Looking Back on Disaster
Founded twenty-five years ago this month, Disaster Action has helped to reshape how the British political and legal systems respond to the needs of victims and survivors of public tragedies. In this edited interview, Pam Dix and Anne Eyre discuss their experiences with such disasters as Hillsborough, Lockerbie and the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and its relevance for journalists covering the still unfolding aftermath of such events.
An oil rig explodes, a tsunami erases a shoreline, or a school disappears under a mudslide. Mention a public tragedy, and our thinking first speeds to a vivid image of the incident itself. The second beat is usually a question, one that is harder to form a clear picture of: will people get over this, indeed, can they?
This quick-leap between image A and question B may have a more tenacious logic to it than we realise. Even when it comes to the writing of the anniversary story, one, five, or ten years on, the same mental mechanism can be at work. The reporting may get jammed on those primary beats, "what happened on that day itself?" and the end-result, "are people OK now?"
The intervening stages, and the significant variability in how those affected experience them, can get squeezed out. The inquest, the behaviour of the authorities, the reactions of friends, public opinion, and the cyclic waxing and waning of interest in the media all present particular challenges. It is not just the brute impact of the event, or personal psychology, but also society’s response to it that influences the narrative. How a tragedy plays out is a longer, more varied and more twisting path than many imagine.
Disaster Action is a UK-based umbrella organisation of advocacy groups, whose members span 29 separate disasters from across the world. Last year the charity decided to wind down its active advocacy work, and refocus its website as a repository of testimony and advice. Their collective experience highlights just how hard it is for people not affected by disasters, journalists and the public, to understand fully what it is like to have one’s life turned over by a sudden ensnarement in a disaster.
In this transcript, the Dart Centre’s Gavin Rees talks to Anne Eyre, a survivor of the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium Disaster and Pam Dix, who lost her brother Peter Dix in the bombing of flight Pan Am 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, about their experience, reflected in their book, Collective Conviction: the Story of Disaster Action. The interview is edited to reflect an unfolding conversation and the following themes emerged:
- How officials and the public have tended to divide survivors into “good” and “bad” victims.
- Why we should all drop the word “closure” from both our vocabulary and our thinking, and, instead, appreciate how people integrate troubling experiences into their lives.
- Why understanding the sociology of a disaster situation is key to understanding its impact
- Why the need to find answers is so important for many of those affected despite the potential the quest has to intensify the burden.
- “The washing machine effect”: how advances in digital technology can keep the story alive in ways that can be destabilising for those affected.
- Changing attitudes toward privacy in the age of social media and the need to think through the handling of traumatic images from disaster scenes.
- The logic of compensation claims and why they are rarely just about the money.
- The hidden commonalities between advocacy groups and investigative journalists, both in terms of purpose and the potential for personal impact.
- What to bear in mind when covering anniversaries. (Also excerpted here as a separate guide.)
Gavin Rees: What did it take to identify the need for Disaster Action as an organisation?
Pamela Dix: In the late 1980s there was a series of disasters. All very different from each other in origin and cause. But one person, who had been affected by the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987, saw that the disasters had particular common features: A lack of accountability, lack of justice, lack of the telling of the full story of what had happened. People felt very unsupported; and when they had direct personal experience with the criminal and civil justice systems they saw how it let people down.
We would fill a gap. There was no one to represent the interests of the people on the receiving end of disaster. We came together on three principles: accountability, support and prevention. We created an umbrella association, whose membership consisted of individuals who were within their own family and survivor support groups, who for example might be campaigning around air safety, or rail safety.
GR: In your book, Collective Conviction, you identify a gulf, between what the public, and in that I am including the media and the authorities, thinks the needs of bereaved and survivors should be, and the realities. For me reading it is an exploration of discovering what that gap is.
PD: Both of us will want to say quite a lot about this - it’s a very important aspect. We felt that the perception of us, as survivors and bereaved people, was as helpless victims who could not make any choices for themselves, who were then entirely disempowered by this perception of helplessness, one that was at that time also promulgated by the media, as well as by the authorities.
There was also the perception that you had to be an incredibly brave person. We felt praised if we behaved with dignity and restraint; and, if we spoke too loudly and asked too many questions, we were dismissed as hysterical or unhinged people by everyone in authority, across the board.
