Staying calm when the heat is on…..
By the time had settled into my job at the Fox News Channel I had sorted out many of the performance challenges I faced in the aftermath of leaving the print media. Some may find this an easy transition. I did not so it took a couple of years for me to really feel comfortable in the studio.
Once I started work at Fox I felt pretty well equipped to handle most situations but I do remember getting a sudden attack of nerves when I found myself next to the legendary Sam Donaldson broadcasting from Tiananmen Square. I had one of those moments when I suddenly absorbed that the ambition had as a young reporter on the Western Mail in Cardiff had been realised. I can honestly say I felt a surge of panic as I heard the producer in New York talking to me. I remembered three things
- No-one could actually see I was nervous. So what the eye didn’t see I wasn’t going to stress over
- I knew the story I was covering very well
- In the final minutes the only hitch could be a technical one. In other words, don’t worry about what is not in your control
In the months and years that followed I covered many distressing stories in all sorts of stressful and dangerous situations. Right up there at the top of the list is the report I did on the September 11 attacks.
Originally, I had been sent to Miami to cover a story on illegal cosmetic surgeons who were operating on kitchen tables, garage workshops; in fact, any where they could lay out a body and charge the earth for procedures that were killing (mostly) women.
We were told the situation was so grave that the Miami police had set up a special squad to raid the premises being used by the cowboy surgeons. We were in the US to follow them for a week.
The funny thing was I had an awful feeling of impending doom and went so far as to tell one of my closest friends, Anne Ashworth of The Times, that I felt dreadful as I waited in the departure lounge at Heathrow.
I arrived a day after the crew, who had already started filming. I was due to join them the next day after their first shoot. I woke in the morning, turned on CNN and heard the news just as the first pictures were coming in. I tried to get my Editor, David Manion and then his deputy, James Goldston (now President of News at ABC). I had no luck so I put a call to the ITV Foreign Desk and spoke to someone who said the only way I could help was to hire a plane. As one senior journalist remarked later he was unlikely to realise that I had done exactly that on one occasion in Asia where I had been a Foreign Correspondent.
Rule 1. In any stressful situation. Ignore any superfluous remarks from people unlikely to help.
I waited for the crew to get back. All their phones were switched off because of the nature of their filming. I sat on the hotel lobby floor along with the rest of the guests watching the tragedy unfold.
Rule 2. Gather as much information on the situation developing around. All information is power.
The crew got back. I phoned my old cameraman and told him to stand by because by then I knew nothing was flying in US airspace along the East Coast. The President had been flown to an undisclosed location.
By then I had raised James Goldston who asked me to drive to NY.
Rule 3. Remain calm when asked to do do what seems almost impossible.
Rule 4. Don’t take any nonsense from people who have to have to support you. Do it firmly and kindly.
We drove for twenty-seven hours to get to New York. The senior producer had forgotten his driving licence and the assistant producer had never driven an automatic car. I did most of the driving – especially the last bit over the George Washington Bridge because I became worried the police would pick us up.
Rule 5. Do everything in stages and don’t think ahead too far. Panicking is a luxury.
We got to the opposite bank which looked directly across to the burning fire.
Just before going live to Jonathan Dimbleby in London I heard the truly disconcerting sound of the Brazilian language in my ear. Apparently someone in London had sold on the end of my satellite to a South American broadcaster.
Rule 6. You are allowed an outburst – and believe me I threatened to fry the entrails of the appropriate person – but limit it to no more than a minute….less if you can manage it.
A second live shot was established. I talked to Jonathan Dimbleby for several minutes and went home to bed.
Rule 7. Do not drink at this point. Phone home when you can. For me it was several days and even then I chickened out of calling my children and phoned my Dad instead.
There is one Golden Rule here. Keep calm and keep moving forward.
Momentum empowers and clarifies the mind.