Sunday, 12 April 2009

Getting Involved

I have often heard reporters talk about reporting on disasters and saying: "I don't get involved. I am there to report the story." When I went to work on my first magazine, my fellow feature writer Bill Moore had been, many years before, Deputy Editor of a national Sunday newspaper. He was a brilliant sub-editor and taught me a lot. I can remember him telling me about attending the Aberfan Disaster in Wales in 1966. A coal slag heap collaped and engulfed a school, killing many children. When he and the other national newspaper reporters and photographers arrived at the scene, it was immediately evident that help was needed. According to Bill, a quick discussion among the gathered press led to the decision that a reporter and photographer would cover the story and the material would be pooled [shared]. Everyone else joined in the frantic efforts to try and dig out survivors. I doubt that would happen today.

I was reminded of this many years later when covering a fishing disaster in the south west. A trawler had capsized. There was one survivor and the lifeboat was returning him to port. I joined other journalists waiting on the harbourside, along with the wives of the trawler's crew. No one knew who had survived. You can imagine the howls of grief when the survivor appeared on deck and four wives realised they were now widows. There was no one available to help the survivor ashore, so I stepped forward and helped him to the waiting ambulance. I was pretty shocked by the whole thing and afterwards a female journalist with many years experience said she realised I had missed much of the unfolding story by going to the assistance of the survivor. It was right, what I had done, she said and opened her notebook to share the facts she had gathered with me so I could meet my deadline - a very unusual occurrence when journalists were rivals.

The moral of this tale, if there is one, is that sometimes you just have to get involved . . . Were Bill Moore and his colleagues at Aberfan right in the way they behaved? I'd like to hear what you think?