Examples of Press articles by Nick Ross
At a speech in Mansion House for the Fire Sector Summit, Nick Ross reflected on the Grenfell Tower fire and gave his views on the future of fire safety. He didn’t pull his punches.
Breaking the rules
Rule 1 for a speech at a pre-conference reception is to keep it short, and Rule 2: keep it light.
I propose to break both of those golden rules. And with a vengeance. Because Grenfell has proved how badly the rulebook needs to be challenged.
I know I’m speaking to the converted. You’re here because you care and there’s nothing I’ll say you don’t already know. But I hope to galvanise you, to revive the passions you felt when the news of Grenfell was still fresh.
Because this is a time to be angry, and anger is sometimes the right response. This is also a time for honest self-reflection in this industry – because so many people, including those in this sector, did not do what they should. But it’s also a time to celebrate – because out of this appalling tragedy, as with the Great Fire of London, there are lessons to be learned and good sense is at last emerging.
Grenfell was not an accident
Why should we be angry? You could argue Grenfell was an accident. But it wasn’t. It was a consequence. A consequence of decisions made and not made in officialdom. For heaven’s sake let’s acknowledge that in a civilised country, after centuries of learning how to prevent fires and stop them in their tracks, Grenfell was a testament to bad government, to bad policy, to an abdication of responsibility.
The Grenfell myths
First, let’s dispose of some myths about Grenfell:
- that we don’t know what happened and must await the official inquiries;
- that it was the Council’s fault;
- that the cladding was only there to gentrify the area;
- that the problem is only with high-rise buildings.
None of those is true.
We know enough about what happened to act responsibly.
We know the fire started in a Hotpoint fridge freezer on the fourth floor.
We know there were no sprinklers so the fire got out of control.
We know it penetrated a window and set the insulation and external cladding on fire, apparently with a gap between them acting like a chimney.
We know the fire would never have caught hold if Grenfell had a sprinkler system. We already knew this after the Lakanal House fire but chose to ignore it.
We know the cladding was Reynobond – two sheets of aluminium sandwiching a core of extruded thermoplastic made of polyethylene.
We know polyethylene has a low melting-point
We know that if it burns it can burn fiercely, highly toxic fumes of oxides of nitrogen and carbon including hydrogen cyanide.
We know similar cladding has caused at least 8 major fires in the past
We know the insulation was Celotex RS 5000 made of PIR, a rigid foam which doesn’t burn easily – but when it does, it too gives off high levels of hydrogen cyanide.
We know Siderise fire barriers were fitted but were overwhelmed.
We know the regulations – specifically Approved Document B, Fire Safety – are difficult to follow and haven’t been updated for well over a decade.
We know successive ministers have been resistant to updating them.
We know successive ministers have refused to require sprinklers – or even to encourage their use, let alone campaign in favour of them. I could name them all. Again let’s recall that their indifference was despite the recommendations of the Lakanal House coroner.
We know that the Grenfell scheme must have been officially approved by a building control process.
In short, we know a lot. The inquiries will surely tell us more, but we already know there was a dereliction of responsibility. And we already know enough not to prevaricate any further.
The local council was not to blame…
As for the local council getting so much blame, councils all around the country have used similar materials. And why shouldn’t they? They were officially inspected and officially approved.
Then there is this nonsense that the cladding was only there for the benefit of gentrified homes nearby. No it wasn’t. That was just a line in the proposal for PR purposes to make the building work more acceptable to neighbours. The reason for treating the outside of the building was a more noble one: to improve thermal insulation – just as every householder is being urged to do.
The council was blamed for acting like a rabbit caught in headlights. It has still failed to rehouse most of those displaced. But – and I have no flag to wave for Kensington and Chelsea Council – the truth is that hardly any other local authority could have done better. Some can’t even collect the bins each week. Money is tight and they’ve not got contingencies for disasters of this rarity or scale.
…so who was responsible?
No the real culprits are higher up the food chain.
For heaven’s sake, how could successive governments and successive ministers be so complacent?
Sometimes politicians and their advisers get fixated on tabloid terms like “red tape”. (I seem to remember Margaret Thatcher cut red tape that restrained the banks. What a good idea that turned out to be.)
Yes, by all means cut unnecessary regulation. But first check that it really is unnecessary. Good governance can never be reflexive even if politics so often is. The people who took the decision not to have routine reviews of building regulations bear responsibility for the Grenfell deaths (and many others too). I wonder if they still think that their slashing of red tape was really worth it? Buildings regulations, like sprinklers, are not unnecessary burdens. They’re life-savers.
It’s a time to reflect in the fire services too. Some fire chiefs have always campaigned for more and more fire safety, not least Peter Holland who helped set up the national fire sprinkler network. Many leaders have been magnificent, and it’s marvellous that London’s fire chief Danni Cotton is now calling for sprinklers. “This can’t be optional,” she said, “It can’t be a nice thing to have. This is something that must happen.” But the service seems to have got more political in recent years. More and more obsequious. Its messages have been so nuanced politicians happily interpreted them as “it’s all right Jack – there’s no need to act”.
Where were the fire chiefs when buildings regulations were allowed to slide? Where were the fire chiefs when fire safety inspection went to the lowest bidder? Where was the National Fire Chiefs Council on sprinklers – apart from their weasel phrase that sprinklers may have some use in an overall fire safety strategy?
I hate to criticise the fire service. It’s been magnificent in so many respects. It’s rightly accepted cuts in fire stations and resources. It’s pushed hard for smoke detectors. It’s full of good people. But it needs to boldly go where politicians don’t want to go, and confront what politicians would prefer to shy away from.
Incidentally, so do the water authorities. They’re so wrapped up in their own regulations about dead-legs in pipework that they’ve effectively stifled ultra-low cost sprinklers which could be served by ordinary domestic plumbing. Shame on them for not trying harder and adopting this issue as their own.
I’m reluctant to criticise politicians too. They get a bad press. Many are very decent, some are very intelligent. Most want to do what’s right. But they’re amateurs. That’s the British way. And they’ve been very badly advised on sprinklers in social housing.
I hope the people in this room never let that bad advice go to ministers again.
But good can come out of tragedy
And now the good news: a time to celebrate. Out of each fire tragedy comes progress. As I say, the Fire of London, but more recently the Saffron Walden Hotel fire, the King’s Cross Fire, the Bradford Stadium disaster… and now Grenfell.
We don’t take much notice when people die in ones and twos. We act when people die in tents and hundreds. Belatedly, but we act. And as you may have seen a BBC survey found that sprinkler installation companies are now struggling with demand.
They’re mostly going into high rise blocks – but as well all know, we must go further. Almost all the people who die in domestic fire tragedies live in low rise.
Some of you deal in other fire safety measures – and good for you. I doubt that I’d want to campaign for sprinklers if I sold fire doors, for example. But there’s plenty to go round. PLEASE never, ever, talk down sprinklers.
You all know the patter, and it’s true. Domestic sprinklers cost no more than fitted carpets. It’s almost impossible for them to be triggered accidentally and, when they do go off, they only activate the heads which can put out the fire. In 95% of cases they extinguish the fire – before the fire and rescue service gets there. In 100% of cases where the system is enabled they make the firefighter’s job much easier. And above all no one dies from fire in a home protected by sprinklers.
