Comment: Burned by role on screen

THE horror of the downing of Flight MH17 by, most likely, Russian separatists, has dominated the news along with the bombing of Gaza and both events have once again thrown the role of TV reporters into the spotlight.

Clive Brazier at the MH17 crash site. Picture: Contributed

Unfortunately for Sky’s Colin Brazier, the experience has left him severely burned. The sight of him lifting up items from a suitcase lying among the wreckage-strewn fields in Ukraine was too much for viewers, who complain that it was inappropriate. Brazier, a veteran reporter, knew this himself and said so in the live report but it was too late to stop a storm of protest on Twitter and complaints to Ofcom.

There are a number of reasons why what he did was wrong. The entire crash site was a crime scene, whether it be criminal or war crime, and should not have been tampered with by anyone but the appropriate authorities. Then there was the possibility that he could have lifted a garment that uncovered a family photograph or another obviously identifiable item which would have then been broadcast live. It’s hard to imagine how losing one’s family in a plane crash could be made any worse, but watching as a journalist sifts through their luggage on live TV certainly isn’t going to act as kind of emotional balm. And yet I can understand how the mistake was made. While the site of a commercial plane crash site can never be described as ordinary, the wreckage of MH17 was indeed extraordinary, wedged as it was in the midst of a war zone where the rules appeared not to apply. Well, in fact, they did apply, it’s just 
that there was no-one to administer them and so journalists, by their very nature, have a habit of pushing rules to their limit.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

If you see all your colleagues wandering around the wreckage site, you are more than likely going to do so too, partially out of fear of missing a part of the story. For some reporters there is an adage in journalism that it’s often easier to apologise afterwards than to receive permission before. And Colin Brazier’s apology was swift and, I would, say heartfelt: “And so during that lunchtime broadcast I stood above a pile of belongings, pointing to items strewn across the ground. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a pink drinking flask. It looked familiar. My six-year-old daughter, Kitty, has one just like it. I bent down and, what my Twitter critics cannot hear – because of the sound quality of internet replays of the broadcast – is that I had lost it. It is a cardinal sin of broadcasting, in my book anyway, to start blubbing on-air. I fought for some self-control, not thinking all that clearly as I did so. Too late, I realised that I was crossing a line. I thought aloud ‘We shouldn’t be doing this … this is a mistake’, an instant apology that was only selectively quoted by those determined to see what I did as a powerful example of journalistic vulturism.”

There may be those who will bay for his blood and insist that every mistake must be punished with the sack but I don’t think it is warranted in this occasion. He should, and hopefully will, keep his job, but unfortunately wherever he goes the story is going to follow around with him. He will wrongly be viewed as the modern equivalent of Damien in the Channel 4 comedy Drop the Dead Donkey who always carried a battered and blackened doll in his luggage along with a bouquet of flowers with a card bearing the word ‘Why?” as a means of embellishing the scene of any accident.

And yet world affairs correspondents and war reporters have a difficult job that requires courage and determination and, perhaps, just a dollop or two of foolhardiness. There is no guarantee that the blue helmet and flak jacket marked “Press” is going to protect them. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, the doyen of Middle Eastern reporters, knows this only too well. Back in 2000 while covering the conflict in Lebanon he was delivering a piece to camera, when the car in which he had been sitting only minutes before and in which his “fixer” and close friend Abed Takoush was still sitting, was struck by an Israeli rocket, killing Takoush instantly.

Yet still Bowen goes back time and time again to walk that narrow tightrope and report as accurately and fairly as possible on the latest twist in the Middle East crisis. A friend of mine pointed out that the term “Middle East Crisis” seems to have been fixed to the ticker-tape banner that runs along the bottom of our screens for decades now.

The grammar of TV reporting has also changed in recent years, with reporters apparently under pressure to film reports and pieces to camera as the events on which they are reporting unfold. For example, reporters jostle into position to deliver their piece to camera on the Queen’s visit at the exact second when the Queen passes directly behind them, thus giving the viewer further proof, if proof were actually required, that they are exactly where they should be, at the heart of the action. These types of “PTC” were particularly apparent on the first day of the plane disaster, with reporters trying to get themselves in shots with the families of the victims passing by in airport buses.

The most annoying, and potentially, dangerous piece to camera is the one where the reporter is driving a car while casually looking sideways to address the cameraman who is sitting in the passenger seat. This may be legal as the reporter usually has two hands on the wheel, unless he is using one hand to gesticulate, but I would argue that it can hardly be described as safe. Where is his concentration directed, is it really on driving the car or trying to remember the words to his report and to turn to address the camera at the right moment?

Michael Cockerall, Channel 4’s political reporter, recently tweeted his view that such practices should be banned by producers and I’m sure they will, but only some time in the future after there is a car crash as a consequence of such behaviour. I understand the reason behind such PTCs. They have a casual manner and give the sense of the journalist as a “gumshoe” on the case and literally in pursuit of the story, even if this does involve trundling behind a white van in the outskirts of Dagenham.

On the subject of television reporters, I do find it disappointing that the BBC has decided to sack all four dedicated reporters for Panorama including John Sweeney, celebrated perhaps for the wrong reasons for his YouTube tirade against a Scientology member but a dedicated reporter nonetheless, and our own Shelly Joffre. This means that for the first time in its 60-year history Panorama will have no dedicated reporters. The argument is that reporters will pitch ideas and be seconded to the programme or the editors will work with freelance journalists to develop investigations. Yet, as Sweeney pointed out, freelance journalists don’t have the power of staff reporters to argue against editors.

The consequence is that Panorama, once a great name in investigative journalism, is but a shadow of what it once was, less in fact as strictly speaking if there are no reporters, then there is no-one to even cast a shadow. TV reporters will always make mistakes, but like their less public comrades in print, magazines and online, their role remains an important one if we are to ever understand this tumultuous world in which we live.