Monday, 22 September 2014

GUEST POST: Field producing the Scottish referendum

My former colleague and all round good egg Callum May spent last week in a tent working for the BBC, so I asked him to write a few words about it for publication on this blog. Here are those words:

Guest post starts here

"Journalists use a mildly patronising term sometimes. “Can you go and talk to some real people?” I’ve been asked this by more editors than I can remember. 

Real people are the opposite of politicians, or public officials, or PR types. They are - in many cases literally - the person on the street.

I set off for Scotland four days before polling knowing my main job would not involve meeting many such individuals. The acre or so of grass outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh - normally a public space - had been fenced off and reserved for the most unreal of people, broadcast journalists.

The front of the TV gantry

For every reporter and camera crew making a TV news piece, there are producers and organisers and engineers-in-charge whose job is to make sure big news operations run efficiently.

Often, these people are found behind office desks. I sit near lots of them at Broadcasting House. But when a really big story comes along, they travel to the scene and the entire enterprise is run from temporary buildings and hotel rooms and laptops perched on knees and café tables.

Three colossal gantries were built for TV news crews from around the world to stand in front of the parliament building in Holyrood. Behind them, a hamlet of marquees, Portakabins, and satellite vans formed.

Radio tents at the back. Ahh...
My specialism is radio news, so I was put in charge of a large tent containing two temporary radio studios plus a couple of small internet-connected boxes that allow reporters and guests to speak to almost any radio studio in the BBC.

In fact, the whole thing was connected using the internet. It’s cheaper than using satellite connections, and easier to install and remove than ISDN, or high-quality telephone lines. 

But being a tent, the conditions underfoot were moist and damp. “Grass flooring to deaden the sound,” joked a sound engineer colleague.

Left to right: Ritula Shah, Dan Kelly, Beth McLeod, me.
Preparing for Friday's edition of the World Tonight on R4. Pic: Gillian Dear.
For a week I put on air presenters and guests for programmes ranging from “Today” on Radio 4 to Radio Ulster’s Gaelic programme and the BBC Pashto service. Everyone got on rather well and kept quiet enough not to be heard over each other’s output. 

There was a moment on the Friday morning after the referendum after the when I welcomed the Church of Scotland’s senior minister, the moderator of the General Assembly, to present Thought for the Day on Radio 4. I used a raised voice to ask everyone in the tent for silence while he presented his slot. 

A colleague piped up: “Do we also have to adopt a prayerful attitude?” I think the moderator saw the funny side.

Alex Massie (L) and Lesley Riddoch (R) shortly before being distracted by Alex Salmond.
Another unexpected guest arrived during a discussion on “PM” on Radio 4 between two journalists, Alex Massie and Lesley Riddoch. The first minister, Alex Salmond, peeled back the soggy flaps of the marquee and wandered in quietly. He was waiting for a TV interview on the gantry in front of us. 

Alex and Lesley were, for a fraction of a second, a little flustered. Back in London, Eddie Mair offered: “If he wants to come on he can.” I looked at Mr Salmond. There were three minutes left of the programme and I thought if I asked him to undergo a rigorous examination of his position in 180 seconds things might sound a bit awkward, even with a presenter of Eddie’s brilliance in charge.

I lost count of the Yes and No supporters who came and went from the Holyrood Tent of News over the week. They were all eloquent and good-humoured, despite the muddy conditions underfoot. 
Some of them were even real people."

Callum May

Thank you, Callum. If you want to read my thoughts on meeting Alex Salmond and Scottish independence, click the links. If you want to follow Callum on twitter, do so. He offers some wonderful insights into his job on an almost daily basis.


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