Grenfell has roused us from our complacency. England has woken up. Now we must catch up with Wales. And we must turn our anger at Grenfell to positive effect.
And I wish you all high energy, determined ambition, and crystal-clear progress in tomorrow’s summit.
Nick Ross is a former broadcaster and international conference chairman.
Saturday Essay 24 June 2017
Grenfell Tower is the one that made most headlines. But in smaller, equally horrifying ways, it happens all the time. Around 300 people are killed by fire every year in towns and cities throughout England. Many die in their own homes, almost all in social housing. And most don’t make a political statement. They die individually, or in twos or threes, so no one take much notice.
No one could have foreseen where or when it would happen, or the terrible scale of the catastrophe in Kensington, but some sort of horror was inevitable and predictable. As Panorama revealed on Monday, it’s been a deeply frustrating process. In an address to the Local Government Association four years ago, I pointed out that, “Every major advance in fire safety has been inspired by a startling tragedy. If there’s another calamity there’ll be another political panic and another belated political response. But we will have to wait for another shocking conflagration.”
We always need to be shocked out of our apathy.
It took 11 dead in a blaze at the Rose & Crown in Saffron Walden in Essex 40 years ago to pave the way for building regulations in the Fire Precautions Act. The hotel had no proper alarm, no fire doors, no emergency exit signs, no extinguishers. It took 56 dead at the Bradford Football Club fire in 1985 to inspire a raft of safety features for stadiums. It took 31 dead in the King’s Cross fire in 1987 before we finally invested in the London tube that had been under tight budget constraints for decades.
I first became involved at the request of fire chiefs because of other campaigns on community safety. I’d set up the Jill Dando Institute to help cut crime but, more importantly, back in the 1980s I’d persuaded the government to set targets for casualties on the roads. It had been so successful – our goal was to cut deaths from 6,000 to 2,000 which we quickly overshot – that fire safety experts hoped I could help them do the same with fire.
So for more than 15 years, I and many other campaigners like Ronnie King have been pressing the case to update building regulations and especially for sprinklers in social housing. We succeeded in Wales where all new homes must now have sprinklers. But time and again Tory ministers in London told us they didn’t want more red tape and Labour ministers, including Sadiq Khan, now London’s mayor, told us the expenditure wasn’t warranted. To be fair, they all listened to their advisers. It was their advisers who got it wrong. Stephen Williams, a former minister, has openly blamed senior civil servants, admitting he knew nothing about fire safety. Quite. Ministers are amateurs, always happy to take credit, but keen to palm off blame.
Had Sir Ken Knight and Peter Holland, the Chief Fire and Rescue Advisers, been onside things might have been different. I know them well and they are good people, but as they saw it we were asking for a massive investment at a time when deaths were falling.
So we could do with less party politics here. We all let down the Grenfell residents. And we all must share the blame, including those of us who failed to make the case sufficiently convincing.
Sprinklers are the gold standard. They are cheap, simple and effective. They are roughly the price of fitted carpets, even when retrofitted into uncompromising old concrete tower blocks. A sprinkler head activates only if the air immediately around it becomes hot enough to shatter a small glycerine-filled glass bulb, and other sprinkler heads will only trigger if the fire spreads. They cause far less water damage than a firefighter’s hose, and where buildings are comprehensively protected in 95% of cases a fire is controlled by sprinklers alone. Oh, and don’t believe the myth that they can all go off accidentally, as the leader of one of Britain’s biggest councils told me at the weekend. That only happens in the movies.
They are not invincible. They can’t function if the water supply fails. But, and this is the truth that makes me so upset in the light of events last week, no one ever dies from fire when a home is protected by automatic sprinklers.
Lots of things went wrong at Grenfell. It’s outrageous our advice wasn’t heeded on updating building regulations to outlaw flammable cladding, and we must upgrade ventilation systems and beef up the quality of fire inspection for homes in multi-occupation. Nonetheless, a single sprinkler head would almost certainly have put out the fire in minutes in the flat where it started. Even if that failed and flames spread unnoticed up the outside of the building, sprinklers would have saved lives, quenching the blaze wherever it sought to intrude, cooling the air and washing down the smoke.
Thank heavens some councils, like Croydon, have now pledged to protect more of their buildings.
But let’s not be persuaded that the risk is only in high-rise towers. Most fire victims are in low-rise. And let’s not get fixated on cladding. What we need is a comprehensive review of building regulations and, above all, we need sprinklers. We need them in all social housing, all care homes, and all multi-occupation premises including schools – and let’s not forget our hospitals. Where necessary, we need to retrofit them.
The people I care about most are those whose safety depends on others. But families who own their homes ought to think about protecting themselves too. There are tower blocks without sprinklers which are home to thousands of prosperous people, including some in Kensington which are in sight of Grenfell. Few housebuilders install sprinklers by default. They should.
We owe this not just to the dead of Grenfell Tower – or even to those desperately ill with seared skin, scorched airways and lost relatives – but also to the survivors, the rescuers and the distraught onlookers. I have escaped from a fatal house fire myself and I know the lasting trauma that survivors suffer even if they get out unscathed.
There is a terrible anger after Grenfell. We must put it to good use.
Nick Ross is a broadcaster. He presented Crimewatch before setting up the Jill Dando Institute. He is supporting the British Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund.
This is the BBC – but for how much longer?
A slightly edited version of this article appeared in The Sunday Telegraph on 29 December 2013.
After its annus horribilis the BBC is heading for disaster. Yet what’s really driving it towards the rocks is not the scandals that hit headlines and exercised politicians in 2013. That mortifying storm – historic sex crimes, IT failures, cosy pay-offs to executives, tax irregularities and criticisms by its stars and former bosses – will blow over. The key figure is not Lord Patten but the new Director General. And Tony, the Lord Hall of Birkenhead, always understood he was inheriting a leaky ship in heavy seas. As a seasoned helmsman he knows the BBC has survived countless tempests and has always regained its composure. In fact, surprisingly you may think, it recently scored seven out of ten on measures of trust despite all the recent bungling.
He understands his biggest challenge is not about what happened in the past but what will happen in the future. Rolling waves of new technology are threatening to sink the BBC by swamping our acceptance of how we have to pay for it.
As a recent survey for the Telegraph has shown, a great majority of voters want the TV licence cut or even scrapped. Even if we discount some of this hostility as reaction to recent fiascos, the Telegraph’s findings are part of a predictable long-term trend. Broadcasting’s scarcity has gone. With dozens of free to air channels and thousands of digital radio and TV stations available through cable, satellite and phone lines, the choice is so bewildering that those of us who live in multichannel homes need built-in search engines to organise the programmes into genres as well as channels. The case for a single broadcaster to be able to tax the public is becoming ever harder for politicians to sustain.
Just as the ubiquity of television made the radio licence obsolete in 1971, so the TV licence is increasingly anachronistic. Even the box itself is becoming marginalised. Television has changed from a stand-alone centrepiece of the living room to a pervasive service available on computers, tablets and mobile phones. The very idea of broadcasting is dissolving into the internet. We have become our own scheduler, with our own channel. We can choose a show from a catalogue, start it when we want, pause it, and rewind it. We can even make videos ourselves with an inexpensive camera or a smartphone and, as the Queen did with her Christmas message, we can upload programmes to the web.
