The words that added tears

Media - Bill Hagerty on how British journalism conveyed raw emotion

The tabloid production executive was enjoying a day off and on his way to Sainsbury's when his mobile telephone trilled in his pocket. "You'd better get to the office," said a familiar voice. "Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center in New York."

As he abandoned his shopping and headed for work, the executive contemplated how, on occasion - damnable, horrific, world-shaking occasion - the essence of journalism could override the fierce competition that has transformed the trade into a rat race. The call had been from a friend with an equally senior job on a rival title.

As with every sudden major catastrophe of the past, from the assassination of Kennedy to the Harrods bomb to the carnage of Dunblane and Omagh, journalists stopped doing whatever they were doing to do what they are meant to do. The result is, and again was, journalism of the highest quality, produced at high speed with an eye on the clock and, for many, a lump in the throat. Journalists, despite rumours to the contrary, are people too.

I can remember hearing the thump and the rattle of the office windows when the Harrods bomb exploded. There were few dry eyes on the Sunday Mirror editorial floor when the pictures and eyewitness reports began flooding in. But the work was unaffected - emotion acts as a fuel injection to a mixture of tragedy, speed and technical expertise to help produce great journalism.

The cataclysmic events in the United States did that, and in the historic editions of the following morning it was raw emotion - words adding more tears to those already shed over the sledgehammer blows of the television coverage - that separated the merely excellent from the truly memorable. There were fewer British reporters on the streets and avenues of Manhattan than there were a decade ago - cost-cutting has reduced once mighty American operations to one man (or woman) and a laptop - but it was those filing from within sight of the twin towers who struck the most heartfelt chords.

Because of this, the normal superiority of the broadsheets in such situations was eliminated. Their size enabled them to display the pictures with greater impact, but these were images that were flickering non-stop on our television screens. When it came to words, the tabloids more than matched the broadsheets for emotive prose.

It would be invidious to criticise any of the work that showed why, when Posh and Becks are temporarily consigned to the wastebasket, British newspaper journalism across the board is the best in the world. But it was those eyewitness accounts that will remain lodged in the memory long after the facts, the analysis and the comment are forgotten.

For all the thousands of words packed into the Times, including some fine reporting from New York by James Bone, nothing conveyed the full horror and fear of the destruction as well as Brian Flynn's highly personal reporting in the Sun. Flynn, so new to the New York job that he hadn't yet found an apartment, filed outstanding copy ("Many just sink to the floor, their heads in their hands, and weep into the pavement"). He and the paper's powerfully presented leading articles, including a stern reminder to readers that "Islam is not evil religion", helped it journalistically to wipe the floor with its tabloid opposition - and its in-house, socially superior cousin, too.

Lee Brown of the Mirror was there when "grown men cried and others were sick in the street". The Express's Laura Ives, in a piece that made up in emotion what it lacked in style, captured the sheer terror - her own - with: "I am really scared. I realise that the second tower is coming down, but I don't know if it has already fallen or if it is going to crash right on me."

Some of the broadsheets also had their talented foot soldiers. Sarah Sands, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph and on holiday in New York, filed from downtown, reporting how a question was repeated through the watching crowd: "Are we safe? Is this war?" In the Independent, the lone-bylined Rupert Cornwell did a terrific job in pulling the whole story together (the Express credited 28 reporters on its main piece), but it was David Usborne's moving eyewitness account - recalling, as the first of the twin towers began to crumble, his Lego towers toppling during childhood - that would have touched even the coldest heart.

There were many brilliant pieces in the days that followed. The Guardian's new Washington correspondent, Matthew Engel, filed on Tuesday, then hopped on a train to base himself in New York from Wednesday onwards. Together with, among others, Ian McEwan, who wrote an especially magnificent front-page piece the following Saturday, Engel helped show how the Guardian's investment in writing talent puts it way in front of the other broadsheets when the journalistic chips are down.

The Sunday papers, too, with time to reflect and prepare, produced momentous editions that, along with their daily counterparts, will be stored in cupboards, lofts and cellars so that succeeding generations can dip into them unbelievingly and try to make some sense of the past.

All those who had a hand in producing the newspapers of 12 September 2001 can feel proud of their skills and professionalism. They will never forget that day, but then none of us will. And for all the fine words, those imprinted indelibly in my consciousness are the pieces from Flynn and Brown and Sands and Usborne and Ives. And those of the Press Association's Hugh Dougherty, embraced by the under-resourced Daily Star as their "man on the scene", who recalled: "As I walked down Broadway, New York's main thoroughfare, a man came up to me and said, in tears: 'Have you seen my kids? Have you seen my kids?' "

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win