Anne Eyre: I think for those in authority, dealing with the difficult aspects of managing an incident, it’s much easier to have a good victim, rather than what might be seen as a bad victim, often labelled a ‘difficult family’, an angry individual. It feels to us that the media often wants to tell the human story that includes a stereotype of the helpless, the angry or the brave, forgiving victim.
GR: A simplified caricature…
AE: Maybe that says something more about society’s needs not to address the harsh reality of what it means to deal with the private experience of death in a public and collective setting.
The founding incidents happened in quick succession in the 1980s; we were only just starting to identify and to really understand post-traumatic-stress, etc. Sometimes the authorities would go from the extreme of doing nothing, to exaggerating the expectation that people wouldn’t cope or expecting that everyone wouldn’t be resilient which again is not the case, as we know. There was a lot of misunderstanding and imbalance.
I came to the organisation in 1996, seven years after I was a survivor from Hillsborough. And at that time I was trying to find information to help me understand why I was still affected by it. I looked at psychology books and there it was talking about PTSD, which I didn’t have - most people don’t. These books referred to how people may be affected up to one, three, even five years after the event. I can tell you, 25 years later sitting here, I’m still affected by it, and I don’t have PTSD.
The lack of understanding by the public and others was partly because of the state of knowledge at the time around traumatic grief, and survival. But it also fit in with what was more comfortable for organisations and society at large in confronting what are tragic, often randomly experienced events, where people come to harm while going about their daily business: traveling, going on holiday, going to work, watching football. This tearing apart of normality is a difficult thing personally to experience, but it’s hard for society too, for those observing through the media. It’s easier to pigeonhole, to stereotype, to distance oneself from these events: “It’s them, not us.”
GR: One word that comes up again and again in this is the word “closure.” The belief that the narrative can or should be tidied up. Perhaps, we in the media also suffer from a tendency to see being affected as a binary thing. Either you have PTSD or you don’t, either you’re cursed or you’re not, either you are moving forwards or you are moving backwards. I am wondering what would it take to have more nuanced perspectives on individual experiences?
AE: That binary approach comes partly from a need to have clear bureaucratic cut-offs. For example, for access to compensation, there has to be a formula, and so too for access to a disaster fund, or trauma therapy. The reality is that the impact of the event is much broader than the categories we have to come up with for all sorts of reasons.
For me, partly as a sociologist and partly as a survivor, understanding trauma is not so much about understanding individual pathology. It’s about understanding the broader context in which people are caused to suffer, or did suffer, and the consequences of going through all the post-incident processes.
It’s not individuals that are pathological in having an experience that affects them – there are normal reactions – the question is more about how the complexity of society causes people to suffer.
So rather than talk about ‘Complicated Grief’ - or ‘Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder’ which is a more recent label - I talk about ‘complicated death’. Take for example, death involving a post-incident investigation, if you don’t have basic answers to questions like: What has happened? Why it happened? How it happened? How my loved one has suffered? Why I was in this position of a survivor?
Then those are sticking points and aspects of the investigative processes through which the trauma is likely to be experienced and re-experienced. It is the situation that is key. It is also in the nature of our legal system that these are often contested truths.
PD: To come back to your question on closure - I think there is this expectation that things can be tidy. As news viewers, we move on from one incident to another. Somewhere around the world there’s a catastrophe happening as we speak now, another is going to happen tomorrow. The media spotlight moves on. But that shifting of attention is very different for the people directly affected by each incident.
For us the story continues. We all have a very personal time scale, it may be one year, three years or four, but that will be very different, for me, for Anne, and it would be different for you. But that truth isn’t easy to integrate, or write about in the normal headline experience, or for the journalist who has to cover the next thing and try and close off the previous thing that happened.
The restoration of normality that people often refer to is one that bereaved people or survivors can find difficult. Because it is not the old normality they return to, but, as Anne and the American Red Cross describe it so well, “a new normal”. It’s not closure but it’s acceptance of some kind, an integration within your life.
