It was the open handbag that really sent a shiver down my spine. Standing on a beach in Galle, Sri Lanka, just a few days after the Asian tsunami of 2004, I glanced down during a live broadcast and noticed a small brown bag, the clasp open, the contents strewn next to me. A purse, a powder compact, a few pens, all the private bits and pieces of a life which are so personal to a woman. The woman who’d been swept away by a wave, whose name I never knew, because I couldn’t bring myself to look for it. Somehow, that image was more profound and unsettling than seeing the rows of bodies that washed up, later.
Reporting on tragedy is part of the job. As a rookie reporter in Liverpool, nearly two decades earlier, I’d interviewed survivors coming back from the Hillsborough disaster. Their stories, told while still in shock, were gabbled into a tape recorder and broadcast on local radio before they’d even had time to comprehend what had happened.
Every city I worked in after that, whether it was Manchester, Leeds or Sheffield, had a similar way of working, from large scale disasters, to shootings and road traffic accidents, as one of the youngest, keenest and probably most naïve reporters, I was often out there first, grabbing eye witnesses or relatives of victims, to shove them on air. Now, I shudder to think what kinds of questions I asked, what level of insensitivity I might, unwittingly, have shown.
It is the instinct of a journalist to show the unvarnished truth of an event; hovering over suffering and snatching portraits of grief, in order to try to convey a story as accurately as possible and get a visceral reaction. There’s an old, rather disturbing adage from American TV news; “If it bleeds, it leads”. Any feelings of guilt, for asking an intrusive question, or filming someone else’s horror, are suppressed until the job is done. Once home, uncomfortable memories are often filed away, not to be laid bare and unpicked.
But that image in Sri Lanka and nearly two years later, those I saw following the Pakistan earthquake, made me question my role and changed the direction of my life and career.
I was broadcasting live, from the rubble of that earthquake, in Muzzaffrabad, with activity behind me, as rescuers picked through the remnants of someone’s home.
It was on the lunchtime news, while I was updating viewers on casualty figures, aid attempts and charity donations, that I began to hear shouts, followed by gut-clenching moans of sorrow, over my shoulder. I didn’t look round until I’d handed back to the studio. When the cameras stopped rolling, I turned to see what the viewers had witnessed: a group of young men standing, wailing, heads in their hands, having pulled their mother’s body from the wreckage of their home. I suddenly felt intrusive and insensitive.
Being there, felt like being mired in hell – but someone else’s hell, which I could leave behind. The sickly smell of bodies, disease and diarrhoea, dogs feeding on death, it was the very depths of human misery. I spent hours washing my boots, even when the detritus had long gone. When I returned to the comfort of my family, I said little about what the experience was like. Talking about it seemed self indulgent.
My husband says I cried, unexpectedly and repeatedly, without explanation. At work, back on the BBC Breakfast sofa, it was all smiles and interviews with soap stars. If anyone had asked me if I wanted to discuss it, or seek help, I’d have said no.
It wasn’t until many years later, after the death of my Mother, Kathy, that visions from the earthquake and the earlier tsunami, unexpectedly returned, strongly and vividly. My Mum had terminal cancer and had died within months. Her illness was unexpected and catastrophic; her death robbed me of my best friend and confidante. Again, I went back to work quickly and tried to box away all the emotions. But at night, I couldn’t stop them emerging. Images returned of that beach in Sri Lanka, or I’d wake up remembering the smell in Muzaffrabad. I couldn’t understand why personal grief was stirring up memories from years ago and decided to learn more about it.
Apparently, I’d experienced a fairly typical, delayed reaction to an initial traumatic event. Research suggests most people exposed to them, do not go on to develop long-term problems, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Certainly, there are many, who have put themselves in far greater danger and have seen many more disturbing things than I, who never develop symptoms of PTSD. But posttraumatic illness can happen to those experiencing or witnessing horrific events and it needs to be spotted early.
To better understand how the mind works and also, how to support colleagues, I volunteered to train as a Trauma Assessor with the BBC and decided to embark on an MSc in Psychology. Others on the trauma scheme included the former head of the BBC’s Bagdad bureau, a war reporter and a foreign news manager and our teacher was an ex-Royal Marine. He taught us a system, which has been used by the Army for decades. It’s called Trauma Risk Management (TRiM). As part of a volunteer team, I would be trained to talk to a colleague who’d returned from a distressing event and look for risk factors, acute patterns of stress and unusual behaviour, beyond what is considered “normal”. It may be a persistent change in mood, sleep, alcohol intake, or a feeling of blame and shame, even a violent physical reaction when reminded about the initial, distressing experience. Follow-up interviews see how they cope a month later and beyond.
