More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 19

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

I called around the usual people I usually wrote for, but Montserrat was not on the news agendas. They were not encouraging. However, I left some contact numbers and packed an overnight bag, the cameras and the satellite telephone. I reckoned it might a bit of a break and I could maybe do a couple of background features . . .

I flew across the Atlantic quite oblivious to totally unexpected developments on the floor of the British House of Commons. As I flew into Antigua and scoured the harbour for a small boat to ferry me across to Montserrat, the British Commonwealth Minister was addressing the House on a matter of great urgency. According to information received by his department, the island of Montserrat faced the imminent likelihood of “a catastrophic explosion”.

I awoke the next morning to sun and blue seas clearly visible through my bedroom window and, yes, there was the reassuring grey bulk of a British warship offshore. Although I did not know it at the time, this was HMS Liverpool, dispatched by the British government to organise the evacuation of the island. Behind me there was a satisfying plume of grey smoke emitting from Mount Soufriere.

I set up the satellite telephone next to the pool and tucked into a satisfying breakfast of fresh fruit. Then the satphone started to ring. “Hello, Paul. Are you there in Montserrat? Are you OK?” Of course, I appreciated the unexpected concern of the news desk at Sky which came as something of a surprise, until, that is, they told me I was on a breaking news story.

Over the next couple of hours, the satphone rang red hot with orders for ‘pieces’ for radio, TV and the next day’s papers. There were no other journalists from the UK anywhere to be seen. I rubbed my hands with glee. Sky were sending over their No. 1 reporter, Jeremy Thompson but, splendid news, their broadcast kit was too heavy to get onto the small local ferryboat. They would await the arrival of a chartered tug in Antigua.

The next evening, I was observing a small political demonstration seeking more assistance for survivors of the volcano when I noticed a couple of journalistic types freshly arrived from the UK.

There was David Sapsted, from The Daily Telegraph’s New York bureau, and a rather snooty chap from The Times of London, whose name I have failed to commit to memory. David was friendly enough, but the chap from The Times clearly thought that a roving freelance filling in for Sky until the big names arrived, and covering events for the ‘regional’ daily, The Scotsman, was a particular form of low life.

“Look here,” quoth the man from The Times. “We have to have a meeting to discuss how we cover this story.” I looked blankly at him, genuinely bemused. “How do you mean, how we cover this story?” And I added, none too diplomatically: “I’ve been covering it fine until you chaps arrived.”

The representative of The Thunderer looked at me stonily. “We have to agree on the stories we send and when we send them.” He looks around for support from David and tells me the facts of life. “We’re eight hours behind London. So, no stories after midday. The subs don’t like to change the story after the first edition goes. Agreed?”

I pipe up, the apparently naive voice of dissent. “Look, I’m a freelance journalist and I have clients who want my copy any time of day.”

The Thunderer shrugs his shoulders and turns on his heel. And I am left to my own resources. Which I am quite happy about. I am delighted to be told by David that they couldn’t get a decent room anywhere on the island and are staying in a roadside shack vacated by a refugee in exchange for hundreds of dollars. When I tell them I am staying in Paul McCartney’s ‘gaffe’ with a 75-foot pool all to myself, the evident pain on their faces almost breaks my heart.

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