It all started so well. It ended disastrously, thanks to a series of barely believable coincidences.
It was a good example of Chaos Theory – the science of surprises and unpredictable events. You’ve probably heard of the Butterfly Effect. The idea is that a butterfly flapping its wings in – say – New Mexico has the power to cause a hurricane in China. If the butterfly had not flapped its wings at just the right point in time the hurricane would not have happened.
My butterfly in this story is an Australian called Wayne. Strap yourself in.
In the 90s I was an Executive Producer at Sky News. There was a small team of us responsible for managing the output of the channel, which operated for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year.
The lifeblood of any rolling news channel is breaking news. It’s what brings in the viewers. The channels have no other programmes to worry about. There are no soap operas, lifestyle programmes or reality shows in the way. A 24-hour news channel can just run one story non-stop, updating every twist and turn as it happens. It can be repetitive if you watch for hours but it’s like that because new viewers are tuning in all the time and they want to be brought up to speed.
The news channels are highly skilled in dealing with the unpredictable. They know how to fly by the seat of their pants, reacting to events as they unfold. The presenters of 24-hour news are paid to be able to deal with this; they are expected to ad lib, repeat information spoken into their earpieces, interview people with little chance for preparation. Sometimes they won’t know who the interviewee is until they start talking to them.
The presenters are the ‘serene swan’ gliding across the screen. The viewers don’t see the swan’s legs paddling furiously beneath the surface.
The clearest example of this happened one day when I was responsible for the afternoon output of BBC News 24. It was promising to be a tedious few hours. There wasn’t much happening except for a speech to the TUC by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. We would show it live and get a reaction afterwards. It would fill a chunk of time even if it probably wouldn’t wrench much of the audience away from Neighbours or A Place In The Sun.
But about 15 minutes before it was due to start we discovered that the outside broadcast truck, which would be beaming Mr Blair’s words to us, had broken down. So that bit of excitement had been snatched away.
As I was explaining all this to my team I glanced at a bank of TV monitors on a corner of the production desk. One of them was showing live pictures from ABC in New York. There seemed to be smoke coming out of a tall building.
I asked a producer to find out what was going on. It was 9/11. The first plane had just flown into one of the Twin Towers.
So here we have the most extreme example of the unpredictable and it underlined a very true adage when dealing with breaking news; nobody has a monopoly of wisdom.
However there is one category of breaking news where that wisdom is widely shared well before the event happens. It is the announcement of the death of a senior member of the Royal Family.
All media organisations have a well-oiled system for dealing with such an event and frequently practise it. So it was on that one day in the 90s Sky News decided to spend a day rehearsing its plans to cover the passing of the Queen Mother. It was called ‘Operation Lion.’
It fell to me to oversee all the rehearsals. There were four teams covering the 24 hours and each one had to run through the procedures as if the death had really happened.
At the time a 24-hour news channel didn’t necessarily broadcast news for 24 hours. At various points in the day there would be a recorded programme shown at half past the hour. It might be a documentary or a current affairs interview.
It was during these recorded shows that Sky News teams would run their rehearsals and it was planned in great detail.
The presenters would change their clothes for something suitably sombre. Black suits and ties for the men, something dark and respectful for the women.
There would be no ad-libbing, just scripts to read, long prepared films to play and experts to interview.
Every rehearsal started the same. One of the presenters would read a script that said: ‘Buckingham Palace has announced the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.’ And we’d move on from there.
Throughout the day, the rehearsals went as well as could be expected considering they were being carried out by a bunch of somewhat cynical journalists, veterans of many a breaking news event, who thought the whole exercise was a waste of time. But the programmes ran smoothly and reassured the senior management that Sky News was well prepared to cover such a monumental national event.
I’d been in the newsroom all day and the final rehearsal was scheduled for 10.30pm. The team covering the evening output had a more serious mindset than some of the other groups and threw themselves into their rehearsal as if it were for real.
And very good it was, too. I left work satisfied with how the day had gone. At 2am my phone rang.
It was the head of Sky News. ‘Can someone tell me what the **** is going on?’ he asked.
Let’s go back to the butterfly called Wayne.
Just as the evening team were running their rehearsal Wayne had arrived to start his night shift as a Videotape Editor. His editing suite was opposite the entrance to the studio where our suitably attired presenters were announcing the death of the Queen Mother.
Wayne heard this and – not realising it was a rehearsal – immediately phoned his mum in Brisbane. The conversation, I later learned, went something like this:
“Hey mum, the Queen Mother’s died.’
“Christ! How do you know, son?”
‘Just heard it on Sky News. It’s on now.’
Wayne’s mum then decided to call her local radio station. She relayed what her son had told her and when asked what he did at Sky News explained that he was an Editor. Not a Videotape Editor, mind.
The radio station called Wayne. The conversation, I later learned, went something like this:
‘Is that Wayne? Are you the editor?’
‘Yep mate, that’s me.’
‘Is it true the Queen Mum has died?’
‘Yep it’s on Sky News now.’ Wayne helpfully held his phone receiver towards the studio where mournful music was being played to accompany images of the not-quite-late Queen Mother.
The Brisbane radio station decided on this rather flimsy evidence, it must be said, to broadcast the ‘news’ that Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother had died.
The radio station was an affiliate of the national broadcaster ABC. The ‘news’ began to spread. It reached the point where the then Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating was about to be briefed.
I don’t know how but almost as soon as it started the whole sorry episode came to an abrupt end.
All of these events had passed me by so I didn’t have much of an answer to my boss’s demand to tell him ‘what the **** was going on.’
A few newspapers the next day – especially the anti-Murdoch ones – gleefully relayed the previous night’s events to their readers.
There was much teeth gnashing at Sky but, ultimately, it had to be accepted that it had all been caused by a series of unfortunate events.
And a butterfly called Wayne.
Know any similar tales of severe miscommunication and accidental rumour-spreading? Let us know in the comments below…
Paul Phillips has been a journalist for over 40 years, had senior editorial roles with the BBC and Sky News and worked in many parts of the world as a consultant and skills trainer. Paul is also a university lecturer specialising in broadcast journalism and TV production.