It’s much the same with radio. We can pick almost 300 stations on DAB and thousands more from the web. Or we can summon our favourite song in an instant from music-streaming sites like Spotify. In fact radio appears to make a good case for those who want to the scrap the licence fee, perhaps above all for that most hallowed (and expensive) of all 56 of the BBC’s stations, the original Home Service, Radio 4. It has a loyal, almost zealous, following of 10 million listeners each week, and most of them would pay a lot to keep it on the air, probably far more than £5 a year – which is how much of the licence fee it gets. Voluntary subscription could enrich Radio 4 enormously, even allowing for the costs of encryption, of subsidising new receivers and of setting up a system to collect the money. Senior figures at the BBC fear their audience is fickle for radio, let alone television, but Rupert Murdoch – who rarely gets credit for the stunning risks he took in pioneering satellite TV – has proved that even low-income families are prepared to pay a lot more for Sky voluntarily than the Corporation demands on penalty of fine or prison.
To be fair some of the arguments against the licence fee don’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, take the complaint that it’s commercially unfair. The newspaper industry has been pressing this with some success and has caused the BBC to cut back on its once world-beating news website. But beware the press concealing its own self-interests when claiming to act for the greater good. Right from the start in the 1920s, the Newspaper Proprietors Association tried to kill the BBC. It complained it would “disseminate the cream of the news” and that broadcasting “the Boat Race, the King’s Speech and other outstanding incidents”, let alone racing, football results and the affairs of parliament, would “have a most prejudicial effect on the newspapers… and take the bread out of our mouths.” Yet newspapers had their heyday in the sixty years that followed. The decline of print is not the fault of the BBC. Nor will newspapers’ migration to the web be solved by crushing BBC Online. The Internet is a jungle and it is wholly to the good that the BBC’s websites are popular and trusted, especially if they provide a balance for those of us who gravitate to newspapers which reflect our pre-existing views.
Nor is the BBC intrinsically anticompetitive so far as programme-making is concerned. It already commissions 40 per cent of its output from outside companies and the UK independent production sector is flourishing.
Actually the development of the independent sector has had an unfortunate effect. As a public body the Corporation needs to be scrupulously fair in choosing its suppliers with the result that a once-simple commissioning process has become cumbersome and bureaucratic. Years ago I pitched ideas directly to the channel Controller. Now there are commissioning editors, assistants, committees and, above all, processes. Once, after months of haggling to get a new show on the air, I began to call it The Commission as a joke. The name stuck and the series ran for eight years without (so far as I’m aware) anyone in the BBC realising the prank. The Corporation needs a simpler, flatter structure and there may be logic in splitting it up into smaller more nimble units. But organisational complexity is a common problem in large organisations. It is not reason in itself to scrap the licence fee.
Then there is the argument that the BBC is no longer politically neutral and should therefore have its ears tweaked. But those who complain that the BBC is biased should beware of what they wish for.
They are right, of course, that there is a bias to the left. But it is not institutional, as they imagine, so much as the natural inclination of individual young, highly educated media types. There are other biases too, some much more insidious: a bias to the arts and humanities with a sometimes embarrassing deficit in scientific literacy and statistical numeracy. There is still a tendency to regard neutrality as balancing two opinions even if one is based on anecdote and politics while the other is grounded on data and research. But the greatest strength of the BBC is its independence. It acts as an umbrella for all of journalism and it must not be censored. It must be left to sort things out itself.
And for all those curmudgeons who say quality is falling it isn’t so.
If you don’t get that impression it’s because the classy output is now so widely scattered. It’s true that many shows are brasher and that more presenters shout and wave their arms as though talking to small children. As more than one wag has put it, BBC One has become CBeebies, BBC Two has become BBC One, and BBC Four has become BBC Two.
But the quality stuff is out there. I tell you from direct experience that production and editorial standards have improved substantially since I joined the industry in the 1970s and they continue to rise now that I can write dispassionately as an industry outsider.
As with quality so with quantity. Traditional audiences are scattering rather than falling away. For example, Crimewatch, whose Madeleine McCann appeal last month was billed as having its “biggest audience ever”, did brilliantly by contemporary numbers but actually achieved less than half the ratings the show routinely garnered in the 1980s and 1990s. That is a measure of the major channels’ decline. But by embracing the multichannel environment, the BBC has almost clung on to a share of viewers that it had in the terrestrial-only heyday.
According to the Corporation’s latest report, 96 per cent of us access BBC services every week on average spending more than 19 hours with Auntie, over a sixth of a typical Briton’s waking life.
So, if the audiences are robust, why not scrap the licence fee and go for advertising? The answer, once again, is that technology will soon put an end to commercial breaks as we now know them. In fact it is astonishing how long they’ve already lasted. Our innate conservatism means that mostly we stick to what we know, so that the older and less educated we are the more we are likely to watch and listen as our parents did. The extent of this inertia has confounded many, including me. It explains why the traditional channels still dominate our listening and viewing habits. And it explains why ITV’s share price is floating high – its core viewers are still sitting mutely though the adverts while younger, less Luddite, viewers like my kids snub all TV commercials by deftly spinning past them at hyperspeed. But it can’t go on much longer, as Channel 4 has found.
In any case advertising would destroy the very essence of the BBC, its USP. It would be like any other commercial network. We would lose the diversity that different forms of funding bring.
But why not share that funding out, as Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps – and even the Corporation’s last editorial director Roger Mosey – proposed earlier this month? It is an attractive proposition. It isn’t easy to defend the fact that the BBC spends most of its compulsory levy on programmes that rival broadcasters could make and sell commercially. And while it’s true that the BBC nurtures talent and is a huge benefactor to the Arts, lots of others could share the job – or take it over.
And yet there are good reasons to keep the BBC together. It may seem a behemoth measured against other British media but it is tiny on the world stage. NBC and CBS in the US each have an income three times larger, ABC six times more, and revenues from Disney’s studios and networks bring in 40 times more. Along with the Royal Family, the changing of the guards, Rolls-Royce and Scotland Yard, the BBC is one of the few institutions Britain is admired for overseas. It is scandalous that successive governments have been so penny-pinching about BBC World Services which, pound for pound, project more British influence abroad than anything comparable including our military.
One option is that the BBC should concentrate on news and factual output. Being independent of private ownership and commercial pressure it could remain a powerful voice in Britain and overseas while costing a fraction of the current licence fee. It could then consciously seek to break free of the conventional news agenda which market forces conspire to confine our national conversations. For the rest, the orchestras, the drama, the entertainment, no doubt others can do just as well. No one can reasonably complain that the quantity or quality of sports coverage has gone down in the hands of the BBC’s competitors.
And yet breaking up the BBC would be tragic – and a colossal risk. By losing its core audience the justification for a compulsory levy would be weaker still. The licence fee would not be cost-effective and the BBC would almost certainly finish up reliant on direct taxation (known as Grant in Aid) which would end its independence.