As one of our members once memorably described: if he loses his daughter at 19 in an incident, it’s not an illness from which he recovers – he will always have the limp; but he will be getting out of bed and carrying on. You go forward with that experience, you carry it with you. It is a delicate thing.
AE: I agree. There is no tidiness to traumatic experiences. They can be re-triggered even if one “recovers”. Many major incidents are complicated in terms of going through political, legal processes, which all follow their own timetables: There is legal time, social time, anniversary time.
Incidents also come back into the fray because another similar incident has – or is made to have – a simplistic connection to help make a story. Another football tragedy, for example. These references and revisiting can also bring back the trauma.
Because of technological change, we have access now to accounts – audio, visual, written and others – that were always there but not always available. Again – sorry to use a personal example – what we’re seeing with Hillsborough, which is being reviewed all over again, is new information, video material from the day of “my disaster” [laughs] and details which I had never seen before which were used at the inquest.
You may be getting answers to questions for the very first time, 20 to 25 years later, you may experience being listened to for the first time, which may be at the same time cathartic, yet also traumatic in itself – for instance, if there have been issues with trust or blame by the authorities and you have learned to cope by learning not to trust.
This applies to institutional abuse, and cold case reviews, as much as to disaster. The trauma is as alive as ever. Personally I have been as traumatised in the last couple of years because the Hillsborough experience has been re-opened legally and in the media, as I was on Day Three after the disaster. That was when the secondary trauma started, thanks to the Sun newspaper, actually.
So how can we use the notion of chronological time when you’re not only dealing with something but also understanding it almost for the first time many years later? It’s much more like, a washing machine or a centrifuge – you’re dealing with some stuff that was there before, some of it you’re revisiting, some stuff you’re reconstructing, some stuff you’re reconstructing and constructing at the same time, because it’s being renegotiated, for instance, because other people have owned your account or dismissed it. Nothing is chronological, or uni-dimensional, it’s much more complicated than that. No wonder it leaves you feeling wrung out.
GR: There seems to be a strange two-way process happening the deeper you get into the story, into investigating what happened, and seeking truth and accountability, the more the burden increases, because you have all this material coming up. But at the same time this is something that individuals appear to be compelled to do, and that is partly because it also provides relief as well.
PD: That’s a very important thing you put your finger on. Sometimes people have asked us – Why did you carry on? Why didn’t you stop? Perhaps, because it’s affecting your family life, as they see it, from the outside. Or perhaps the pressure to stop investigating comes from inside the family, for instance, where a father who lost one child in a disaster, then has two others, who are sort of saying “what about us?”
I remember, one person saying to my mother: “Well at least you have three other children”. The suggestion was that she should get over the loss and focus on us remaining three instead. And she replied, “Which one of your children could you afford to lose?”
Whereas, the outside world might be thinking, “You’re putting yourself through all this. Why are you doing that?” Why does the parent of a murder victim sit through the whole trial, where you hear all this stuff? Surely that is too dreadful to do. But it is only when you are in that position that you think: “Well, I need to know.”
There is a way in which doing that kind of thing also does make you feel better. People feel relieved in some way because they are involved with it, especially if they are enabled to participate, and given choices to be informed and involved. I think that it does lighten the load. It’s a double-edged thing.
We really didn’t have a choice, it was like an organic, evolving mission to ask questions. If you felt that the questions were not forthcoming, when answers were being withheld, it made you drive further on.
Some people choose to be entirely private about this experience, and they will close the door – not on the experience itself – but they do not want to discuss it with other people, even ones directly affected, and certainly not with the media, or government, or the police, or others.
What we have learnt as a collective organisation is that it’s fine to either ask those questions or not. We emphasise the principle of ‘informed choices’ in these matters.
Within Disaster Action
s we’ve had no hierarchy. Everyone has an equal right to sit around the table. That is a very liberating experience. We are all equal. But within the hierarchy of society we are not all equal. If you child is killed, that is considered worse; the next worse is considered to be if your spouse is killed, and so on down the line.
One more other thing about time-scale here: I wasn’t in Scotland when Lockerbie happened. But some time later I remember vividly being on the way to Wales for a holiday. I got out of the car when a low flying jet went by and I dived to the ground. Now 27 years later I will not dive to the ground when a low flying aircraft goes over. That’s not going to happen. But when the story hits the media again, like with Lockerbie a couple of nights ago, and suddenly the pictures are there, the headlines are there, and it’s on the BBC; that is extremely impactful. You’re really transported back into it.
