you need to know all our cell phones are down, our trucks can't get out and our transmitters are on the top of the World Trade Centre." Nonetheless, ABC soon switched to rolling news, and the BBC plugged in a feed and picked out the best material.

There was a desperate search for reporters on the ground. As it happened, business correspondent Steve Evans had been in the lobby of the first tower waiting to meet a contact when the plane hit. He had only radio equipment with him, so connected up with a film crew. In moments he was on air, only to be lost again when the second plane hit the south tower.

The newsroom lost contact with Mr Evans for a 90 minutes, says Mr Ray. Nobody knew whether he was under the rubble. Eventually, Mr Evans managed to find a phone in a hotel and started reporting again. Like countless others, he continued for 24 hours, snatching an hour's sleep here and there when he could. "He's been running on adrenalin," says Mr Sambrook. "It will really hit him when it stops."

Across the US, other BBC correspondents were trying to get to New York, and later, after the Pentagon news broke, to Washington. Washington correspondent Stephen Sackur was in South America and made it to the Mexican border. He found a car and headed north. Correspondent David Willis was in Los Angeles. He started driving east, stopping intermittently to file "heartland" reports.

At ITN the scramble to find reporters, producers and crew in New York was equally frantic, so much so that, as Kirsty Young was preparing to go on-air as presenter, she called her husband Nick Jones, owner of the London media hang-out, Soho House. He happened to be in Manhattan on business. Within minutes he had become an impromptu ITN reporter: he was live on-air as the first tower collapsed.

The biggest names in television reporting were out on a limb. En masse, BBC big-hitters such as George Alagiah and Kate Adie had set off for Stansted airport, along with ITN's top correspondents such as Mark Austin, Juliet Bremner and Alex Thompson. The organisations had chartered an aircraft which was ready for take-off as soon as clearance was given. Richard Sambrook at the BBC and Richard Tait, editor-in-chief at ITN, lobbied 10 Downing Street, hoping for a slot. Nothing happened. No special arrangements were made, and George Alagiah et al were left fuming until late Thursday when the flight took off for Canada. It was probably the most frustrating day of their careers.

For the BBC the most significant consequence of its biggest news day was that News 24, the digital channel, came of age. It was decided within minutes of the news breaking that News 24's coverage would be shown all day on mainstream BBC channels, a far easier option than cranking up an open-ended news operation from nothing, as the BBC did four years ago when Princess Diana died.

Mr Sambrook admits that the unprecedented decision to rely so heavily on News 24 may not have happened even two or three years ago. Kevin Bakhurst, a News 24 editor, says: "For CNN it was the Gulf War that helped them prove themselves. This is News 24's Gulf War."

The other vital question for the BBC is whether it remains "the nation's broadcaster" at times of crisis. During the day, it succeeded, with the number of viewers rising steadily through the afternoon from 2.2 million to 9.4 million by six o'clock. ITV's figures rose from 1.4 million to six million.

But during the evening slightly more people watched ITV, which carried a continuous news programme hosted from 9pm by Sir Trevor McDonald. For David Dimbleby, it was a long stretch from job interview in the morning to the analysis programme that he chaired in the evening. But the fact that he was beaten in audience terms by Sir Trevor is not seen as a victory on points for ITV.

Bigger things are at issue than the rival attractions of Mr Dimbleby and Mr McDonald. It is plausible, for instance, that at 9pm an analysis programme was premature for some British viewers, who still had a huge requirement to see the news again. Quite simply, it took that long to take in the terrible, chilling facts.