One way or another politicians – and BBC bosses – are going to have to make a difficult call. The licence fee is increasingly unpopular and can’t go on for ever. The BBC management knows this even if it dares not admit it for fear that would accelerate its demise. But don’t bet on a brave decision by anyone. The licence fee has proved remarkably resilient. Every time it has come up for renewal in the past 90 years the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. It survived commercial competition – in fact it kept on growing – and, despite the rising cadence of anti-BBC sentiment we shall hear between now and 2017, the Corporation will probably survive the next Charter revision essentially intact. Remember it was the Conservatives who first introduced a permit to fund the BBC (they thought the fledgling radio manufacturing industry deserved support and feared that advertising would drive down standards) and neither they nor Labour has ever had the stomach to kill the BBC or even badly maul it.
But a fudge in 2017 will be unpopular and will simply store up trouble. The real danger is that support for public service broadcasting will ebb away further or fall off a cliff. What Westminster should do is renew the Charter, and raise the licence fee in line with inflation, but make it clear that this is likely to be the last time. In future there may be a role for the Arts Council to subsidise public service broadcasting. But the BBC must find its own salvation. Its management will have ten clear years to manage a transition to subscription.
After that, all bets are off.
The plane that fell out of the sky.
A slightly edited version of this article appeared in The Daily Telegraph (28 April 2012, pages 1 and 26)
See also Fox News
How a ‘brilliant’ aircraft design contributed to the one of the world’s worst aviation disasters
IN the early hours of 1 June 2009 Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris went missing along with 216 passengers and 12 crew. The Airbus A330-200 disappeared in mid ocean, beyond radar coverage and in darkness. It took a shocked and bewildered Air France six hours to concede its loss and for several agonising days there was no trace. It was an utter mystery. No other airliner had vanished so completely in modern times. Even when wreckage was discovered the tragedy was no less perplexing. The aircraft had flown through a thunderstorm but there was no distress signal; and the jet was state-of-the-art, a type that had never before been involved in a fatal accident. What had caused it to fall out of the sky?
The official report by French accident investigators is due in a month and seems likely to follow provisional verdicts suggesting human error. Air crash investigators have a single aim, to make flying safer, and are not in the blame game. Even so, the report will be a nasty blow for Air France, perhaps more damaging than the Concorde disaster of July 2000. There is no doubt that at least one of AF447’s pilots made a fatal and sustained mistake and the airline must bear responsibility for the training and actions of its crew. But there is another, potentially worrying implication, and it does not require specialist crash investigators to spot the problem. Evidence points to a chain of events that should cause regulators to challenge a design feature championed by Airbus, the world’s biggest airliner manufacturer.
The mystery of AF447 has taken three years to resolve, involving immensely costly mid-Atlantic searches covering 17,000 square kilometres of often uncharted seabed to depths of 4,700 metres. So remote was the area in which the airliner went down, in equatorial waters between Brazil and Africa, that it was 5 days before debris and the first bodies were recovered. Finally, and almost two years later, robot submarines located the aircraft’s flight recorders, a near-miraculous feat that revitalised the biggest crash inquiry since Lockerbie.
Prior to the recovery of the recorders the cause of the disaster could only be inferred from a few salvaged pieces of wreckage and technical data beamed automatically from the aircraft to the airline’s maintenance centre in France. It appeared to be a failure of so-called pitot (pronounced pea-toe) tubes, small forward-facing ducts that use airflow to measure a plane’s speed. On entering the storm these had apparently frozen over, blanking the airspeed indicators and causing the autopilot to disengage. From then on the crew failed to maintain sufficient speed resulting in a stall which, over almost four minutes, sent 228 people plummeting to their deaths.
But why? Normally an A330 can fly itself, overriding unsafe commands. Even if systems fail there is standard procedure to fall back on: if you set engine thrust to 85 per cent and pitch the nose five degrees above the horizontal the aircraft will more or less fly level. How was it that three pilots trained by a safe and prestigious airline could so disastrously lose control? Either there was something wrong with the plane, or with the crew. Airbus and Air France, both with much to lose, were soon pointing accusing fingers at each other.
In July last year the French air crash investigation organisation, the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA) published its third interim report. For Air France the conclusion was crushing: the crew had ignored repeated stall alerts and kept trying to climb instead of levelling off or descending to pick up speed. The A330 had become so slow that it simply ceased to fly. Its reputation on the line, Air France came as close as it dared to repudiating the finding. The pilots, said the airline, had “showed unfailing professional attitude, remaining committed to their task to the very end”. But the airline’s case seemed thin. All indications suggested the aircraft had functioned just as it was designed. The black box recordings showed that the engines and control surfaces were responsive to the point of impact. The case against the pilots looked even worse when a transcript of the voice recorder was leaked. It confirmed that one of the pilots had pulled the joystick back and kept it there for almost the entirety of the emergency. With its nose pointed too far upwards it was little wonder that the Airbus had eventually lost momentum and stalled. But this analysis begs the question: even if one pilot got things badly wrong, why did his two colleagues fail to spot the problem? The transcript of increasingly panicky conversations in the cockpit suggests that they did, but too late.
Two hours into the flight Marc Dubois, the veteran captain, was heading for a routine break. His deputy, David Robert, a seasoned flier with 6,500 flying hours under his belt, was perfectly capable of coping with the tropical thunderstorm AF447 was flying towards. Pierre-Cédric Bonin was at the controls, and though the most junior pilot he had clocked up a respectable 2,900 hours on commercial jets.
As the airliner entered the worst of the weather, Bonin told the cabin crew to prepare for turbulence. In fact eight minutes later everyone on board would be dead. Bonin himself seems to have been spooked, calling attention to a metallic smell and an eerie glow in the cockpit. Robert reassured him that it was St. Elmo’s fire, an electrical fluorescence not uncommon in equatorial thunderstorms. A few moments later the outside air temperature plummeted, the pitot tubes iced up, and an alarm sounded briefly to warn that the autopilot had disengaged. From this moment on Bonin’s behaviour is strange. The flight recorder indicates that, without saying anything, he pulled back on the joystick and seemingly against all reason kept the nose up, causing a synthesised voice to warn, “Stall! Stall!” in English as the airspeed began to drop dangerously. Robert took 20 or 30 seconds to figure out what was happening before ordering Bonin to descend. “It says we’re going up. It says we’re going up, so descend.” Seconds later Robert again called out, “Descend!” and for a few moments the plane recovered momentum and the stall warning ceased. But Robert was now anxious enough to call for the captain to return to the cockpit. Meanwhile Bonin’s instinct was again to pull back on the control stick, and he left it there despite the stall warning that in all blared out no fewer than 75 times. Instead of moving the stick forward to pick up speed he continued to climb at almost the maximum rate. If he had simply set the control to neutral or re-engaged the autopilot, all would have been well.
Almost certainly Bonin was reacting as he would have done to keep the plane aloft after a problem at low altitude. A minute after the autopilot disconnected he muttered something odd: “ I’m in TOGA, huh?”. TOGA stands for Take Off, Go Around. Bonin was behaving as though he was aborting a landing approach and circling for a second attempt. Standard procedure on abandoning a landing is to set the engines on full power and trim the pitch so the airliner tilts upwards at 15 or 16 degrees. But Flight AF447 was not a few hundred feet above a runway. Within a minute it had soared to 38,000 feet in air so thin that it could climb no more. As forward thrust was lost, downward momentum was gathering. Instead of the wings slicing neatly through the air, their increasing angle of attack meant that they were in effect damming it. In the next 40 seconds AF447 fell 3,000 feet, losing more and more speed as the angle of attack increased to 40 degrees. The wings were now like bulldozer blades against the sky. Bonin failed to grasp this fact, and though angle of attack readings are sent to the computers there are no displays in modern jets to indicate this critical information to the crews. Sensibly, one of the provisional recommendations of the BEA inquiry has been to challenge the absence of such displays.
