The day after: so that's what papers are for

Thursday's terrible events in London brought out the best in the British press (and Matthew Bannister)
Click to follow

"It is unlikely that those who planned these coordinated attacks will consider their efforts in vain. Perverse as it may seem, the oxygen of publicity will enhance the perpetrators' reputation across parts of the Muslim world and draw young men and women to their ranks." If one accepts this view in the Daily Telegraph's leader on Friday, then the sheer volume of the coverage of Thursday's terrorist attacks on London provided oxygen in abundance.

The Telegraph provided 23 (broadsheet) pages, The Guardian 18 plus another four in its second (tabloid) section. The Daily Mail filled 23 pages with reports of the incidents, the Daily Mirror 34, The Independent 35 and The Sun 23. National newspapers react to a story of this importance and drama by clearing the decks, and much of the advertising, diverting almost all resources to the one story that renders all others marginal.

Such occasions show journalism at its best, reporters for once having the opportunity to do what they believe they are there for, reporting. These are days when editors, particularly news editors, picture editors, and production editors, backed up by designers, dominate. Meticulous planning and organisation, flair and lateral thinking, is required to assemble the essentially single issue package that is tomorrow's newspaper.

History indicates that when a story is extraordinarily big, and most of us are aware from the broadcast media of much of the detail the day before we read it, then newspapers sell in exceptionally large numbers. We still seem to need the tangibility of the written word and the still photograph, need its semi-permanence to reinforce what passed through us electronically. The importance of the event, as much as the extra detail, is underlined by the copious print coverage, even if it isn't all read.

What we saw on Friday was how much greater is the influence of photo-journalism. We used to refer to the red-top tabloids as the picture papers. Now the quality papers, even the broadsheets, use full-page photographs for dramatic impact. The enduring images of Thursday's terror were the woman with white gauze over her burnt features, the distressed man with his bloodied and smoke-blackened face, the poignant label reading "priority 3" hanging from his jacket, the dreadlocked man with the agonised expression, his arm clasped round the shoulders of the equally distressed woman, and of course the broken bus.

It was a day when words like stoical and phlegmatic dominated the columns, and when the papers were more united in sharing the view of the Prime Minister - "We will not be intimidated, we will not be changed" - than divided by their political differences. Reporting pushed opinion to the sidelines. But of course there were moments when the attitude of the papers showed through. The Express had its telephone poll "Should terrorists be executed?". The Telegraph had its veteran reporter, Bill Deedes, reflecting on the resilience of Londoners from the Blackshirt riots of the 1930s through to the present. The Sun had its less than detached "news" story about "vile George Galloway". The Independent had its famous chronicler of Middle East conflict, Robert Fisk, writing of the "total failure of our security services - the same intelligence 'experts' who claim there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when there were none". And The Guardian spoke in a leader of "trying to understand why people are drawn to commit such infamous and evil deeds".

Another much-published photograph showed the overhead sign on the M25 - "Avoid London - Area closed - Turn on radio". Those who tuned to BBC Radio 5 heard news radio at its best. Matthew Bannister was presenting the daily phone-in on "making 2012 the best Olympics ever", when news of an incident on the Tube, the "power surge", came in. Bannister moved seamlessly between the two stories, interrupting his studio guests talking about the Gamesto bring increasingly disturbing, unconfirmed reports.

Over the next three hours the Olympics, and the studio guests, were forgotten as the scale of what had happened emerged. Bannister is the consummate broadcaster and has never been better than he was on Thursday. Good live news radio is about calm authority, seamless continuity and an ability to orchestrate a constantly changing series of inputs.

Hour after hour - and Bannister was on the air all evening as well as all morning, and again on Friday morning - he drew the threads together, modified the story as new information came through, and carried out dozens of interviews with official spokesmen and "experts" as well as members of the public. It was a tour de force. Bannister has exactly the right tone of cool and detached engagement for the anchoring of live coverage of a developing major story. When it's like that, radio is truly impressive.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield