In My Opinion: John Maclean: The Clutha tragedy and being on the receiving end of a media frenzy

AT 10.30pm two Fridays ago I was doing my ‘Daddy’s Taxi Service’ shuttle, collecting my 17 year-old daughter and her pal in the South Side of Glasgow, when my wife called to say: “I think you’d better pull in to the side of the road. Grace wants you to go and pick her up – a helicopter has just crashed into the pub she’s in.”

It took a few seconds for me to realise this message was for real. My 22 year-old daughter had been caught up in a horrific, barely imaginable incident.

I headed into the city centre via the Gorbals, taking a detour at the River Clyde where the bridge was blocked by police. Beyond them, I could see a wall of blue and red flashing lights outside the Clutha Vaults, a pub I knew well.

I collected my daughter nearby. She was with a friend, both of whom had been in the bar when the stricken ‘copter had landed on the roof. By sheer good fortune, she had been on the other side of the pub from where the ceiling had collapsed, trapping numerous regulars.

On the journey home, Grace and her friend gave me their recollections of what had happened. As a seasoned hack with 35 years’ experience, I knew this was dramatic eyewitness testimony. Any newspaper or TV station would welcome it.

But I also knew my daughter was badly shaken. Chalk white and clearly shocked, I reasoned that the last thing she needed was the world’s media quizzing her. At that moment I had to be a dad first and journalist last.

Despite having her own flat, Grace clearly welcomed the chance to be with her parents and siblings at such a traumatic time. With her settled down with a cuppa and a laptop, I snuck out to the local for a pint.

Ten minutes later, I got a text from my wife: “Turn on BBC News.” The pub telly was switched on, the sound turned up, and there was my daughter explaining live on air what had happened.

By the time I had got home, she had been phoned by Sky News. Then CNN. Then the BBC again for a radio interview.

How did that happen? Grace explained she had put a message out on Twitter to let her friends know she’d been in the Clutha but was OK.

Immediately, I realised that a BBC News reporter must have been trawling for Tweets that mentioned, “Clutha”. He or she had sent a message to my daughter, who’d then phoned the Beeb.

How Sky News and CNN got her phone number so soon afterwards was a mystery. But by then the BBC wanted Grace to appear on any number of different radio and TV news programmes.

She eventually told them she had to go to bed. It was 3am.

Next morning, the BBC started phoning again, just after 8am. Then the CID arrived at the door to take a lengthy statement as they tried to pinpoint where everyone had been in the bar at the time of the crash.

A quick check online revealed that news agencies had lifted Grace’s quotes from her BBC interviews and sent them round the world.

While the police were still speaking to my daughter, a freelance reporter turned up at our door; an old colleague who got a shock when I was the one to answer.

He was on duty for a Sunday newspaper which had scoured Grace’s Twitter account for clues, then searched the Electoral Roll to find her last-known address.

I had to explain that my daughter didn’t want to speak to anyone at that point. Emotionally, she was exhausted by saying the same things over and over, especially as each retelling reinforced in her mind how incredibly fortunate she had been to emerge unscathed from the pub the night before.

He accepted my explanation on condition that I wasn’t trying to ‘sell’ her story to rival.

With decades of experience of working for Sunday newspapers, I knew better than to regard that suggestion as an insult.

However, I knew the phone calls and possibly doorstepping would continue.

I told Grace I would send out a longer version of her quotes to the Sunday papers. She agreed. I also sent out a ‘head shot’ photo to replace one which had been lifted from her Twitter pages.

This, I assured her, would give the papers what they wanted and they would leave us alone. Any payments would go to charity, we agreed.

Then I took my daughter to her friend’s house. Her phone was out of charge. I told her to keep it that way. It meant I would be telling the truth when I told other newspapers she could not be contacted.

It felt strange to be on the other side of the fence from the media pack. I still remember the frenzy up in Aberdeen 25 years ago following the Piper Alpha disaster when I was among hundreds of reporters from all over the world searching for an ‘exclusive’ line to send back to our editors.

I remember, too, how uncomfortable I felt approaching workers who had experienced horrendous trauma and relatives who were clearly stricken with grief. I tiptoed in with apologies for my intrusion while other reporters who were more experienced, and probably more effective from their paper’s point of view, breenged ahead with a mix of cynicism and insensitivity.

For my daughter, her spell in the media glare was, thankfully, short-lived. Her words appeared in many Sunday papers – some based on what I had sent in, others on what the news agencies had transmitted the night before.

By then, there were more compelling and heart-rending tales to be told about the tragedy at the Clutha.

As a family, we’d had an insight into the ‘media monster’ in action on a worldwide news story, its thousands of tentacles searching desperately on a second-by-second basis for fresh ‘meat’ and alert enough to pounce on a single Tweet.

For me, it was an illuminating experience. I’d had to act contrary to my journalistic instincts and practise some on-the-spot news management on behalf of my daughter.

Thankfully, the vast majority of those journalists who spoke to us exhibited good manners and understanding.

All in all, I feel the media here in Scotland dealt with this tragedy – with the families of those who died and with those badly injured – with great professionalism and a genuine sense of decency.

John Maclean is editorial director of The Glasgow Press, publishers of The Govan Press, SouthSide Press and East Renfrewshire Press.