The News war between Nine, Seven and TEN was put to one side last week during the most dangerous days of the Fukushima radiation threat.
News Directors from all three networks shared information on the location of their people and the information they had collated. Sydney News directors Darren Wick (Nine News), Chris Willis (Seven News) and Ross Dagan (TEN News) liaised with one another in the face of an unseen threat.
Darren Wick told TV Tonight he got a call from Chris Willis as networks rose above rivalry to assist one another in order to keep Aussie news crews safe.
“I’d been discussing with Chris Willis and Ross Dagan and we were all trying to make a common sense decision. All of us were letting each other know where our journos and crews were. It wasn’t a case of trying to get the scoop on anyone.
“You’re dealing with radiation. It’s something we’d never dealt with before, it’s an unseen threat, and nobody really had an accurate take on it. The Americans didn’t know whether they were getting accurate information from the Japanese. Nobody really knew.”
A decision was made to get Nine News crews back to a safe distance and out of the disaster zone. Crews for the BBC, BSkyB, CNN, ABC America had all pulled out completely or right back from the frontline.
“It’s against your instincts to pull back from a story, you never see that happen. With the weather you generally know where the front is. With a disaster zone you’re generally going in after the damage has been done. But this was an entirely different thing,” he says.
“We all drive our guys very hard and they drive themselves very hard to get the story. But we had to step back and reassess that the threat was very real and unpredictable. Therefore you’ve got to put the health and safety of your people above everything else.”
By the weekend Nine’s Damian Ryan was safely south of Tokyo in Osaka, and other crews and journos including Mark Burrows, Karl Stefanovic, Tom Steinfort and Nick Etchells had returned to Australia. Nine had been liaising hourly with Foreign Affairs across the week, and Wick had daily flights booked for his staff in case of a complete evacuation.
But there were testing times. As the days wore on the crisis escalated and a sense of panic saw news crews shift from being observers to potentially at risk. Instead of simply documenting a post-disaster earthquake / tsunami, they were in the middle of an emerging one. Crews had to deal with issues of power, petrol, communications, language, weather, transport and radiation just to deliver the story.
“Because there were a lot of power outages that made it difficult in terms of accommodation. The guys would sleep in cars or find an empty hotel room somewhere. But petrol was a real issue,” says Wick.
“Mark Burrows went much further north of Sendai which had been wiped out by the tsunami. Every media crew in the world that was there had exactly the same problem. There was petrol rationing and there was only so much you could go on before there was an opportunity to stock up with more jerry cans. But there wasn’t that much to be handed out.
“We had a real scare when the radiation leak was escalated and we made the decision to get the guys out of the region. The winds were initially blowing very powerfully north of Fukushima that would take them up to Sendai. So we very urgently needed to move them out and it proved a nightmare because obviously everyone else had the same issues with petrol. We had to be very careful about the escape route that they took,” he says.
A Current Affair‘s Tom Steinfort (pictured) was 50km from Fukushima when he had to escape, tackling traffic jams and diminishing petrol supplies. The road out took them closer to the nuclear plant before diverting away.
“Not all of our crew were together because they had been shooting in different areas and they weren’t all answering their phones. Getting them together logistically saw some very tense moments,” Wick explains.
“Bear in mind Japan is 85% mountains so what looks small on the map involves a lot of winding roads. It’s the dead of winter, there’s snow, ice, sleet and frankly they’re driving with fatigue. So it’s pretty emotionally draining at the end of the day.”
But the challnges were universal. Journos for Seven, TEN, ABC and SBS all faced similar challenges.
Wick says that despite the need to abandon the front line, much of the news could still be supplied by international news and NHK World, which he credits as delivering excellent footage throughout the disaster.
But it was a story that tested the best of them.
“After September 11 I never thought we’d see anything of that magnitude again. We had the Asian Tsunami but we only saw the aftermath. With September 11 we saw the planes go into the buildings and here we saw the Wave,” he says.
“As a News Director I’m very proud. I’m amazed at what they can do and what they get out of there. But we’re observers -there are tens of thousands of people over there in crisis.”
Now there is consideration for the stress and trauma that has been experienced by news crews, whose charge of delivering major stories in the last three months may have affected some emotionally.
“We have a very good HR process at Nine with counselling available, in fact we encourage it. In addition the guys who come back from Japan were also encouraged to be tested for radiation levels to see if there’s a problem,” says Wick.
“For the reporters, the camera crew and technical people it’s in their face everywhere they look. They are feeling it far more than we are. They’re hearing stories of absolute trauma. There must be an overpowering sense of hopelessness at the sight of the devastation and that’s got to be pretty tough to deal with.
“Everybody’s different but I don’t think you can get used to that stuff. But I hope we never do. I hope we always are affected by it. I think that’s what makes our people good reporters, because they do feel it.”