The media can rally a nation - but how far will they go for an exclusive?
The flagship of most television networks around the world is its Network News coverage and presentation. NBC, ABC and CBS in the US often try to outdo each other for that exclusive viewpoint, and the presentation of their nightly news is often regarded as a pivotal breaking point both in ratings and commercial revenue for the rest of the evening. Australia, too, is now becoming that way inclined.
Dateline: Australia, April 25th, 2006 7.00 am
Anzac day is a national memorial holiday to remember the war dead from world wars and to remember Australians and New Zealanders who sacrificed their lives for their countries.
The breaking news story on this day: that a small earthquake and seismic movement was felt in the state of Tasmania, south of the Australian mainland. No reports of fatalities or major damage were initially reported.
By 10.00 am all networks were reporting that three miners from the gold mining town of Beaconsfield in Tasmania had been trapped underground as a result of the earthquake.
By 6.00 pm when the major networks switched to the evening news, the local Tasmanian news reporters were catapulted to network news, reporting from the locality of the story. A good story, requiring only local reporters: no need for national reporters to travel to what is commonly known as the holiday isle'
The next day and the breakfast shows Sunrise on Channel 7 and Today on Channel 9 had profiled the three miners. Larry Knight, 44, Todd Russell, 35 and Brandt Webb, 36, were still missing somewhere in that mine shaft.
By day four, the body of Larry Knight was found and all hope seemed lost. The news following Larry's death, now no longer the lead, was relegated to the fourth or fifth item of news as the operation to save the miners, changed to recovery'. But on April 30th, five days after the earthquake, and a day after one miner was found dead, the Australian media were thrown into a frenzy. The two remaining miners were found by heat cameras, literally buried alive and trapped 900 metres below ground level. And that frenzy, resulted in the Australian news media going into overdrive. On one hand the media would unite the nation; on the other it would show just how far it would go for a story, and the depths of which it was capable.
By midday an armada of outside broadcast vehicles, caravans and satellite dishes had turned Beaconsfield from a small sleepy mining town into a town under the international spotlight. The story had now been picked up by CNN, ITN and Sky News UK. And the nation's network news anchors from breakfast news, evening news and current affairs flew into Beaconsfield by the quickest way possible: news helicopters.
Suddenly the nation rallied with the hope the miners would be free within hours, but those hours were to turn into another nine agonising days as the operation was described as chiselling through solid concrete with a penknife.
As the operation was ongoing, celebrity agents were trying to put together a deal for the exclusive rights to interview the miners and sell to the highest bidder. Both channels 7 and 9 were in the running for what was fast becoming the biggest news story of the year. A few network anchors flew back to the mainland as reports coming out of Beaconsfield suggested the rescue was still many days away. Network graphics showed drawings of two men in a cage less than a metre square and deep below the surface.
As the hours passed, network anchors called on the miners' wives and families to offer support and help and befriend: little did the population realise that half of this was a sales pitch for the exclusive rights to the story of the year. The people of Beaconsfield came out in force to feed the media hot soups on the bitter cold mornings as the 6.00am breakfast shows started. The urgency of the media to secure exclusive interviews was as fast paced as the breaking news. The vultures were circling.
Channel 9 had always been affiliated with ABC America, and Channel 7 affiliated with NBC. The 7 and 9 national correspondents sent their American affiliates bulletins tailored for US market.
As the rescue went into its last two days, a barrage of additional radio, TV, and print reporters flocked into Beaconsfield as momentum gathered.
Sunday May 7th and veteran 60 Minutes reporter Richard Carleton, known for his tough and ruthless questioning, asked the mine manager why former safety concerns had apparently been ignored. Within a minute of his last question Carleton dropped dead of a massive heart attack. Paramedics worked frantically to revive him, and the scene was picked up by a rival news network's helicopters. Shock to the 9 Network and disbelief to the nation. And sombre reporting on channel 9 that Sunday evening.
Monday 8th May, and as rock blasting continued towards the miners, the networks were scrambling to cover every scene, interview anyone they could lay their hands on and capture every view of what was available. But it soon became clear that for safety reasons the final five metres would have to be dug by hand. Day 13 would not be the day of triumph, but with momentum continuing to gather, reporters were on air literally inches away from their rivals.
The nation waited and watched with bated breath. Reports were broadcast that Oprah Winfrey wanted the miners' story in addition to several US networks. By now Fox News, CNN, Sky News, ITN and BBC had started to cover in full what was happening Down Under.
Tuesday 9th May, news was breaking at 4.00 am that the miners had been reached, their freedom imminent. Channel 7 was first on air with the story, repeating over and over what little information was available.
By 7.00 am, cleaned and showered, the miners clocked off and walked out into the waiting world, now live on all local and international news channels, Fox News the exception as they had a pre-recorded news show. The world watched two tough and brave survivors walk to freedom.
Sunrise's David Koche, along with co-anchor Melissa Doyle, were standing by the roadside as an open ambulance passed. Suddenly, Koche, or Kochy as he is nicknamed, jumped into the back of the open ambulance, for an albeit brief hello. The rescued miner on board the ambulance commended him for the kindness he and Mel had shown his family. Channel Nine was furious: it seemed Channel 7 might have the upper hand for the sought-after exclusive.
6pm and the networks extended their nightly news shows to overrun by an hour including live crosses to the Beaconsfield pub to speak with rescuers, when one of the rescued miners suddenly walked into the pub to thank rescuers. Close at hand just happened to be Eddie McGuire, the new Managing Director of Channel Nine, buying drinks to thank the rescuers officially that was all he was there for.
Days passed after the rescue, with the nation's appetite to hear the miners' story growing every day. Agents wanted their meal tickets too. Channel 7 and 9 making bids. Eventually Channel 7 pulled out as Nine secured the exclusive deal, which would include magazine publication by associated companies. According to Australia's Daily Telegraph, $2.6 million dollars would be paid to the two survivors for the exclusive, for Australia only.
Miners Todd Russell and Brandt Webb would pay almost half in tax, and show enormous kindness: some of their lump sums would go to Larry Knight's family, the rescuers and the miners. The media, to their credit, organised benefit concerts and live performances from Beaconsfield to support the town, as the future of the mine remained in doubt. Corporate Australia would also be generous during the live shows. Channel 7's Sunrise breakfast, with a live concert of Aussie stars, represented the nation's gratitude, possibly hoping the miners would pop by. The Prime Minister also announced a civic reception at Parliament House to thank the rescuers, miners, the survivors and their families.
Two weeks after being freed from being trapped 900 metres below the surface for 14 days, Russell and Webb told their story on Channel 9 in the nation's highest-rated TV programme of the year. Five days later the two miners flew to the US and appeared on Good Morning America to relive their ordeal, and the word is still strong they will appear on Oprah, whilst talent scouts in the US are talking movie rights.
No matter how obscenely the media behaved in their efforts to secure an exclusive, and to satisfy the nation's thirst for information, the media played a pivotal roll in rallying the country and in thanking the people of Beaconsfield. It was, perhaps, one of their finest hours and one of their lowest too.