Vauxhall helicopter crash and the power of real time news


By the time of reading this the Vauxhall ‘copter crash story will have been extensively told, picked over and commented on.

However, just over an hour and half after it happened, it’s already given a sharp reminder of just how much the media landscape has changed forever.

Yes, plenty of breaking events have showcased the power of Twitter and shown how flat footed traditional media can seem in trying to keep up.

But today I really – no, I mean *really* – witnessed how the media is evolving, so that curation of real-time events via social media actually eclipses what a news outlet’s own journalists can achieve.

Without access to TV pictures, Twitter or online news channels I was still utterly swept up in events and given a compelling real time picture, thanks to the the humble radio.


Driving to work, I switched on Radio 5 Live to hear a breathless member of the public telling the breakfast show how he heard an explosion, witnessed huge plumes of smoke and fire in central London.

As a listener, I had no idea what had actually happened, only that the report was a big, breaking story of some sort. As presenter Nicky Campbell questioned his eyewitness, it became clear the Radio 5 news team had seen a Tweet from the man about an incident. He’d also Tweeted a picture.

Presumably, the Radio 5 team managed to contact him via social and arrange the phone link and interview. While he was coherent and clear in his description, the report had a disturbing rawness, because his voice carried that slight tinge of hysteria which suggested shock was still setting in.

In the next few minutes a selection of social media posts and updates were reported by Campbell and co-host Rachel Burden. The aggregate picture was rich, detailed, colourful and informative.

The emerging scene was one of a low flying helicopter which surprised many ordinary people on the ground with its altitude and trajectory. At some point it appeared to have collided with a crane atop a building under construction. The noise it created was mentioned a lot.


Then the doomed chopper spiralled to the ground, where the many descriptions painted a picture of a Hollywood-esque explosion, sending black smoke and intense flames billowing skyward.

Early reports also suggested at least two cars on the ground had been hit by the helicopter, or caught in the fireball.

The reportage made repeated references to the images being shared by ordinary people from the scene. As of writing, I haven’t seen any of the images – yet the mental picture I have is powerful.

Photographs taken at street level showed burning tendrils of helicopter fuel licking along the tarmac. Others from buildings overlooking the scene showed the burnt out fuselage and the attendant frenzy of emergency service vehicles. Others captured the scale of the oily smoke cloud.

Witnesses told of the eerie moments of silence immediately after the collision.

Of course, the BBC had to caveat its reportage by stressing that many of these points could not yet be reported as fact, as they had not been confirmed by official sources.


Contrast this intense few minutes of reporting with what the Radio 5 Live journalist was able to offer when Campbell and Burden cut to him.

I missed the reporter’s name, but the poor guy was left struggling to add anything meaningful. Unlike the many social media commenters, he simply wasn’t at the scene.

All we really learned was that he was having trouble getting through to London Fire Brigade Press office because it was, understandably, dealing with a huge number of calls.

Otherwise, all he was able to tell us was that he had managed to speak with the Met Police press office – and they had confirmed they were attending the scene; that they had many officers involved, but couldn’t confirm exactly how many.

It was a sterile and near pointless contribution. The reporter actually punctuated his dry commentary with repeated references to “as you can see from the pictures on Twitter”.

The net effect was to highlight the impotency of remote commentators. Particularly when set against multiple short updates – even just 140 character long – being knitted together into a vivid, living and dramatic account of breaking events.


The good news is that this isn’t – or shouldn’t be – bad news for traditional media outlets. The Radio 5 live reaction was brilliant.

Presenters Campbell and Burden skilfully let the updates,  punctuated by live links to eyewitnesses, tell the unfolding story in a very powerful and coherent way.

Until now I have heard much talk about ‘curation’ and its emerging place in the news cycle. Today I listened to it first hand – and feel confident the future of journalism and news reporting – deeply enriched by the power of ordinary people’s social media updates – is secure for a very long time to come.

Now, I guess, I should go and read the latest online reports, check the TV coverage and wait and see what tomorrow’s printed newspapers will dig out.


8 thoughts on “Vauxhall helicopter crash and the power of real time news

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