It comes back to your sense of responsibility. The pressing responsibility that we felt we bore to ask questions on behalf of those who couldn’t ask them themselves, and on behalf of people yet to be affected, who have no conception of this kind of experience
That sounds like a very high-minded sentiment. We didn’t know that we had it! My sense of responsibility returned the other night, because I felt that I hadn’t done enough to find out what happened. And somehow that’s my fault. That’s a very hard thing to bear really. And then you retreat, of course, because you can’t maintain that level of intensity. You have to walk away from it to some degree.
AE: I can’t speak for other people, but I think the “why don’t you stop?” question comes because people don’t want to see the pain you’re going through, and want you to stop. But I sometimes feel like I can’t stop until I start. I can’t start until I know what this was about. It comes back to those fundamental questions of understanding what has really happened and why.
This links in with trauma and grief: Until you can get an account of what happened, you can’t start to make sense of it. And I’m still making sense, because although I knew what the truth was when it happened, it got taken away, stolen and reconstructed. So I have to re-start looking at the truth.
This time around with the Hillsborough Inquest, I want to run away a hundred miles from it. In one way I don’t want to be waking up every day and looking at the inquest transcripts, which I have the privilege to do these days through technological advances – I can see it all on the local newspaper’s website. But then again, I feel guilty for not following it the whole time because for 10 or 15 years I was campaigning for this very process to take place. In many aspects, this sense of not being in control is what runs through the whole experience of disaster.
GR: In your book you offer useful guidelines for how the media might work more effectively with victims and survivors. Nevertheless, when I was reading it, what struck me was that the amount of criticism at inappropriate media conduct is quite limited within the corpus of all the things that you flag up and recommend solutions for. But what does come up again and again is a sense of betrayal when official power doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. That seems to generate a lot of campaigning energy.
PD: We have been trying to get together those experiences of families who have been very much let down, by say, as they see it, political systems or political expediency. We are always cautious of using the word blame. We look for responsibility, accountability.
Interestingly, some of those affected by natural disasters have occasionally talked about the fact that they haven’t had that possibility of being able to look for someone who is responsible. There is no one responsible when the waves came and took their family members or left them traumatised and physically or psychologically hurt. It’s a complex thing when you don’t have a sense that there might be a responsible chain. It is challenging too of course when you do.
For Lockerbie for example, we considered the responsibility of the chain of command of people who actively decided to do this thing, and then those who through a combination of omission and commission allowed it to happen. There are layers of responsibility around that, which are very challenging.
AE: I wanted to comment on the point about the focus in the book on the media. Is the media friend or foe? I don’t know what journalists or the public think about that but for me, it just felt a bit old-hat to rehash all of that.
And maybe there was an element in my disaster, Hillsborough, that it was too personal to revisit the topic in that way because it was such a huge, huge aspect of it.
I think it is indicative of how we’ve responded to so many of our experiences collectively within Disaster Action that when there is an issue we try to focus on what is the good to come out of this? What can we do about it? So we turned the dialogue about what to do about the media into a leaflet. We produced guidance for students and journalists about how to approach people.
An example of a common encounter for us was being approached by a journalist who’d already written their story. For example they’d be telling us that they were “looking for a sixteen-year-old who fell in love with her rescuer”. And that’s not an exaggeration! So we’d turn our response into a leaflet rather than shout: “Why do they do this?!”
The last guide we produced was on how the media handles traumatic images from disaster scenes. That leaflet came out of seeing your own private experience, and those of others, being regarded as fair game for coverage. Even if it’s allowed within the regulations of certain media outlets, there is a moral and ethical position to be had.
My starting point has always been: “Imagine it was you!” That is because I have been the one sitting there and seeing images of my disaster published ad lib and seemingly without any ethical reflection. Again, “the media” or the wider society takes differing views at different times about what is appropriate and what isn’t.