Bonin’s insistent efforts to climb soon deprived even the computers of the vital angle-of-attack information. An A330’s angle of attack is measured by a fin projecting from the fuselage. When forward speed fell to 60 knots there was insufficient airflow to make the mechanism work. The computers, which are programmed not to feed pilots misleading information, could no longer make sense of the data they were receiving and blanked out some of the instruments. Also, the stall warnings ceased. It was up to the pilots to do some old-fashioned flying.
With no knowledge of airspeed or angle of attack the safest thing at high altitude is to descend gently to avoid a stall. This is what David urged Bonin to do, but something bewildering happened when Bonin put the nose down. As the aircraft picked up speed the input data became valid again and the computers could now make sense of things. Once again they began to shout, “Stall, stall, stall”. Tragically, as Bonin did the right thing to pick up speed, the aircraft seemed to be telling him he was making matters worse. If he had continued to descend the warnings would eventually have ceased. But, panicked by the renewed stall alerts, he chose to resume his fatal climb.
Yet if Bonin was now beyond his knowledge and experience the key to understanding the crash is David Robert’s failure to grasp the mistake being made by his colleague. It is here that Airbus’s cockpit design may be at fault.
Like all other aircraft in the modern Airbus range the A330 is controlled by joysticks at the side of the pilots’ seats resembling those on computer game consoles. These side sticks are not connected to the aircraft control surfaces by levers and pulleys, as in older aircraft. Instead, commands are fed to computers which in turn send signals to the engines and hydraulics. This so-called fly-by-wire technology has huge advantages. Doing away with mechanical connections saves weight, and therefore fuel. There are fewer moving components to go wrong, the slender electronic wiring and computers all have multiple backups, and the on-board processors take much of the workload off the pilots. Better still, they are programmed to compensate for human error.
The side sticks are also wonderfully clever. Once a command is given, say a 10 degree left turn, the pilot can let the stick go and concentrate on other issues while the 10 degree turn is perfectly maintained. According to Stephen King of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, it’s an admired and popular design. “Most Airbus pilots I know love it because of the reliable automation that allows you to manage situations and not be so fatigued by the mechanics of flying.” There is no more hugging a wheel to keep a manoeuvre going; and no longer does the cockpit feel more cramped in a climb then in descent (“house full” or “house empty” as some crew say on aircraft with old-fashioned columns).
But being small and discreet is not always a good thing. Nor is the fact that the second pilot’s stick stays in neutral whatever the input to the other. As Stephen King concedes, “It’s not immediately apparent to one pilot what the other pilot may be doing with the control stick, unless he makes a big effort to look across to the other side of the flight deck, which is not easy. In any case the side stick is held back for only a few seconds, so you have to see the action being taken.”
Thus it was that even when Bonin had the A330’s nose pointed upward during the fatal stall his colleagues failed to comprehend what was going on. It seems clear from the transcripts that Robert assumed the plane was flying level or even descending. Robert himself was panicking: “We still have the engines! What the hell is happening? I don’t understand what’s happening.” Ninety seconds after the emergency began the captain was back in the cockpit demanding. “What the hell are you doing?” At which both pilots responded: “We’ve lost control of the plane!”
Dubois took the seat behind his colleagues and for a while was as perplexed as they were. It was pitch black outside, warning lights were flashing and some of the screens were blank. The men in front of him partially blocked his view and evidently he did not take much notice of a horizon indicator, which must have shown that the plane was still being held nose up. The Airbus was soon falling through the night at 11,000 feet per minute, twice as fast as its forward travel. Only 45 seconds before impact Bonin blurted out that he had been trying to climb throughout the emergency, giving his colleagues the first indication of what had been going wrong. There is one final, dramatic exchange:
02:13:40 (Robert) “Climb… climb… climb… climb…”
02:13:40 (Bonin) “But I’ve had the stick back the whole time!”
02:13:42 (Dubois) “No, no, no… Don’t climb… no, no.”
02:13:43 (Robert) “Descend… Give me the controls… Give me the controls!”
Robert takes control and finally lowers the nose but at that moment a new hazard warning sounds, telling them the surface of the sea is fast approaching. Robert realises the ghastly truth – that he hasn’t enough height to dive to pick up speed. The flight is doomed.
02:14:23 (Robert) “Damn it, we’re going to crash… This can’t be happening!”
02:14:25 (Bonin) “But what’s going on?”
The captain, now acutely aware of the aircraft’s pitch, has the final word:
02:14:27 (Dubois) “Ten degrees of pitch…”
There the recording ends.
Mercifully, data recordings and impact damage on debris confirm the Airbus was still more or less level when it hit the sea. Some of the passengers might have dozed throughout the descent; others may have attributed violent buffeting and tilting to turbulence. Those in window seats would have seen only darkness. There is reason to hope there was not too much panic on board, but this is small consolation.
It seems surprising that Airbus has conceived a system preventing one pilot from easily assessing the actions of the colleague beside him. And yet that is how their latest generations of aircraft are designed. The reason is that, for the vast majority of the time, side sticks are superb. “People are aware that they don’t know what is being done on the other side stick but most of the time the crews fly in full automation; they are not even touching the stick,” says Balpa’s Stephen King. “We hand-fly the aeroplane ever less now because automation is reliable and efficient, and because fatigue is an issue and it unloads us that way. It’s not an issue that comes up – very rarely does the other pilot’s input cause you consternation.”
Boeing has always begged to differ, persisting with conventional controls on its fly-by-wire aircraft, including the new 787 Dreamliner. Boeing’s cluttering and old-fashioned levers still have to be pushed and turned like the old mechanical ones even though they only send electronic impulses to computers. They need to be held in place for a climb or a turn to be accomplished, which some pilots think is archaic and distracting. Some say Boeing is so conservative because most American pilots graduate from flying schools where column-steering is the norm, whereas European airlines train more crew from scratch, allowing a quicker transition to side stick control. Whatever the cultural differences there is a perceived safety issue too. The American manufacturer was concerned about the side stick’s lack of visual and physical feedback. Indeed, it is hard to believe AF447 would have fallen from the sky if it had been a Boeing. Had a traditional yoke been installed on Flight AF447 David Robert would surely have realised that his junior colleague had the lever pulled back and mostly kept it there. When Marc Dubois returned to the cockpit he would have seen that Bonin was pulling up the nose.
There is another clever gizmo on the Airbus intended to make life simpler for the pilots but which could confound them if they are distracted and overloaded. Computers can automatically adjust the engine thrust to maintain whatever speed is selected by the crew. This means pilots do not need to keep fine-tuning the throttles on the cockpit’s centre console to control the power. But a curious feature of ‘autothrust’ is that it bypasses the manual levers entirely – they simply do not move. This means pilots cannot sense the power setting by touching or glancing at the throttle levers. Instead they have to check their computer screens. Again Boeing have adopted a different philosophy. They told me, “We have heard, again and again from airline pilots that the absence of motion with the Airbus flight deck is rather unsettling to them.” In Boeing’s system the manual handles move in automatic mode.
