'We effectively had the story to ourselves - non-stop coverage'

When I got the call to go to Lebanon I was in the gym with my daughter.

“Can you make a plane to Beirut at lunchtime?” the newsdesk asked.

I wondered why Beirut. I had completely missed the news that morning: Israeli warplanes had bombed the city’s airport.

“Er… I think so. Yes, sure,” I said, desperately trying to hide my ignorance.

It was in fact to be the biggest foreign story of the year, and weeks of intensive live coverage were only just beginning. The BBC was in pole position, with our brand new bureau in Beirut, backed up by staff arriving from our other Middle East outposts such as Jerusalem and Cairo, plus people like me racing in from London.

As the war escalated, there would be many memorable moments of television, but as a live event, there was nothing to match the evacuation of thousands of British nationals from Beirut. Naturally, we wanted to show it as it happened.

A Foreign Office minister had talked it up as the biggest evacuation by sea since Dunkirk.

At first, we heard the Royal Navy didn’t want any live coverage at all. Apparently they thought Al Qaeda might watch the pictures and send boats out to attack their ships. So, when we gathered at the British embassy, to be escorted down to the harbour to watch the operation unfold, it was more in hope than expectation that we took our satellite truck with us.

Of course, as every reporter knows, you make your own luck in this business, and at the very last minute, word came through that we would be allowed – after all – to carry the event live.

We couldn’t help noticing our rivals were there, but without such capability. Sky, for example, only had a videophone, which broke down.

Effectively, we had the story to ourselves – nonstop exclusive coverage of the flight of British passport-holders from a Lebanon rapidly being engulfed by the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

We set up all our equipment just in time to catch the first Royal Navy destroyer coming into port, and the first busloads of British evacuees arriving to get on it. Some were calm, others were crying – relieved to be escaping the danger, but distraught to be abandoning their homes. Coach after coach disgorged the evacuees, and it made the perfect backdrop for our coverage – as they passed our camera position on the dockside, we could grab them for interviews on why they were leaving and what the situation was like in the towns or villages they were fleeing from. To make the tableau even better, the ship’s captain was on hand to give us a news conference on the logistics of the mass evacuation.

I had 20 years of foreign reporting experience to draw on, but I’d only been a presenter for three months. Still, there wasn’t much time to be nervous. The coverage was non-stop. On News 24, we rolled through the five o’clock show and then straight into the Six o’Clock News on BBC One. If, for a moment, there was no one to interview, I just had to keep talking.

Sometimes, I heard myself saying daft things: I asked one evacuee where they were from.

“Kent,” they replied. “Oh,” I said, “I’m from Kent too.” Still, it was live, after all.

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