Disaster recovery 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1682

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

Most of the press reports about the Real IRA’s bombing of BBC Television Centre in March 2001 gloss over what actually happened on screen during the time of the explosion. On the big scale of things it is insignificant when you consider the deaths and injuries that could have happened had the police evacuation of the Stage 6 News Centre not been so swift. But for those of us at home trying to gauge what was going on in White City, viewing into the early hours of Sunday morning was fascinating.

The common summary of the on-screen consequences of the explosion is “BBC News 24 merged with BBC World”. This is true to an extent, but in actual fact the following twenty-four hours had a large number of changes to schedule, studio and presentational style for the BBC’s live television output – i.e. BBC News.

At 2333 on Saturday evening, BBC News 24 presenter Chris Lowe was reading a piece to camera when an enormous amount of shouting could be heard, presumably behind the cameras. To those watching it sounded like a fight off-screen, and after the report ended Chris and co-presenter Gwennan announced to camera that now there would be a special edition of Hardtalk. Checking the EPG confirmed that this was not scheduled, and with a starting time of 2336 certainly not planned. The newsroom staff walking out of the room with coats and bags behind the presenters didn’t give a very healthy indication of affairs either.

At 0000 on the dot, the edition of Hardtalk cut suddenly to “BBC World News”, in what later turned out to be a recorded edition of the BBC World flagship hourly programme. Halfway through the edition changed from 16:9 widescreen to the 14:9 BBC World output stretched into a widescreen-shaped image, and as expected the end of the bulletin at 0025 confirmed that we were watching BBC World – usually unseen by British viewers. No merger of the two channels at all – this was the real thing. With the channel DOGs removed and the output stretched, the channel looked very strange indeed, but viewers were still none the wiser as to why the change.

I myself was about to drop off to sleep when at 0200 a dark image of a car exploding in a street came onto the screen. The camera moves back to reveal it is next to a large, curved building with large glass panels for windows. A voiceover says, “Bomb disposal experts carry out a controlled explosion outside the BBC’s Television Centre in London”. After a few more words, the programme cuts to a head and shoulders shot of the usual overnight News 24/World presenter Susan Osman in a rather dim, grey looking small studio. She reads another headline from a piece of paper in front of her with the headline music underneath her voice completely out of sequence with the different stories. After the final headline she pauses, and looks back up at the camera before we cut into the title sequence, which pauses at the end.

The rather shambolic sequence described above displayed the consequences of the Real IRA bomb better than any news report could. The lack of autocue, adequate studio or proper opening music and titles was explained by the announcement that the broadcast was from the Westminster studios, hence the lack of widescreen. That week’s edition of Ariel confirmed that the overnight team had taken a tape of the 2300 BBC World programme, and the titles were played out from here, explaining the pause at the end. The following programme continued to have news read out from paper scripts and the explosion played out dozens of times, simply because they didn’t have anything else to do. Random employees from Television Centre came on the phone to explain what they saw as well.

Following this programme on BBC World was an edition of Holiday, possibly the only time this will ever be shown within a domestic BBC News presentation. By 0300, BBC One had joined “BBC News” and were showing the channel in the standard 4:3 format, as transmitted around the world, and the team were back in Television Centre with presenter Adrian Finnigan, who had presented the earlier recorded programmes on BBC World and was clearly still present at TV Centre. By 0400 Susan Osman had made her way back to Television Centre, and the channel was now being transmitted as a 14:9 cut of the World output with BBC News 24’s logos superimposed over the top.

At 0527, after the BBC World bulletin ended, instead of BBC World Weather the picture faded back into Susan Osman, who welcomed us to “BBC News” in what was the first broadcast of News 24 itself for six hours. After a brief round up of UK news, a News 24 logo is played out (although Osman is cautiously still referring to the station as “BBC News”), and we get another chance to see Hardtalk from the night before.

From 0600, despite a few widescreen problems at the start, normal service is resumed as far as casual viewers are concerned. The channel transmits from the BBC World studios, but in the style that it does overnight, every night – World News on the half hour, UK round up at half past usually followed by a programme to fill the rest of the hour. Later bulletins announced the joint service at the start of each programme.

Over on BBC One, things have hardly changed. The only noticeable effect is that the news bulletins throughout Sunday are transmitted from the Breakfast news roundup desk, with a plasma screen imported for live reports. This is because Studio 7, where Breakfast (and Working Lunch, Newsround and Newsnight) comes from, is not in the Stage 6 complex that was hit worse by the bomb. Neither is the BBC World News Stage 5 area, which explains the relocation.

By Monday police had allowed the news teams back into Stage 6, with certain areas cordoned off. Newsroom South East was shown to UK Today viewers until 1300, when (as police had allowed news teams back in) BBC News 24 returned to an exclusive service from it’s normal newsroom. BBC News came from its normal studio with a background of monitors rather than the usual newsroom for obvious reasons. The usual background returned at 1800 on Wednesday, although the wooden boards (which can still be seen to this day) at the back of the newsroom hid the mess that was caused by the bomb.

That week’s edition of Ariel, the BBC in-house magazine, announced that security was being stepped up around the BBC (such as staff wearing ID badges at all times, random bag searches and some letterboxes blocked up). It also detailed the exploits of BBC News 24 assistant editor Paul Harvey, who had to force entry into his own house after his keys were trapped in the News Centre.

The magazine also revealed the story behind the now infamous pictures of the bomb actually exploding. The cameraman who filmed the dramatic pictures in Wood Lane that night was Jon Brotherton. “My shift was due to end at 1am on Sunday, and I was just starting to think about going home when the call came through to evacuate the News Centre. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I thought I better take a camera with me just in case. There was lots of police activity and at about 12:15am, the bomb disposal van turned up and sent its robot out towards the taxi, to examine it. The robot appeared to fire something into the vehicle and a few seconds later there was an enormous bang. It was of such intensity that my camera shook with the force of it”. Overnight news editor Laurie Margolis was with Brotherton, and recalls seeing “a fireball that seemed to fill the whole of Wood Lane between TVC and the tube station”.

Having got their exclusive pictures of the explosion, he and Brotherton returned to the main TVC building and called the News Transmission Suite, which had not been evacuated. The NTS sent the pictures down to Millbank, where they were given their premiere less than two hours later at 0200 in the bulletin described above.

The repercussions of the security step-up were visible even to viewers over the coming weeks – the News 24 Budget Special was interrupted by a booming voice from the studio tannoys announcing the evacuation of Stage 6 due to a suspicious vehicle on Wood Lane. Gavin Esler filled for a few seconds after cutting away from the terrified face of the pundit on screen at the time, before relenting and, once again, handing over to Hardtalk and later BBC World. This time, however, normal service resumed within 40 minutes.

If the Real IRA’s intention was to gain publicity, then it couldn’t have done better than targeting the BBC. The explosion was played out across the world dozens of times in the days following the explosion, more so than previous attacks in West London. The staff at Television Centre, however, deserve much credit for the way they kept a plausible and impartial service on-screen throughout what must have been a very eventful night.

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Liverpool, Friday 23 February 2024