All the indications are that the final crash report will confirm the initial findings and call for better training and procedures. With the exception of Air France, which has a vested interest in avoiding culpability, no-one has publicly challenged the Airbus cockpit design. And while Air France has modified the pitots on its fleet it has done nothing and, until now, said nothing about side sticks.
It is extremely unlikely that there will ever be another disaster quite like AF447. Flight crews have already had the lessons drummed into them and routine refresher courses on simulators have been upgraded to replicate AF447 high-level stalls. Airbus has an excellent safety record – at least as good as Boeing – and, even now, A330s are rated one of the most trustworthy planes in the sky having flown six trillion miles with just this single accident. In general commercial flying is easily the least dangerous way to travel – far safer than car journeys to or from the airport – and it has become safer every decade. Despite the vast growth of civil aviation fewer people were killed in accidents last year involving airlines throughout the globe than died in UK-registered planes alone in the 1950s. But while more and more of us take to the air each year, any single crash is enough to damage confidence.
Thus, on this one issue, Airbus should go back to the drawing board. Its ingenious engineering designed to make things better and easier for pilots has unintentionally made it harder for them to understand what their colleagues are doing when under pressure.
Yet there is no sign that the official inquiry will call for a change to the inert controls, and Airbus remains confident that its approach is perfectly safe. It will resist what it regards as a retrograde step to return to faux-mechanical controls. The company is unable to speak openly while the investigation continues but as someone close to the manufacturer put it, “The ergonomic systems were absolutely not contrived by engineers and imposed on the pilot community. They were developed by pilots from many airlines working closely with the engineers. What’s more, it has all been tested and certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency and the regulators in the US, and approved by lots of airlines.” One Airbus defender put it like this: “When you drive you don’t look at the pedals to judge your speed. You look at the speedometer. It’s the same when flying. You don’t look at the joystick. You look at the instruments in front of you.”
Of course there is a problem with that analogy. Drivers manoeuvre by looking out of the windows, physically steering and sensing pressure on the accelerator or the brake. The speedometer is usually the only instrument a motorist needs to monitor, except sometimes the fuel gauge or the heater. An airline pilot flying with zero visibility depends on instruments for direction, pitch, altitude, angle of climb or descent, turn, yaw and thrust and has to keep an eye out for several dozen settings and lights for the engines and onboard systems. Flying a big plane manually can be a lot of work, especially if warnings go off and anxiety sets in.
Nonetheless Airbus has sometimes interpreted pilot dissent as a union-inspired smokescreen to deflect attention from pilots who are not up to the job. As one employee put it, “it’s the only way they can justify why some pilots have failed in the cockpit.”
Perhaps the planemakers would say that, wouldn’t they. Multimillion Euro lawsuits might follow any admission of liability; better to let Air France take all the blame. Yet there is even more to this than huge commercial considerations. It is not technically challenging to build a sense of “feel” into the controls. It has been done for years in military planes, especially trainers where the commanders need to know the inputs made by students. But, as Captain Simon King points out, this belief in automation, and in particular the elegantly simple side sticks, are part of Airbus’s very soul. “That is not in Airbus’s design philosophy; they would not see that as a need. They are completely happy that the aircraft cannot get into the flight envelope they do not want it in, because of the protections built into the aircraft. It’s just that those protections did not work on this occasion.”
If Airbus wants to stick with its sophisticated sticks it should acknowledge that they really do involve an element of risk, a small but an avoidable risk. Once bitten, twice shy. The next generation could be improved by incorporating the best of both worlds, merging the convenience of the side stick with the merits of Boeing’s old-school yoke, providing clear visual indication and strong tactile feedback.
Good design mitigates human error; the best design eliminates it. In civil aviation default to safety should not be an option.
The concerns expressed in this article were formally submitted as evidence to the French inquiry .
From The Daily Telegraph 2 June 2014
The ‘Saatchi Bill’: can a PR guru cure cancer?
Lord Saatchi’s medican innovations Bill won’t encourage good research – and, in its original form, could have opened the door for dangerous quackery
By Nick Ross
Lord Saatchi has promoted a private Bill whose supporters have implied it might help to cure cancer. Unsurprisingly his idea has drawn a lot of approval from the public, and even from the Telegraph. After all, who could be against innovation in medicine?
Sadly the Bill is misnamed and misguided. It will not promote invention, it will not help cure cancer or any other disease and it could be harmful. Thankfully it is being substantially revised, but even so it could well set the clock back.
How is that possible?
The answer is that Lord Saatchi, though a grieving widower and a PR genius, is not a medical researcher, or even a scientist. He believes that doctors are held back from prescribing innovative treatments out of fear of litigation. Many have told him there is an “invisible red light” which holds them back. But it is a fantasy, and if some doctors misunderstand the facts they need to be better advised. Neither he nor his supporters can cite a single instance where legitimate research has been hampered in this way. Medical research faces too much red tape but it is not besieged by hyena lawyers. The NHS Litigation Authority says such claims are vanishingly rare. In fact clinical research accounts for only 0.01 per cent of NHSLA payments, and these were cases where recklessness was alleged. The biggest defence group in the world which defends doctors against litigation is the Medical Protection Society and it too opposes the Bill. It says bluntly it has “seen no evidence that a fear of clinical negligence claims is holding back medical innovation”.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the Bill was simply unnecessary, but as first drafted it was positively dangerous. It proposed to give clinicians legal immunity if they try new things out. But breakthroughs in medical research are made systematically, one step at a time involving scrupulous trials with ethical oversight and peer review. It would be reckless to return to the age freelance have-a-go heroes who experiment on their patients. This would undermine evidence-based medicine.
ntil this week the Bill required that there must be “plausible reasons why the proposed treatment might be effective”. But it did not require scientifically plausible reasons. To quacks, faith healers, fools and conmen (and sadly even some qualified physicians) almost anything is plausible, including meridians, spirits, water memory and laying on of hands.
In any case, plausible theories can be, and have often proved to be, spectacularly and fatally misleading. Laying babies to sleep on their stomachs (so they don’t ingest vomit) was a plausible idea that resulted in thousands of cot deaths. Dozens of other half-baked ideas – giving oxygen to premature babies or steroids for brain injury – have taught how persuasively dangerous credible notions can be.
Maurice Saatchi invited me to discuss my concerns with him three months ago and graciously accepted that the Bill should be amended (a) to avoid opening the flood gates to quackery or to buccaneering experimentation on vulnerable patients; and (b) to provide for the essential importance of disseminating results.
Meanwhile, the magnificence of the Saatchi marketing machine has overshadowed the fact that bulk of the medical research community has since come out against the Bill including the NHS Health Research Authority, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, medical research charities such as Cancer Research UK, the General Medical Council, the Medical Protection Society the British Pharmacological Society and senior lawyers like Robert Francis QC. [You can see a selection of the opponents here.]
