Two decades on from a terrible day, I can’t help remembering – alongside the sick horror – a feeling of professional pride and challenge. Does that make me a monster? I don’t think so.
Thinking back 20 years, to a sunny September afternoon in West London, I’m pretty sure that’s what I thought. And probably for the first and last time in my life, I was sharing a crystal clear thought, in a specific moment, with millions of others.
I was a BBC reporter. I’d been one for two months, working for what was then called BBC News Online – a wonderful little enclave of print hacks feeding copy into the BBC’s news website. I’d been hired following my insistence that there were business stories to be told about white collar crime. In practice, I’d had trouble getting a lot of interest, or traction. It was a little annoying.
And then there I was, sitting in front of one big CRT monitor (yes, it’s that long ago) and two tiny CRT TVs tuned to BBC News 24 and (probably) CNN.
I don’t think I was paying much attention when the first aircraft hit the first tower. I must have seen it. But I was busy. A passing empathetic thought for all those whose lives had been lost in what – I assumed, with so many others – to be an awful accident. (Remember: we were several years past the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Terrorism wasn’t front of mind. The bins may even have been back on the train platforms. What a sweet, brief time that was.) And then back to work.
And then the second plane hit. That terrible sequence that anyone alive that day with access to a TV can instantly remember. I remember it in slow motion: probably the effect of too many playbacks overwriting what, in any case, would have been largely seen in my peripheral vision on those two tiny TVs.
And I, and millions of others, swore. Out loud.
And then the newsroom – Room 4220 in TV Centre, the BBC’s main economics and business newsroom, normally embroiled in the racket of a hundred hacks on deadline – went silent.
Only for a few seconds. But it was deathly quiet.
And then, of course, it was uproar.
Because I, and probably everyone else in the room, knew this wasn’t an accident any more. Someone had done this unthinkable deed. On purpose. And, as for every other reporter whose beat intersected even vaguely with the attack, I knew it was game on.
That this was the time when I found out whether, in fact, I was any good or not.
I read that now, and I feel slightly sick. More than 3,000 people died that day. Some through impact. Some were crushed. Some were burnt alive. Some (and here it’s the stills I remember) threw themselves from the windows dozens of stories up, because – appallingly – that may have seemed better than the alternative.
And here I am, talking about it like it was a test of professional pride.
Here’s the thing. There are some jobs where you spend your time up to the elbows in others’ trauma. Doctors. Coppers. And, of course hacks of both kinds, reporters and barristers. We see people at their worst and most vulnerable moments. The times when life has kicked them in the teeth, and the horrifying truth is dawning that it can still, somehow, get worse.
I don’t know what it says about me that I started my working life in one such trade, and now – after an 11-year detour through regulation and banking – I’ve ended up in another.
But this I know. I don’t feel sick about what I just wrote because I was wrong. I wasn’t – either to write it now, or to feel it then. I feel sick because I recognise that for some people it will be the proof that these jobs (perhaps not the cops and quacks, but certainly the hacks) are indeed monsters. Preying on human frailty for profit.
And yes: some do. More the journalists than the barristers, I like to think. Still, some, of each, certainly.
But not most of us. Police officers I’ve known sometimes talk about the core distinction between them and everyone without a warrant card is they run towards the scream, not away from it. Because it’s the job. Because you get your hands a bit grubby. Because someone has to. And if you’re a halfway decent person, better it’s you than some people you know.
Same for us hacks, of both kinds (although thankfully, usually at least, without the intense physical risks). People get into trouble. Sometimes all by themselves; sometimes because someone’s done it to them. Ignoring it is a lovely privilege for many.
But someone has to notice. To write about it. Or fight it out in the courts, if it gets there. To be their voice.
Not without heart, not without feeling. You have to have those. You have to empathise, or else you really are a monster.
But then you have to get on with the job. Work at it. Try to keep getting better.
And find out, again and again, if you’re really any good or not. Every day.
It’s a bloody privilege.
Might as well be me.
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