Twelve people were murdered in the attack in January 2015 on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine based in Paris. The following day a policewoman was shot dead and the day after that four shoppers in a Jewish supermarket were killed. On the day of the first shootings I was sent out to Paris to report for BBC 5live as the events unfolded.
When I came back to Britain I made some notes about the way we and other broadcasters had worked in Paris. The following is taken from those notes which detail some of the ways we were able to broadcast from a fast-changing and fluid news event.
What is ‘News’?
Most major news events are pre-planned. We know when they’re going to happen and we know what will happen when the ‘event’ gets underway. The General Election or the Presidential Election is on a known date. They even have beginning and end times. Child care can be arranged, shifts and rotas organised accordingly. The shootings in Paris took the world by surprise. One minute they hadn’t happened, the next they had. The scramble to get to France meant everyone had to make quick decisions. With two hours notice of catching a flight to Paris, there was little time to pack. We would be arriving in Paris with an hour before my station’s evening news programme, Drive, started. As we were flying in to Charles De Gaulle airport I knew the journey into the city, at that time of day, would take the best part of an hour. My producer, Sophie McDonnell and I had decided we would only take hand luggage. We wouldn’t have to wait for the baggage carousel – but as my bag held all my broadcast kit: a satellite transmitter, an ISDN codec, cables, microphones, headphones, an iPad, mic adapters and enough chargers and batteries to keep everything powered up there wouldn’t be much room for clothing.
The first thing I packed were spare batteries. I knew it was going to be a huge problem and so it proved. Major news events such as the Paris shootings move fast and information is released on a continual basis. The old fashioned idea of a ‘news conference’ being held to disseminate facts has disappeared. We kept across streams of news and tips and requests and simple housekeeping information by smartphone. In three days I received more than 800 emails to do with events there. We realised, fairly quickly, that we were going to have to charge our kit as we went along. Not only were we receiving information, we were broadcasting too using our phones to photograph, edit and file, to record audio and video interviews, edit them and file them back to base. I was using my iPhone and iPad to broadcast live on using Luci Live. If we weren’t on air, we were photographing and recording, editing and mixing. Without spare batteries we’d have gone ‘dark’ within the space of a couple of hours as our phones were hammered as we received information and filed audio and pictures.
IP vs Sat
Broadcasting over IP – the Internet – has a number of advantages on moving news events: rigging a sat dish takes about 5 minutes but requires a direct line of sight. My Hughes 9202, for instance, needs to point almost due south. If you can’t “see” the satellite then you can’t broadcast but it also needs a metre of uninterrupted space in front of it for safety reasons. With 35,000 people around me in La Place De La Republique you can imagine how finding a safe spot was pretty hard. TV trucks have the benefit of being a large physical ‘thing’ – they’re imposing vehicles and have the benefit of being covered in logos. But TV trucks have a problem: they have to park and they’re relatively slow to set up and take down. A portable sat dish is quick to rig, small enough to fit in a messenger bag and is self powered by its own, internal, battery. BUT you need somewhere safe to site it. On the face of it, my decision to put it on the top of a wheelie bin might not seem so safe but we were able to surround it by other bins to give us a one metre safety zone and the height allowed the dish to see the satellite in the sky. There was a downside to it that my producer, Sophie spotted before I did: it did smell a bit.
So, why couldn’t I use IP and my iPad to broadcast? Well, with so many of the crowd on Facebook, Twitter and calling friends the networks collapsed. Everywhere we looked people were on smartphones. WiFi would have been an answer but shops (normally pretty decent at letting you share a password in an emergency) were closing early. So, the only solution was satellite and it worked really well.
IP came into its own at other times though. The next day, Thursday, I was sent to Paris’ Grand Mosque. Religious leaders from all faiths were meeting there as a sign of solidarity. I was on my own when the doors to the Mosque were opened and reporters were allowed in. We talked to some of the religious leaders (quite difficult to have an in depth conversation about the role of religion in the aftermath of the shootings but, luckily for me, some of the French journalists on hand spoke much better English than I speak French so I was able to keep up thanks to a whispering journalist who translated everything as we went along!).
One of my programmes wanted a live with me. Given the huge security sensitivities, the idea of pulling out a wire-festooned sat dish, microphone and cans would not have been a good move but I had a decent 3G signal on my phone and was able to slip a pairs of headphones on and link up on Luci Live. Interestingly, whenever I used a speed test app I noticed I was getting much better and faster 3G network speeds than I do in the UK. We were able to broadcast live from inside the courtyard of the Mosque (obviously, though, not from inside the actual body of the Mosque itself).
iPhones for multimedia use
In my idealised, romantic view of the world of journalism and broadcasting I would have spent my days using my iPhone for video: filming as I went along and filing the pictures back to work. Some of the the places we were given access to were only made available to us because of the portable, discrete and ‘non-journalist-looking’ kit we were using. We were able to meet French-Algerian students in cafes, Sophie McDonnell was able to talk to Hijab-wearing Muslim women who chatted to her about the level of abuse they were being subjected to. We were able to get closer to the people we wanted to talk to because the kit we were using was so ‘low-level’.