When the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) published guidelines on dealing with trauma eight years ago, the advice was clear. Debriefing sessions, focusing on the event itself, can re-traumatise those involved. Better, for the first few months, to try this “watchful waiting” approach, instead.
It works. Parts of the NHS have now adopted the scheme, as have some fire brigades, paramedics and police forces. They need it more than most, they are usually the first on the scene, with reporters scurrying along behind. Those of us who covered the Paddington rail disaster in 1999, recall that one of the most unsettling noises in the aftermath, was the silence, followed by the ringing of mobile phones. On and on they went, one could only imagine the desperation at the other end of the line. Families who’d heard what had happened on the news, phoning, with sickness in their hearts when the call rang out. We thought about the rescue teams who’d been there for hours, picking through the wreckage to try to find survivors and what they must have heard and seen there, whether they wanted to pick up those phones, what they would say. Journalists arrive to observe the horror; the emergency services have to wade through it.
Those emergency crews, as well as the military and the media, who are all exposed to profoundly upsetting events, sometimes feel it’s a sign of weakness to seek help, that there’s a stigma attached to psychological distress. There is, too, that feeling of guilt. In my industry, we can walk away from tragedy after our job is done. Many cannot. We can get help if we can’t shake off disturbing flashbacks. Those caught up in it have to live with the ghastly reality. It sometimes feels wrong to admit you have been affected, too.
But everyone who witnesses a disaster – the emergency teams, the media, even the audience, can experience some degree of trauma.
Think of those recent graphic images from Syria. A child convulsing, apparently having inhaled poisoned gas, or rows of tiny, shroud-wrapped bodies – whether the pictures scream at you from the front page of a newspaper, or in a television headline sequence, there’s little doubt that they’ve been chosen, to force you to think of the atrocities taking place.
Sometimes, a TV reporter or presenter will preface images with a warning about them being upsetting, or distressing. Recently, just before the BBC One o’clock News went to air, we were watching news agency pictures from a rail crash in Spain, in which dozens of people died. The CCTV footage showed the train ploughing into a wall at high speed; it was the very moment of death. There was a debate in the newsroom about whether we should show the film in the headlines. It was powerful and arresting, other networks were running the images, we didn’t want to “sanitise” the news. But we decided not to, “it’s lunchtime during the school holidays” and we made sure that the subsequent report, which included it, had, what’s called, a “health warning”. Some things are too distressing to show viewers, without letting them know what to expect.
Certainly, as reporters, we’ll keep asking questions of those involved in major events, because we know it’ll make a good headline, but what responsibility do we have, to protect them and their mental health as we keep mining for the “precious metal” of an individual, as the brilliant US journalist Studs Terkel once described it?
I remember doing a very personal interview with David Rathband, the policeman shot and blinded by the gunman Raoul Moat. He spoke to me candidly, revealing his deepest emotions; it was as though he was going through counselling, on-air. We saw each other on a number of occasions afterwards and he was pleased with what we had done, yet I always felt uneasy, that maybe I had dug too deeply. When he committed suicide, a few years later, I thought about those he had spoken to, publicly. Did he consider us as friends, rather than journalists? Should we, could we, have done more to understand his state of mind?
During the first year of my psychology studies, I researched the responsibilities we have towards the more vulnerable people we interview and I’m starting to think about a subject for a thesis for the final part of the Masters degree, looking at the effect of trauma on individuals. I still feel a world away from being a “proper” academic, a good few qualifications from ever being a practicing psychologist, but I hope what I’m learning, as a volunteer and as a student, might help as a broadcaster.
It was the deaths of three women which changed the way I look at the world: one was my Mum, the other was a mother in Pakistan and the third was someone I never knew, whose handbag was washed up on a Sri Lankan beach.
Next week, I start the last year of the MSc. I’ve got my books ready, bought my new pens and am excited about where it might lead. Who knows – but at least I’m beginning to think differently about what I ask, what I show, perhaps, even what I do.