‘The day that sent shockwaves around the world. The BBC marks the anniversary of September 11 with a series of special reports and commemorative broadcasts from across the globe.’
BBC Programme Information 7-13 September 2002
As the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11 approaches, broadcasters are preparing to go toe to toe to see who will win the broadcasting war of attrition which will mean wall-to-wall coverage of the anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks on America.
The BBC, like almost every other large broadcast and media concern this side of Washington, is preparing to commemorate the anniversary of what has glibly been called ‘Ground Zero’ with round-the-clock coverage across its radio and television stations. Gathered together under a suitably bathetic ‘The day that sent shockwaves around the world’ banner, BBC coverage will go into overdrive in a way not seen since the actual coverage of September 11 (although BBC World Service did devote a week of programming to the six month anniversary of the attacks).
BBC Radio 4, Radio Five Live and the World Service will run extensive commemorative programmes to complement coverage on the terrestrial and digital television stations. BBC1 will also premiere 9/11, a documentary filmed in and around the World Trade Centre when the two hijacked planes struck New York’s twin towers.
The only other recent equivalent precedents in British broadcasting history are the deaths of the Princess of Wales and the Queen Mother respectively which rightly or wrongly were always going to be subject to a ‘war chest’ programming strategy. In a BBC press release issued in April of this year, acting Director General Mark Byford praised all BBC staff for their efforts in securing overnight figures for the BBC coverage of the Queen Mother’s funeral:
‘We should feel very proud of our coverage in providing programmes of real quality, depth and distinction. It was a very big team effort. Our professionalism, skill and outstanding creativity shone through in capturing the events so magnificently for audiences across the country and the world. We are gratified that the large majority of viewers turned to the BBC to witness yesterday’s historic funeral service.’
The BBC celebrated an audience peak of 7.1 million viewers and a 58.2% audience share in contrast to ITV’s 3.3 million and 27.1% of audience share. The BBC’s outside broadcast of the occasion pulled together more staff and equipment than the combined studios of Television Centre. A team of more than 350 people, 100 cameras, 15 television mobile control vehicles plus 100 trucks, ten large mobile radio studios and approximately 1,000 miles of cable were used to ensure the successful live BBC broadcast of the procession to Lying-in-State and the funeral service. Requisite television gravitas was lent to the proceedings by the BBC’s resident man-at-arms David Dimbleby, while Fergal Keane was whisked away from less pressing business in Lebanon to commentate on events for BBC radio.
It is this sort of infrastructural and logistical muscle which will allow BBC Radio 5’s Five Live Breakfast to be broadcast from New York. Former BBC Radio One DJ Simon Mayo also presents from New York while the afternoon show presented by Peter Allen and Jane Garvey will be co-presented in Washington and Jerusalem respectively. The BBC’s pop music station, Radio 1, will carry live reports from Ground Zero in its Newbeat programme throughout the day.
More cynical minds might question the value of sending breakfast radio show teams and broadcasters more familiar with the back catalogues of Britney Spears and the Spice Girls half way across the world to broadcast the day’s latest hits mixed with on-the-spot interviews with grieving New Yorkers.
As if that wasn’t enough, add to that list a specially developed website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/september11) which promises to carry ‘archive material, news and information, international views and historical background to help put the events of the past year into context.’ Live webcasts from Ground Zero are also promised. The surfeit of coverage has of course nothing to do with constant speculation regarding the licence fee nor the criticisms levelled at the BBC’s rolling news service BBC 24 (annual budget of 50 millions pound sterling compared to SKY’s 20 million operating costs) which is caught in a three-way fight between CNN and SKY.
The BBC is proud of the way it handled its September 11 coverage last year–it won a clutch of journalism awards including the Foreign Event Special Award from the FPA as well as the George Polk Journalism Award for its ‘authoritative, wide-ranging accounts of the attacks on America and the war in Afghanistan’–pointing to the fact that it was able to take advantage of its international bureaux to bring immediate on-the-spot eyewitness reports. Not ones to normally crow, the BBC (in a report submitted to the Culture Secretary in December 2001 in support of the current independent review of BBC News 24) stresses the strength in depth of BBC reporting:
‘Our newsgathering strength has been in evidence throughout the conflict with experienced reporters on both sides of the front line, including the first Western reporters into Kabul. BBC News 24 also managed to find a diverse range of contributors, benefiting from its close connection with BBC World, as were more able to persuade news-makers to appear in the knowledge that they would be heard across the world as well as in the UK (including Madeleine Allbright, General Musharaf, Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Netanyahu).’
Just as was the case with their exhaustive and exhausting royal funerals coverage, the BBC’s coverage was a logistical and technical triumph (though whether the rogue’s gallery of interviewees listed truly deserves the epithet ‘diverse’ is certainly questionable).
More problematic still is the sort of slick linguistic casuistry–which presupposes an agreed consensual agenda–more typical of advertising copywriters and feature film trailer writers (‘The day the world changed’, ‘The day the world changed forever’ and other tired variations of the same theme).
Similarly emotionally charged appeals to some imagined wider public sentiment were expressed in BBC World’s ‘The Shrine’ (31/08/02), a documentary marking the fifth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana as part of the channel’s ‘Modern Times’ series:
‘A powerful and moving account of the astonishing late summer days that saw a normally genteel Royal park transformed into a site of fervent devotion. Richard Alwyn’s film catches the vigil like atmosphere outside the Palace in the hours before the funeral, the anguish in Hyde Park during the ceremony, and the tranquillity of the night times spent in sleeping bags around fires.’
