Re-living the day when made-for-television terrorism was bornby Murray Sayle / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Where were you when you heard about the massacre of the innocents in New York and Washington? I was in bed in Japan, reading a new book about Vietnam. The phone rang. It was my son, Alex, calling from Sydney. “Turn on the telly, Dad” he said. “You’ll see why.”
I did and joined several billion others, glued to the endless rerunning of those unforgettable clips, planes crashing into landmark skyscrapers in New York, smoke pouring out of the even more iconic Pentagon in Virginia, politicians jostling to get their faces onto the box with defiant, fight-them-on-the-beaches soundbites-images we have already filed alongside Princess Di’s fatal underpass and President Kennedy’s last motorcade. I turned to my wife, Jenny. “What’s the date?” She looked at a bedside newspaper. “September 12th here; in New York, September 11th.” “Uh-huh,” I said. “Here we go again.” For me, 31 years had just rolled away.
I am standing among a mob of journalists on a desert airstrip outside Amman, Jordan. The date is 12th September 1970, and I have a comfortable three days before the deadline of my then employer, the Sunday Times. I am about to witness something new: the world’s first made-for-television news story.
War by television was already struggling to be born in Vietnam, where I had spent most of the previous four years. Hobbled by primitive equipment, straining to look the part, the box men seemed like actors, playing what we print journalists actually were: observer/participants trying to make sense of what we saw, with the writer’s luxury of at least a few hours to gather our thoughts. We did notice that the Vietcong seemed to have a shrewd grasp of television news schedules in New York, especially towards the end of the war, when live footage from the battlefield became practical. In our innocence, we thought we were the real reporters; television was show business. But we were seeing a new kind of asymmetrical war, in which the weaker side on the ground bypasses the stronger, exploiting technology to impact directly on hearts and minds on the other side. No one wrote about that, and television, the least self-critical of media, still hasn’t grasped how easily it can be hijacked by terrorists.
Cut (writers started using television terms about that time) to Jordan in “Black September,” 1970, where the perpetually fractious elements of Yasser Arafat’s PLO were training a…