To his great credit Maurice Saatchi has been listening. His new version is to be published on Thursday and it will embody fundamental changes. For a start it will specifically exclude research – the very thing it was touted to be liberating. And, thank heavens, it will now require consultation with appropriately qualified colleagues, including any relevant multidisciplinary team. Of course if appropriately qualified doctors and multi-disciplinary teams are all outside the scientific consensus, as is the case in dubious clinics in Switzerland and Mexico for example, even downright quackery would be covered by this clause. But above all the revised Bill is likely to retreat from its founding principle, which was to insulate doctors from common law. It will now specifically acknowledge that nothing in the Bill is intended to stop patients suing doctors for negligence.
In essence then, the revised Bill will simply allow doctors to do what they can do already, which is to try out last-ditch remedies. But there will be an advance. Although it is not yet in the one-and-a-half-page draft to be published this week, his staff have made me a “copper-bottomed” promise that Lord Saatchi will make further amendments to seek to collect results of all these desperate measures and will disseminate results.
Since more work is to be done maybe the Bill could yet be turned to much greater advantage. I have proposed to Lord Saatchi that he could rebalance the Bill to tackle the real problem of healthcare litigation. This is the 99.99 per cent of claims that have nothing to do with innovation but drain the health service of £2.25 billion a year, are of serious concern to clinicians, create a burden on legal aid and cause a great deal of personal distress. Claims against surgeons and physicians range from the spurious, sometimes whipped up to a froth by greedy lawyers, to the tragic, which damaged patients sometimes find hard to pursue; but all of them are hugely expensive and a big distraction. The legal costs can dwarf the actual damages awards and they very frequently deter health authorities from challenging questionable claims.
Claims should first go to mediation or arbitration with some right of appeal to an ombudsman. The ombudsman’s decision would be binding but in turn he or she could, if a case was thought to be particularly serious or of public importance, refer the matter to the courts.
There are good precedents for legally binding arbitration, and the ombudsman system is well-established and highly regarded. But in any case the principles of reconciliation and escalation would be a big advance on the damaging adversarial process we now have. And it could save the NHS a ten figure sum each year.
Meanwhile a Bill which promises to free us from unnecessary restraint, and is riding the surf of a brilliant publicity campaign, misses the big picture to solve a problem which is largely just one of perception.
Thunderer column 20 April 2012
Once upon a time if you were the victim of a crime it was up to you to bring the culprit before the courts. There were no police and no CPS. You even had to pay for the prosecution. So in some ways it was a huge advance when, around the middle of the nineteenth century, the State took over that responsibility. But there was an unintended consequence. Victims became marginalised, and sometimes irrelevant to the criminal justice system. Even now victims of crime often the smallest cog in the machine. Money and attention goes on the offender while the victims are left in the dark.
So, when Victim Support was established almost 40 years ago, one of its priorities was to move crime victims higher up the food chain – and in many ways they were successful. Things have improved hugely. Sometimes it may seem irritating – such as a letter offering you help for what you regard as a relatively trivial offence – but there is no way of telling who will take a trauma in their stride and who will find a minor theft distressing. The most important thing is that the whole judicial system is increasingly coming to recognise that victims aren’t irrelevant – they are the raison d’étre of much of policing and of the criminal courts.
Now the government wants to go further. It wants to decentralise power so that local people have more say. Brilliant.
Or so the coalition politicians say. In fact some of their proposals are silly and dangerous. They are powered by initiativitis – the political necessity to be seen to have ideas and momentum even if none is really needed. And they are ideologically inspired – that is to say they are driven by faith and theory rather than by rigorously testing ideas out before imposing them across the nation.
In essence the government wants to scrap the national support system for all victims in favour of handing the money and the power to purchase victim services to 42 newly-elected police and crime commissioners.
Let’s set aside for a moment the likelihood that the elections for these commissioners will be a hollow form of democracy inasmuch as few voters seem likely to opt for individuals as opposed to party rosettes and even fewer will be well-informed about the arcane and often counterintuitive realities of crime and victimisation. Even if elected commissioners were intrinsically a good idea the dismantling of a national approach to victim services would amount to vandalism.
By breaking up national support for victims of crime, the government will be turning back the clock. Victim Support used to be a federation of small, local charities. I was an adviser to Victim Support for many years and I saw first-hand how this structure meant many local members struggled to manage their finances, and the quality of care for victims of crime often fell far short of the consistent standard people can rely on today.
When Victim Support came together as a national charity, it managed to overcome those problems, halving its governance costs while improving standards and increasing fundraising.
Importantly, all this was achieved not by abandoning localism but through recruiting it to a more integrated and efficient whole. This national backbone of support is still delivered by a network of over 7,000 local volunteers. The government talks about the importance of localism – Victim Support is a model of how the Big Society and localism should work. Victim Support provides guaranteed standards, delivered by local volunteers, wherever a crime takes place and the victim wants advice or help.
There are many other reasons to be unenthusiastic about the government’s proposals. Not least is the claim that new victim services will be paid for by fines and surcharges on offenders. Oh yeah? This sort of quackery is usually the preserve of political opportunists and leadership wannabes who claim they can increase spending without raising taxes. It is all very well for a court to impose financial sanctions and most law-abiding people naturally assume the offenders are compliant. But in reality it is notoriously difficult to make sure fines get paid. If ministers are so certain all this new cash will be forthcoming let them pledge it now from the Treasury. The fact that they won’t speaks volumes.
I do not doubt the coalition’s sincere desire to do more for victims of crime. But I do challenge their reasoning. By all means think radically, and by all means demand new efficiencies and economies if that is what this is really all about. But if the real concern is about an individual citizen whose homes has been violated by burglars, whose confidence has been shattered by conmen, or perhaps has been assaulted or worse, then our priority should not be to break up a world class service in the idealistic hope of getting something better.
Please politicians, think again.
Why 30 years on Crimewatch is still a force for good
Ahead of an anniversary special edition, former presenter Nick Ross explains how the police were initially fiercely opposed to the BBC’s flagship crime show
13 Sep 2014
Nick Ross: ‘I was especially affected by the death of a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Maartje Tamboezer, whose family had moved to England from the Netherlands and who was waylaid and murdered on a lonely rural path on a glorious summer day in Sussex’ Photo: Anthony Upton/The Telegraph
By Nick Ross
It so nearly didn’t happen. Thirty years ago, one of television’s most successful shows was almost stillborn. The BBC was sceptical and the police didn’t want it at all. When it was finally commissioned, we were only cleared to go live 15 minutes before we were due on air. Yet despite these most inauspicious of beginnings, Crimewatch went on to become a national institution.
The idea of police appeals goes back to the earliest ”wanted’’ posters but it was first turned into a television format in 1962 with Police 5, a five-minute appeal in London only, on ITV. (Amazingly, Channel 5 has just revived the concept with its original presenter, Shaw Taylor, who is now 89.) In 1967 a German TV station went one step further, dramatising crimes using actors. It was this that inspired Crimewatch. A tape was shown to several people at the BBC who were unimpressed, but one producer realised its potential. Peter Chafer conceived a version that would be the epitome of public service broadcasting, a crime show that would be engaging but in the service of victims and potentially of huge help to police.
Yet the police turned out to be the biggest problem. They simply didn’t trust us. They thought we would trivialise the suffering of victims or take artistic liberties with the truth and endanger the legal process. It took months of painstaking negotiations to persuade three forces out of more than 50 to take part in a non-broadcast pilot. I had just helped launch breakfast TV, but had been working for Peter Chafer, and when Des Lynham was unavailable to try out the new show, Peter invited me as front man to join the fledgling Crimewatch team.
