Contacts, cameras, coffee: field-producing abroad

A report on the seven days I spent in Málaga and Seville producing and fixing for Sky News on the Ashya King story

The Hospital Materno-Infantil in Málaga, where we were based for a week

The Hospital Materno-Infantil in Málaga, where we were based for a week

Call the family lawyers and confirm the time of the morning’s press conference. No answer. Text the lawyers. Call London to discuss our next live update. Order another round of coffees. Email the law firm. Get an answer. Tell the reporter the latest lines. Find out when the nearest Vodafone outlet opens. Have a slurp of coffee. Ensure the live interview goes OK. Set off for the phone shop to buy more SIM cards for the camera so that we can continue to broadcast.

There are many jobs on a field producer’s to-do list out in the field on a breaking news story, and every hour requires different obligations as the conditions of the story move. I was in Spain on my first foreign field-producing deployment for Sky News. I was sent out there by the foreign desk because I am fluent in Spanish and I am an experienced output producer, so I understand the needs and demands of the production teams in London. I was teaming up with the channel’s correspondent and cameraman working on the news about five-year-old British cancer sufferer Ashya King, who had been taken to Andalusia from Southampton General Hospital by his parents without medical approval.

Ashya's father, Brett King, in a media scrum in Seville

Ashya’s father, Brett King, in a media scrum in Seville

The story involved three countries and broke off in different directions throughout the week and you have to be able to react to the new lines on a story whatever they may be. For example, Mr and Mrs King were apprehended, arrested and held in jail in Madrid and then released suddenly on Tuesday night and they were said to be giving a news conference the next morning in Seville. It was hot and sticky on that September evening and we’d been working all day under the belting sun, running around outside the children’s hospital but our team had to re-position for this potential news briefing. It was coming up to the time that we would be calling into London to stand down and then head back to the hotel for a cool shower and some rest. But instead I found myself jogging up the road to a bar to try to grab some sandwiches for us to eat in the car as we were sent to drive the two hours north-west to the Andalusian capital.

This was my first overseas fixing job and it was racing along in the style of a true breaking news story.  So that evening the three of us piled into the Volvo SUV and as the cameraman drove us out in the clear night of the southern Spanish hills, the reporter sent emails and wrote a script outline for an update to her news piece, and I tried to get in contact with the family’s legal team, a contact in Madrid and book a hotel for the three of us, in between fistfuls of cheese crisps.

I had landed in Spain only that morning and had been straight into the thick of the story, burning through my phone battery emailing, calling, texting, tweeting and trying to keep abreast and – where possible – push ahead on the story. Because I spoke the local language, I could make ‘ins’ and contacts at the hospital just through chatting and keeping my eyes peeled and ears pricked. I felt that the team benefited and was able react quicker than usual because I could tap into the local Málaga atmosphere and speak Spanish and this improved our field work.

One woman I met happened to have a child on the same ward as the five-year-old (‘Heart-wrenching time for lonely Ashya’; shoulder article on the right-hand side) and she spoke to me about the atmosphere and security on the ward. I used this chance to offer more content back to the London newsroom, in the form of an online article. So while the correspondent was outside doing a live update with the cameraman, relaying the latest lines I had uncovered, I was in the hire car furiously typing up the article above. It was good to be able to offer the teams back home another angle and type of content on top of the live updates and packages.

Some of the live camera equipment. The orange cable on the left ran round to the car's battery, which we had to use for power at times

Some of the live camera equipment. The orange cable on the left ran round to the car’s battery, which we had to use for power at times

Our job is, in essence, to tell stories, and the producer needs to be thinking several steps ahead on separate levels to allow us to do this to the best of our ability. Where should the live position be?  Where is the nearest plug socket? Are we allowed to park here? Is there a coffee shop nearby? Although I spent most of my time in Málaga, this was far from a beachside foreign jolly. I only saw the Mediterranean Sea once, from the passenger seat of a taxi haring along a motorway to an out-of-town shopping centre to try to find somewhere on a Sunday that sold rechargeable SIM cards.

The story took in authorities from three countries and we worked with our colleagues in London and Prague to share contacts and this helped us, while the story was still in Spain, to chase leads and break lines regularly. I made sure I knew what the local media were saying and I used our sources wisely and confidentially.

The national Spanish broadcast media covering the news

The national Spanish broadcast media covering the news

I worked across two teams, as after a couple of days the first reporter and cameraman were pulled out back to the UK and I stayed on with the Brussels-based team. As part of a foreign news crew, I needed to get to grips quickly with all aspects of the job. So while running our technical equipment came under my cameraman colleague’s remit, I needed to help him out with certain tasks, be it translating an invoice or hopping in a taxi back to the hotel to pick up a satellite dish. Our correspondent was the one writing the scripts, planning the live content and producing polished, informative reports, but there were tasks that required my help. What was said in the last update in Spanish from the health authorities? Which of the new lines from our sources are the most solid? What are the local newspapers saying on the story today?

I had packed a week’s worth of luggage, not knowing if I would be out for a couple of days or much longer. There is no surefire way of predicting the direction a breaking news story can take. One evening the story slowed down for the day and so we went back to the hotel for some food and a couple of glasses of beer. The next evening the story slowed down once more and so we went back to the hotel. We had been in our rooms for barely ten minutes when the call came through that the UK courts had agreed to allow the family to take the child from hospital in Spain to the Czech Republic for their preferred treatment of proton beam therapy. So that meant grabbing the bottles of water and packets of peanuts from the fridge in the room and charging back down to the hospital to set up our live point and get the correspondent in position to reflect the news. After a long day the nutritious dinner we had anticipated took the shape of the mini-bar’s Toblerone and a can of Fanta.

It was a fantastic and challenging seven days in Spain. We had long days working under the 37C sun but I was proud to have been able to provide continuity between the two teams when they changed over. I maintained the contacts and logistics and this meant the two teams could cross over smoothly, leaving me in place as the producer. It was ideal to have two teams who were so experienced on deployments abroad to guide me through and to share knowledge and stories of other overseas reporting jobs. I was tired when the job came to end but I also felt elated at the work we had put out and I realised how much I had enjoyed the pace and demands of foreign field producing.