With social media and a younger generation that has a different understanding, from say me, of what privacy and dignity means, there needs to be so much more dialogue around what is ethical and appropriate. So we did another leaflet on anonymity, privacy and confidentiality. The fact that information or an image is ‘already in the public domain’ is not a good enough justification to reproduce it. If someone is already damaged through media exposure or detail being in the public domain, he is just going to be damaged twice.
GR: What should we bearing in mind, then, now in a world where images are much more readily accessible than they were in the past?
AE: On my way here I was thinking about this. I’ve been saying recently to people - rantingly! : “Young people don’t know what privacy and dignity means.” And I do think that’s the starting point. One generation after mine – do they know what privacy means and how invading it causes damage? Why should they? They’ve grown up in a different world from me.
And then I was thinking, well, actually they would and they do understand, for example, when we hear people talk about sex, porn and tweeting certain images that are deemed unacceptable. So there are notions of privacy, and therefore of what is appropriate and what is not.
So what is the standard by which we judge? In my work lecturing on the social policy dimensions of disaster response, I have always considered: “If I was sitting in a presentation and it included details about my loved one, when is that justified and would I want that detail to be shared there?” I appreciate there is a debate around that, and an interest in sharing information for a purpose. As a journalist looking at it, perhaps you might say there’s a different reasoning or standard for the media?
For example, I, and I suspect you too, have sat in presentations where professionals have shared information, images and accounts of people’s deaths that they have not shared with families. That is utterly wrong to me. Let alone the fact in some cases the detail wasn’t even
t necessary for meeting the objectives or the purpose of the presentation.
I think the constant question one has to ask oneself before disclosing traumatic information is “Why share it? What is the rationale?” It’s like when Maurice, one of our founders, always asked at the beginning of each of our meetings, “Why are we meeting? What are we trying to achieve here?” I think journalists and others should not just think: “What can I include?” But should also ask, “What should I leave out”?
This is not always easy, I know, because when we talk about trauma, there is a natural reflex to be drawn into it. It is the reaction to trauma itself that draws us in.
PD: I get the impression that young people who are becoming journalists feel there is enormous pressure on them to still be kind of macho in their approach and to feel that it should be fine to look at everything.
When I speak at journalism schools and challenge that idea sometimes that is a major revelatory moment for young journalists. They start thinking about how they are going to tackle really difficult material. Certainly everybody who is born now is always going to be exposed to a constant stream of imagery that we knew nothing of when we were younger.
Even my adult children who are in their twenties are not the first generation that saw everything. Even when there are pictures from different crime scenes or incidents for everyone to access, if you chose to access them, it doesn’t mean you have to disseminate them.
Operationally, I think you still ask the question why am I doing this? What purpose does it serve? And understanding the degree of damage it may cause.
AE: I think maybe there is a parallel here with child abuse images. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation have done a campaign “Stop it now”. They were saying, people don’t realise when they download and disseminate images, that that’s going to harm individuals. People think it’s not going to harm anyone because it’s already out there.
One example that strikes me as encouraging relates to the media coverage of the MH17 disaster, where journalists themselves took exception to another journalist who walked through the crash site and held up a camera to the personal effects of an individual who had been killed there. He was desecrating a sacred area and belongings that should be treated with respect. I could talk about how angry this makes us, how retraumatising it can be, how it triggers things, when journalists walk all over a disaster scene – literally and in other way – but in this what I chose to see here was how great it was that journalists were having that reaction and response.
Our work is in helping others to see what it’s like to be on the receiving end of these kinds of actions and reactions.
PD: You won’t always be able to legislate for the in-the-moment-thing that happens. I remember feeling that sense of discomfort watching the images Anne is referring to, but then also hearing the explanation of the journalist who was absolutely caught up in the moment of what he had found and thinking about his child who was the same age.
That slightly turned it around in my mind. I thought this is just a man in the moment. This isn’t a guy who thinks he’s got a scoop, actually. Having been rather outraged, I wondered what would I have done?
We know that the personal possessions, as Anne describes it, are a sacred thing from a disaster. You know it might be the only thing that will be recovered. You have people from the clear-up teams who might say, “Well these socks – we didn’t give them back to them because they had blood on them or they looked dirty.” But actually the dirty socks may be the only thing that I have of my child, and I want them because they matter so much.
