Television Terror Coverage: How ITV got the scoop of the year

The combination of a quick-witted amateur cameraman and a consummately professional editor clinched an outstanding exclusive. Ian Burrell reports

Monday 08 August 2005 00:00

For Nick, a fortysomething amateur camera enthusiast, took the stunning footage of the arrest of the two London bombing suspects that has provided the most iconic imagery so far of the biggest domestic story of the new millennium.

But Nick's quick-wittedness and considerable skill (many observers were convinced that the sharply defined pictures were the work of a professional) were the catalyst to the most frantic of media tugs-of-war, a tussle that was to deliver a "world exclusive" to ITV News and the Daily Mail.

The pictures, accompanied by a narrative from reporter James Mates, led the ITV early-evening bulletin and - in spite of a copyright on-screen "bug" that branded the footage to ITV News and the Mail - were self-consciously lifted by all the other major British broadcasters.

It was a moment of triumph for Deborah Turness, the glamorous and dynamic editor of ITV News, who had personally responded to an e-mail from Nick (she chooses not to reveal his surname) after he had sent a brief electronic message to all the main broadcasting networks, suggesting he may have something of interest to them.

Turness, 38, relives the drama. "I immediately got on the phone to him myself. I'm quite hands-on. You never quite know whether they are exaggerating what they've got or underselling the value of their pictures because they don't understand what they've got," she says. "This guy, who had already received calls from the BBC, sounded switched on. He was under siege himself, he couldn't move out of his flat because the police had the whole place locked down. I was immediately launched into a bidding war, but it was a blind war because nobody had seen the images. The sum went up and up to fairly serious sums."

Then Turness pulled in a little more financial muscle, calling up the Daily Mail, with which she had worked on previous stories, including the sharing of an exclusive interview with Monica Lewinsky. She proposed a joint bid and the Mail immediately said "count us in", she says.

As the bidding battle continued, Nick sent Turness another e-mail with an attachment containing a grab from his film. "It was that shot that was on every single front page the next morning, of the alleged bus bomber with his arms in the air in the complete moment of surrender. My heart leapt and I thought this guy really has got what he said he's got," she says. "I called him immediately and said whatever happens at the end of this day, you are going to sell those pictures to me and they're going to be on ITV News. I want first refusal."

With Sky having entered the fray, Nick was under pressure. "He was kind of flustered," says Turness. "Here he is, a man of modest means, and he's realised the worth of these pictures. His phone was going crazy and we were e-mailing each other as well. I was trying to calm him down by saying: 'There's a very simple way to do this, just sell the pictures to me.' We had built up quite a good rapport by then. I know that area very well, it's not far from where I live."

Despite a late attempt by Sky to "blow us out the water", Turness clinched the deal without actually having seen the moving footage.

"I'd already dispatched a producer [Peter Robinson] to the estate, with the sole purpose of finding people who had caught images on their phones or cameras," she says. "He was by now tasked with getting to this guy's flat, had climbed over garden fences and gone through people's houses, but ended up himself pinned down by police. I was still worried that anybody else could get the tape."

Although Turness, an ITV news veteran of 15 years' standing, says she has been engaged in such wheeler-dealering "loads of times" before, this was something special. "This really was something truly momentous and the stakes were high because losing is a big deal, because it means that one of your rivals is going to get it and you are out of the picture," she says.

By the time the images arrived from the ITV sat truck parked outside the Peabody, Turness and her team had 90 minutes before the 6.30pm evening news. "It had to make the 6.30pm, it was a race against time. If you're going to pay for something like that, it's got to hit the teatime bulletin, then you get two hits, that and the 10.30."

There was another consideration: the reaction of rivals who were well aware that ITV News might have some very special footage. "We had our lawyer fax the BBC and Sky that they had no access to our pictures, and we protected the pictures with a large exclusive bug.

"It's rare that you can go into bed with a paper where you show the pictures the previous night, because every other paper can just take a still grab. By putting the Daily Mail on screen, they would inevitably get credited. That was important in the deal; I think it broke new ground in the kind of deals television can do with newspapers."

Turness produces from her drawer the small, unmarked original one-hour tape from Nick's DV camera. It contains about 10 minutes of coverage, rather than the two-and-a-half minutes that ITV originally thought it had. The Mail was sent 25 high-quality still images by ITV's graphics department.

The film was trailed on the ITV News Channel, but only on the studio plasma screen in order to prevent rivals trying to snatch the images. Then the 6.30pm bulletin opened with the words "Caught and on camera".

The beauty of these images, says Turness, was that they were not portraying a disaster. "Often the footage you are buying in is of bad stuff going on," she says. "This was an absolute coup for British police, a fabulous textbook operation where they bagged two alleged would-be bombers and it was all played out in front of a camera lens."

Soon, legal warnings or not, the footage was running everywhere. "I cannot remember ever having footage so compelling and necessary for the telling of the story that every other rival network stole it and ran it even with our giant exclusive tag," she says. "You are admitting defeat when you do that - you do it through gritted teeth." Turness watched as Gavin Hewitt on the BBC's Ten O'Clock News introduced the film by saying ("rather sniffily", she claims) that the pictures had been "sold to a commercial broadcaster".

The footage was passed by ITN to international partners, including CNN, NBC and ZDF, boosting the status of ITV News at a time when rivals like to claim it is under-resourced and unloved by ITV chiefs.

Turness, who only left ITV briefly three years ago for a difficult six months running the doomed breakfast TV venture RI:SE, sees the scoop as the latest in a year-long series of success, including coverage of the Beslan and tsunami disasters.

ITV's first female editor of network news knows her chances of more exclusives will be boosted if she can own this citizen reporter territory by establishing a day-to-day platform for footage from mobile phones and mini cameras.

Before the Peabody footage went on air, Nick and his girlfriend were brought to the ITV News headquarters in London's Gray's Inn Road. He watched as his film was screened and met presenter Mark Austin. "We then introduced Nick to the whole newsroom and everybody gave him a round of applause," says Turness. "He was thrilled."

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