Having waded through acres of adjective and the sort of tired prose Hallmark greetings card writers kill for, we learn that Diana’s death ‘changed the [British] people’. True, blue rinsed pensioners and flags and banners monarchists weeped and wailed, but there certainly wasn’t the ‘extraordinary outburst of national grief’ that has been claimed: an extraordinary outburst of media coverage yes; but whether the two are one and the same thing is debatable. We are invited to believe that Diana’s death re-framed Britain in much the same way that Ground Zero is Year Zero for world history. The death of a jet-setting royal and the events of September 11 brook no comparison one is the stuff of OK! Magazine specials, the other a tragedy on a grand scale but the framing of both in absolutist terms demands consideration.
Not only are the invariably stars’n’trite sentiments attached to 11/09 anniversary coverage bogus; but the need to dress them up in neat little trailed packages with suitably solemn snatches of music playing beneath suitably reverential tones serves only to silence debate and to privilege a false new world order discourse decreed from on high in Washington.
Worse still, as Michael Goldberg writing in Salon (09/07/02) observes, ‘in a media glutted world, September 11 couldn’t help but become the ultimate reality show. So enamoured were we of its rare shocking authenticity that we replicated its image into infinity and leached it of its meaning.’ September 11, he argues, has become the political sledgehammer that the US administration can now take to any nut. Radio and television wittingly or not–provide the dramatic narrative exigencies required to support the risible war noises emanating from Washington.
Of course, the BBC is not alone in its use of extra-diagetic music and sundry other dramatic devices to hook the audience–this is symptomatic of a cultural sea-change in news and factual broadcasting which is now regrettably the norm from CNN to Channel 4. Nor should it be singled out for its planned September 11 coverage: again, this is demonstrably the case across the board–whether you are in Bermondsey or Baltimore.
Nonetheless, the rationale behind the decision to film a British Bank Holiday special (27/08/02) of the gardening makeover programme ‘Ground Force’ in New York must be questioned (you can probably imagine the scene as the allusive penny dropped in some bright spark editor’s head ‘I know! Why don’t we’).
In what must be the worst known case of what the satirical British magazine Private Eye calls ‘WarBalls’ the linking of anything and everything to September 11 on the flimsiest of pretexts–the Ground Force team of celebrity gardeners undertook its mission to help by ‘rejuvenating a small area for a local community of New Yorkers who have been deeply affected by the tragedy. In a three day project the Ground Force team flew over to New York to surprise actress Bette Midler and the local people of Lower East Side, Manhattan with a garden in recognition of what the people of New York have been through.’ Writing in The Mirror (28/07/02), Jim Shelley commented on the opening scenes of the programme where regular presenter Charlie Dimmock looking at her New York holiday snaps replete with twin towers as bearing ‘the unmistakable stench of blatant exploitation.’ BBC America viewers hopefully won’t be quite so squeamish. But why so much coverage? To paraphrase the much maligned Noam Chomsky, the crimes of September 11 are indeed a historic turning point not because of the scale but rather because of the choice of target.
That, as the New Statesman argued in its leader of 24/09/01, is the reason why British sympathies are perceived as being almost wholly concerned with the sufferings of ordinary Americans because they are ‘people like us’ as opposed to ordinary people in the third world (or now, Afghanistan and very possibly Iraq). These are sentiments which would seem to be shared by commissioning editors the length and breadth of Europe.
There is no question that the terrorist attacks on the twin towers deserve to be comprehensively covered, and indeed, deserve to be fittingly marked in tribute to the dead and to the hundreds and thousands of Americans whose lives were irrevocably changed by the events of September 11. Whether September 11 has proved to be the turning point in recent modern history as is so often claimed is a completely different question. Certainly, the events of September 11 have left an indelible mark on the global collective conscious which will not and cannot be easily erased.
September 11 is without question a day for mourning and reflection on what has passed and what might yet still come to pass. Let us respect the tragedy of last year without turning it once more into a rolling media jamboree more concerned with audience share, overnight figures and the repetition of febrile unchallenged half truths about the threat posed by Saddam to western capitals.
Constant media raking over of the ashes in the guise of tribute might ultimately prove to be as disingenuous in spirit as the dollar hungry ghouls who tout Ground Zero DVD’s and Osama Bin Laden toilet paper on the streets surrounding the site where the World Trade Centre once stood. It is impossible to forget the cleaners, firemen, janitors and office workers who lost their lives on that fateful day last year, but nor should we forget the ordinary lives which have already been thrown into turmoil in Afghanistan (and very probably Iraq if messrs Bush and Rumsfeld continue to militate for war against their former favourite despot).
Only this month, the World Food Programme announced that rations to millions of Afghans are to be cut as a result of international donors failure to honour promises to help re-build the stricken country. UN figures calculate that some six million Afghans still need food aid over the next year, but a $90 million shortfall of required aid or 200,000 tonnes of food means that the money required for the most basic levels of subsistence is already beginning to run out as Washington and Brussels continue to squabble over who should pay what. Whether the eyes and ears of the BBC and CNN will be on the ground in Kabul–or Baghdad should push come to shove–in quite such numbers when that corner of the world’s anniversaries come around remains to be seen. As is so often the case, out of sight is very much out of mind.
Perhaps George Orwell was only partially wrong when he wrote that ‘if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–for ever.’ He should of course have said a video loop of two jets crashing into the World Trade Centre.
William McDougal can be reached at: email@example.com
CounterPunch Special Report: 9/11 One Year After
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David Krieger Looking Back on September 11
Peter Linebaugh Levellers and 9/11
Jeffrey St. Clair The Trouble with Normal
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