We didn’t film any of it though. Part of me feels as though I missed an opportunity, that we would have been able to illuminate the story much more if we’d filmed it as well but the reason behind the decision was two-fold: our batteries would have gone flat far more quickly and we needed to spend our time gathering the audio and getting that right, rather than having poorly recorded pictures AND poorly recorded audio. Much of this was down to the compromises with kit we’d had to go with. We didn’t have a laptop for video editing, we didn’t have a car to store equipment, we didn’t have fast enough networks to file video at high speed and and we didn’t have the luxury of time. In 60 hours on French soil Sophie and I broadcast 53 separate pieces on different networks. We took a decision to concentrate on our primary role – TV had enough crews on the ground now and there was no need to think we’d get ‘better’ shots on our phones than the trained camera crews would get with their HD equipment.
Even for networks who didn’t send their own teams there were syndication deals put in place that allowed for material to be bought and shared. Sky managed to get footage, from one such deal, broadcast via LiveU from a car in the middle of the convoy of police vehicles heading down the N2 from Picardy towards Dammartin where the two gunmen were.
We headed up from the other direction, the centre of Paris. We’d managed to drive to the village fairly early and were lucky enough to be allowed to park up with a few other Sat trucks next to a school where children were being kept safe while the siege continued. The number of trucks inside the cordon was nothing compared to the number of vehicles further down the road which weren’t allowed in.
The radio car was the perfect vehicle for broadcasting from. Once in location, Radio 1 Newsbeat’s Duncan Crawford sat in the back seat cutting his pieces on a laptop and presented the programme live from the village, Sophie McDonnell and I alternated reporting for BBC World Service, BBC 5live and the BBC’s Local Radio network – and we were able to do it all at the same time: the VSAT dish was able to pump out three simultaneous live feeds to three separate parts of the BBC. It was another example of where it was best to be pragmatic and not try to broadcast over mobile phone networks – signals were patchy and the amount of traffic being fed over them was heavy. It’s the reason why point-to-point satellite comms are still essential on occasions like this.
The End of the Siege
We weren’t there when it ended. With the rest of the reporters we were kept back about 500m from the industrial park where the two men were shot. We’d seen huge numbers of police and special forces, half a dozen helicopters flying in, specialist tactical vehicles moving into position. And then the shooting started. It was over in a few minutes and we broadcast what information we had. We were getting updates sent to us from some amazing journalists in the BBC’s Paris office who were monitoring and confirming lines before emailing them out to us – another reason why we couldn’t be broadcasting on our phones.. it was where we were getting our information from. The same team were supplying our colleague, Phil Mackie, who had flown in to Paris to relieve us in Dammartin only to find a gunman had attacked a Jewish supermarket in the city and murdered four people out shopping. He was able to broadcast on Luci Live from the scene as ‘seeing’ the satellite was pretty difficult in the area of Paris he was in. With our main presenter, Rachel Burden, anchoring events for us in the city centre we were able to provide radio coverage from the three main sites of the events in Paris using a combination of broadcasting methods – which is, at the end of it all, the best way we could have worked: picking the right tools for the job. A few hours later I was back in Dammartin for 5live Breakfast. My taxi driver managed to convince the Gendarme at the roadblock that I was a local and was allowed to drive me past the building where the siege had ended. A few more broadcasts, a slight hiccup as I dropped my phone in the taxi (with credit cards, driving licence/ID in the same wallet!) only for the best producer in the world – Sophie McDonnell – to arrange for the world’s most honest taxi driver – Richard – to come back to the airport and give them back to me, a reunification with a bag of dirty washing that Rachel Burden rescued for me from a hotel I couldn’t remember sleeping in and it was time to go home.
Inevitably, some of the most disturbing images and footage of the Paris shootings was captured using the devices I extol. Uploaded to Youtube, they showed unedited footage of the shootings and the aftermath. We didn’t capture any of that footage and we certainly wouldn’t have broadcast it. As I said at the beginning of this piece, these were notes captured in the days afterwards to highlight the technical aspects of the ‘send’. With special thanks to the team of people who made the broadcasts in Paris possible. There are far too many for me to name all of them but those who I worked most closely with included radio car operators Jeff Bartrop & Adrian Wheeler, our OB engineer & satellite king, Gary Wisbey, producers Sophie McDonnell, Peter Owen & Phoebe Frieze and reporters & presenters Duncan Crawford, Phil Mackie & Rachel Burden.
Our thoughts remain with the bereaved and those who lost their lives.