It’s a delicate business.
GR: What I am hearing coming up repeatedly in our conversation is the idea that what things appear to be on the surface aren’t necessarily what they are. First assumptions can be misleading. In a similar vein, claims for compensation are often difficult for the media and society to understand because people tend to think it’s about the money. Whereas it’s often about something else.
PD: Many of our members have said they have never had to ask for help before. The whole idea that you might then ask for compensation or then be entitled to compensation, because a loved one is dead or you are seriously injured, is very hard for people to get their heads around.
I recall family members of people killed – not in my family but in other families – who would say things like, “Now you can buy a big car”. These are the kinds of things people do say – and they kind of resent you.
What kind of thinking does that lead to? “Well, maybe it would have been ok to lose somebody, if I got two million pounds?” It’s very hard to deal with that.
You hear all those kind of truisms repeated: when is enough enough? There is no price for a life, etc. But when you drill down into it, sometimes it can only be about compensation, because there is no other way for redress. And when there is compensation being offered, you feel even more excluded when you are not entitled to it.
AE: There is a hierarchy.
PD: Yes. I do remember all those years ago, making an application for criminal injuries compensation after my brother was killed, to which I might have been entitled, but the board had to look at my application and decide a) did I have PTSD and b) whether it had been caused by this incident.
Having never met me, they felt confident in assessing that a) I didn’t have PTSD and b) even if I did have it, it probably wasn’t caused by the explosion that killed my brother. So I couldn’t have my 2000 pounds, and I remember this sense of bewilderment. Why not?
In the case of parents who have lost a child, the £11,000 payment maybe gets divided in two, so we would each end up with £5,500, because our child is dead. It’s a very uncomfortable thing.
And then there is the whole issue of punitive damages where there has been fault or negligence or deliberate intent. There is a sense in the public perception – and sometimes the media might buy into it a little bit – that people are greedy. We have tried to explain that it’s not about greed, that it’s about entitlement.
AE: And it is about meaning. Every aspect of dealing with disaster has obvious and other less obvious but inherent layers of meaning. The issues around whether people get compensation or not are similar to those around whether or not an incident gets media coverage. It’s about public acknowledgement and formal recognition as much as it is about the money or the actual amount of it.
And these things are also about timing. Initially an incident or its aftermath may be seen as newsworthy or significant enough to be addressed, for instance, because there is an inquest, but later developments may not seem newsworthy or significant enough anymore, because something else has come along.
Of course, it’s natural and right that things get overtaken, and the public interest moves on, but the events and the impact of covering them will still be there for those directly affected.
I keep thinking back to the impact on journalists and the need to acknowledge the ripple effect of events. It’s not always so neat as ‘us’ and ‘them’ – ‘victims’ and ‘observers’. Pam’s point about the journalist in Ukraine highlights this. I think, “Yeah, actually that is a man dealing with trauma.” And it may be the same for the audiences.
The instant images that get periscoped into the public domain these days, uploaded from an incident, are not just a reflection of digital rubberneckers: It’s also about people dealing with a traumatic event, perhaps distancing themselves from it by standing behind a camera and putting themselves in the position of the observer.
Perhaps, we have to understand that the dialogue is not just about privacy and communication, it’s also about how we all deal with traumatic experiences, that we are all experiencing both vicariously and directly.
PD: If I think back to the early stages of Lockerbie, we thought very carefully as a family whether it would be sensible to talk to the media, because we felt that the public story that was being told didn’t reflect our experience at the time. So we made what felt like a profound decision to speak to a journalist. And this young man came and sat around our table with eight of us, while we babbled about our experience and then he wrote something very coherent about it.
Twenty-seven years later I’m still in touch with that person. And I’m tremendously thankful to have found the right kind of journalist to write about our experience, who has never forgotten it.
And what was not on our minds, of course, was the impact on him, as a young journalist, at the beginning of his career, traveling to a disaster site, and the lifelong impact that had. And how our words influenced his work for the future, and that’s something that also comes up in our book.
Over and over again professionals who we have spoken to, or who have been in audiences where we gave a talk, have said: We remember what you said to us in 1995 or 1998 or 2000, or whatever, and it stayed with me throughout my career. And that’s what we’ve chosen to try and achieve, to also stand back from our own experience and get meaning and sense from it, by explaining it to others.
