Hacks on the right track

25th October 1996 at 01:00
It's a lousy job but someone's got to do it. A simulated rail crash helps students discover if journalism is for them, writes Stephen Wade. I drove out to find the chapel hall in Broughton. My students would be gathering there to interview the uninjured. A few dozen who had escaped unharmed from the train derailment at Appleby crossing were sipping tea and being comforted by voluntary helpers. In the bare, utilitarian hall, only 100 yards from where dozens of bored young people milled about on the corner, my young journalists were filming and interviewing. I was there to monitor the experience.

The children who survived are reading slowly and hesitatingly from their cue cards. "I was sipping a Coke when it happened. There was this tremendous bang . . . It was like a film . . . like science fiction."

The media students begin to tire of this. There are no police here, no officials. The obvious lack of suffering removes any potential urgency, so they decide to head for the general hospital. Has there been a fatality? Is the story about a bomb true or not? They have conflicting accounts.

Emma takes photos, John keeps the camcorder rolling and we take our leave. As usual, the disaster has drawn the English together - the villagers taking part in this one, albeit fake, chatter about tomatoes and the price of bread.

We arrive at the hospital to find that a robotic nurse is forcing us out of the ward. The wounded are led in, holding limbs and moaning. Men in suits appear and vanish. My students are "the press", and every professional in sight wants them out from under their feet.

"Excuse me sir, who are you?" "We demand a statement now."

"Is it true about the bomb?" Clare asks one of the injured: "Are there any fatalities?" But this was not understood. "Did somebody die?" she tries again.

At last an official makes a statement. It is bland waffle and the students say so. All the right questions are fired: "Was it old rolling stock?" "Of course not."

"Was the driver drunk?" "Don't be ridiculous."

A rumour has spread that the casualties are escaping to a press-free zone by a back door. The gang of reporters, with cameras, tape-recorders and notepads storm out in pursuit.

The general feeling is that we have all been far too polite. Kate suggests: "If this was the Daily Mirror, we'd be in there now, talking to people in agony."

At last a gentlemen in a suit, and a most impressive PR manner, tells the full story. No bomb, no death. Everything under control, so off you go and write something nice.

Finally, as the reporters are about to leave they encounter a young man in a corridor, clutching an injured arm. He shouts that he has something to say about the crash. He is mobbed by news-starved hacks. He tells a scandalous story of neglect and confusion. They shout in triumph and scribble down the details in their notebooks.

At the end of the exercise I ask for verdicts. "What have you learned about being a journalist?" The consensus is that "It's a lousy job. You feel like scum. You hang around wanting people who are going through hell to talk to you."

But their faces were flushed with the excitement and adrenaline rush of covering a story. It has been a drama, like Casualty, and we file back to the car park feeling that this has been the best classroom for media studies since the course began.

Stephen Wade is lecturer in media studies at North Lindsey College, Scunthorpe. The students will enter their film of the fake disaster in the documentary category of next year's Co-operative Young Film-Makers Festival.

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