Looking back at an old tape it seems almost like a joke. The set was primitive, the props – including a vast once-stolen cash register – looked absurd, the police performances were wooden. And since our efforts were only seen by the studio crew there was no way of knowing whether audiences would want to watch, let alone call in with information. Yet with most police forces still hostile, three programmes were commissioned to fill the summer schedules. Each would feature an update later that evening to report back on any progress.
The BBC had suffered a long strike by scenery crews which meant our set hadn’t been completed. As the minutes ticked by to live transmission, carpenters were trying to secure a huge glass screen to separate me and my onscreen partner Sue Cook from the police behind. It was essential to prevent our microphones picking up sound from confidential calls behind us, but it was hanging so precariously that our director warned the BBC’s control room that we might not get on air. It was secured with just 15 minutes to go. The hammering stopped, the scenery crew dispersed, and without rehearsal we were off.
Crimewatch UK, our original name, was a conceit since most police were boycotting us. But that first show contained lots of innovations, not least promising interaction with viewers, computer-generated maps, and two police officers, Helen Phelps and David Hatcher, as co-presenters. Technically the show went brilliantly, but when I glanced behind me I noticed the detectives were staring at the cameras. None was on the phone. Maybe the audience didn’t believe that our appeals for help were real. Or maybe nobody was watching.
To my relief I saw a handset being lifted, and within 20 minutes almost all the officers were taking calls. Our first reconstruction had been about the murder of 16-year-old hairdresser Colette Aram in Nottinghamshire, and before we came off air we had heard from around 400 viewers. The appeal was unsuccessful (that terrible crime was only solved a quarter of a century later through advances in profiling DNA), but viewers were hooked, the police discovered we could help, and the BBC extended our run to 11 shows.
The year was 1984 – and George Orwell’s Big Brother connotations were lost on no one. What Peter Chafer thought was the essence of public service broadcasting was criticised by some for being an apologist for the police, for exploiting crime to get big ratings and for increasing fear of crime with our dramatic reconstructions.
Actually, I shared that last concern. As the first programme was drawing to a close, I acknowledged that our priority was major crimes which, by definition, are the rarest. I added: “Don’t have nightmares, at least not on our account. We’ve shown more nasty crimes tonight than most police officers will encounter in a lifetime. And hundreds of people are calling in to help. So do sleep well.”
Peter Chafer liked it. So much so that despite my protests that the sign-off would seem formulaic, he insisted I say it at the end of every programme – as I did for more than 23 years. Crimewatch soon produced results. Frustratingly, it could be difficult to report arrests out of fears that we might be in contempt of court because each case took months to get to trial. Also – as in the murders of Sarah Payne and James Bulger – it was sometimes hard to know how decisive Crimewatch information was or whether a case might have been solved anyway.
And one case we got wrong. Several calls about the murder of Rachel Nickell, who had been stabbed on Wimbledon Common in 1992, named a local unemployed man, Colin Stagg, with one piece of information that seemed vital. It turned out the viewers were mistaken, but their calls added to detectives’ suspicions about Stagg, who was subjected to a police honey-trap, arrested, charged and eventually acquitted. The killer wasn’t found for 13 years and is now in Broadmoor.
But often the outcome was sensational and occasionally the atmosphere in the studio was electric. One night I remember vividly was an appeal on the murder of Julie Dart and the abduction of Stephanie Slater, a case that was making headline news. Stephanie had been through an appalling ordeal; raped, confined in something like a coffin and only released when a ransom had been paid. But she proved a remarkable witness and we were able to reconstruct a lot of detail she recalled, not least that her abductor had a limp, the colour of his car and that every now and then she had heard what sounded like a cash register’s ker-ching.
One viewer was nonplussed. Her ex-husband lived in the area, he had a limp, in fact he had an artificial leg, had the same accent and his car was just as Stephanie described. Her son was watching too and rang her up. Surely, he said, it can’t be dad. That led detectives to check out Michael Sams. At his garage, where he had his workshop, they found a sliding door. As it opened, a warning bell went off. It went ker-ching.
Yet, strangely perhaps, it wasn’t the successes that made the biggest impression on the team. It was the victims. People’s reactions to crime were surprisingly unpredictable. A relatively minor event could make a family want to move home while occasionally a horrific trauma was met with equanimity. One evening I sat in a cutting room having offered Merlyn Nuttall a preview of our reconstruction of her ordeal in 1992. She had been raped and had her throat cut before being left for dead in a burning building. After watching the tape, we were close to tears. She was perfectly composed. ”Yes,’’ she said quietly, “that’s very accurate. Thank you.”
The nobility of Suzy Lamplugh’s parents also deeply impressed me, after their daughter was abducted in Fulham in 1986, and I kept in touch for years with Suzy’s mother, Diana, who died in 2011.
Sometimes the brutality of crime affected us deeply, a few much more than others for no obvious reason. I was especially affected by the death of a schoolgirl, Maartje Tamboezer, whose family had moved to England from the Netherlands and who was waylaid and murdered on a lonely rural path on a glorious summer day in Sussex. And I was deeply moved by the pluckiness of Josie Russell, who survived a crazed hammer attack in Kent in 1996 which killed her mother Lin and sister Megan.
There were exasperations, too. One was the reluctance of the BBC to acknowledge the fall in crime which began in 1995. The huge reduction is now almost universally accepted but for 20 years the good news was an extraordinary media secret. My colleagues knew it too but were reluctant to break ranks and court controversy.
Another frustration was people leaping to conclusions that didn’t fit the facts, like blaming Gerry and Kate McCann for the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine. It is now seven years since the three-year-old went missing while on holiday with her family in Praia da Luz, Portugal, and the case, which is still open, will be featured in Crimewatch’s 30th anniversary show next week.
We also had to fight the human urge to believe in conspiracy theories when there were more prosaic explanations. I felt this most acutely after the murder of my co-presenter, Jill Dando, in 1999. Her death was shocking. The team was in mourning. Everyone was fearful. Would whoever shot her come after us as well? But while the media went into overdrive about a gangland killing or wilder fantasies about Serbian assassinations, none of the facts fitted a professional hit, not least the clumsy use of a home-made weapon or the unplanned getaway on foot down a long straight road. Usually it’s the lack of coherence that makes a crime so hard to solve. It was galling when the police spent so much time chasing shadows.
Jill is still mourned by us but Crimewatch has moved on. I left the show in 2007, along with Jill’s replacement Fiona Bruce. But although you can take a presenter out of Crimewatch, you can’t take Crimewatch out of a presenter. I had no interest in crime when I was recruited but I have become intrigued by victimisation as a social issue. I became an adviser to Victim Support, am on the board of Crimestoppers, helped found a new discipline of Crime Science at University College London, which we named in honour of Jill Dando, and I have written a major book on why crime rose and fell.
But the spirit of Crimewatch lives on, as I discovered when I was interviewed for Tuesday’s special programme. The new production staff are as enthusiastic as we were. They really believe in Crimewatch as a force for good. And so, still, do I.
© Nick Ross 2014
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