GR: This brings us to the question of anniversaries. Journalists often find these challenging to cover. What would your advice be?
PD: To begin with, I would say not to oversimplify the story. Let’s say there is an anniversary event. Some survivors and bereaved people will be at it; others won’t.
I remember so well one of our members, who is sadly dead now, who was asked once by a journalist how she feels on the anniversary of the death or his birthday. And she said, “Well don’t you understand that every day is an anniversary for me? Every day is the day that I don’t have him in my life.”
Acknowledging is done differently by different people: So if we don’t attend the event at Westminster Abbey, for example, that doesn’t mean we don’t think it should happen.
Recalling and remembering and memorialising are incredibly important to people affected by incidents, and sometimes there are watershed times like the 10th or the 20th anniversary, or indeed the 50th or the 100th.
Anne talks a lot about representation; it is possible I think to choose voices that don’t necessarily represent the whole experience without realising that you have. A voice is just a snapshot of part of the experience. And so better to report generally on, say, the event, and maybe to use some personal voices within that sense of reporting, but not to say this voice or that voice is representative of the Survivors or the Bereaved.
Use anniversaries to tell a story, use personal experiences, but also rehearse what happened, what is known about what happened, and, importantly, what remains unknown about what happened. It’s only by looking back with great care and by understanding the history that we look to the future in an empowered and informed way.
Try to look at the story in the round and do not assume that you can tell that story just through those avenues.
GR: Could you say something about selecting who to approach, who gets to speak?
PD: Well that’s an interesting thing in itself, because there are the voices of an incident. The media gets tired of hearing the same voices, we know that. And, then, sometimes it starts to feel like the story is about those voices and not about what happened or the person who died.
It is not unreasonable for the media to try and find people who have not spoken about their experience before, who haven’t been heard and who would like to be heard. But sometimes – obviously – people have chosen not to speak, and they perhaps don’t want to speak this time either.
In our day of everybody is out there constantly in the public space and on TV, the media rather assumes we all want to be on TV, on the radio, on the internet or whatever. If you think it’s journalistically acceptable to carry on prodding a little bit, then, you have to find your way of doing that. But generally speaking if people say no, they mean no.
AE: The big thing for me is the inherent ambiguity of every anniversary. For the media, that is the pull between feeling that you both should and shouldn’t cover it. And it is the same for individuals caught up in those events. You have this constant swinging around. It can start on the anniversary or weeks or months ahead: You start to get anxious because you want to face it on the one hand and you want to run away on the other.
GR: In practical times, what might be the consequences of that inherent ambiguity? What should journalists do?
AE: Interviewees need to be carefully prepared and briefed well before an anniversary, not just contacted the day before. Being blindsided on the day is never good. As a journalist, you know you can anticipate an anniversary. We have some guidance, one for dealing with issues beyond the first anniversary, including media interest, and another I mentioned earlier, which is especially relevant for journalists. It discusses how to prepare in advance before approaching someone for an anniversary interview.
PD: Good research. Some of you won’t know the questions you’re going to ask. Some of the most obvious things like: “How do you and your husband feel about this?” Where the answer turns out to be: “Well, actually it was my husband who was killed!” Can’t you just look something up? Get a little bit of the groundwork done. Because of the nature of open access resources you won’t always get the right answer, but try and do well-founded research if you have time.
AE: It’s a good, basic assignment for a new journalist because there are always going to be anniversaries. Anniversaries are predictable. The demands of the situation highlight all the good principles of preparation: research, not depending on stuff that is out there as being fact, ethically and appropriately finding a human interest. It’s a great way of experiencing so many aspects of how to deal with disasters.
And an anniversary is also an opportunity, perhaps, for journalists to reflect on the impact and implications of doing journalism. Who are the voices of the disaster? What this conversation has reinforced for me today, is that it is also about the impact on the journalist, as well as on the survivor, the bereaved, the police officer, whoever was caught up in the event. It’s an occasion, perhaps, for journalists too, to reflect, remember, commemorate, and potentially to find support for themselves.