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Citizen Journalist

London-based theater director Lou Stein played an unexpected role covering the July 7, 2005, terrorist bus bombing in Tavistock Square.


by Lou Stein

It was just before 10 a.m. on a bright summer day in central London. I was sitting at a table by the window of my lower ground floor flat in Tavistock Place, adapting a new version The Possessed, Dostoevski’s novel about the sudden appearance of a radical terrorist cell in a provincial Russian town.

My wife, Deirdre, who is a composer, had left the flat minutes before to do some errands.

Then a thundering, deep boom sounded in the near distance. It was a sickening sound, and I had no doubt it was a bomb. I had been in the vicinity of a bomb before, a small device triggered by a member of the Irish Republican Army on a red bus in the Aldwych area some years ago. But this was a much bigger explosion, with a powerful and almost tangible shock wave. The normally busy central London street outside my flat fell suddenly silent.

My first instinct was to phone my wife. She had only been gone for about five minutes, so she had to be in the immediate vicinity. I dialed her cell phone, but the connection went dead. I redialed. Same thing. I didn’t know at the time that London’s Metropolitan Police had frozen all cell phone calls as part of their state-of-high-alert plan.

The fact that Deirdre hadn’t immediately returned to the flat after the explosion terrified me. In a momentary panic, I dashed up the stairs into Tavistock Place. There was an eerie silence as dozens of people moved quickly away from the site of the explosion. Some sobbed into fellow commuters’ arms, others moved resolutely toward their destinations in a mild state of shock.

I checked the main entrance of our building to see if Deirdre had stopped off there. I found her emerging from the basement studio, with bundles of sheet music in her hands. I almost cried with relief. She hadn’t heard the explosion — she was in the elevator at the time. When it shuddered in response to the explosion, she thought it was a momentary malfunction.

Instinctively, we both walked in the direction of the explosion, which was no more than 50 yards from our flat. It was now about 8 to 10 minutes after I first heard the boom, and the emergency services were frantically trying to cordon off the area. The double-decker red bus looked like a sardine tin with its lid ripped open. It was a chilling sight. I managed to take one shot of the bus with a pocket-sized digital camera that I always carry with me before we were pushed away from the scene by a police officer.

I shot the photo because I believe in the importance of being a witness to events around me. For that reason I sometimes also carry a high-quality MiniDisc recorder to capture sounds.

Returning to our flat I turned on the news. Both the BBC and Sky News were reporting that incidents on the Tube (the London underground transportation system) an hour earlier might have been caused by a power surge on the tracks. Twelve minutes after the Tavistock Square attack, they still had little information about new reports of an explosion on a red bus. I was surprised, then angry, that the television reports still were suggesting the explosions had something to do with a power malfunction in the transport system. None of the news channels showed images of the bus explosion, which would point to an act of terrorism.

I e-mailed my photo to Sky News, which flashed its news desk e-mail address underneath breaking news reports. Within five minutes I received an e-mail back saying that they planned to use my photo — the first broadcast image of the bus. From that moment on, there was no doubt that the explosions were part of a premeditated and lethal act of terrorism.

The 07/07 bombings in London have brought into focus a new phenomenon: the citizen journalist. New technology has made it possible for ordinary citizens to become prime sources of visual, on-the-spot reportage. Although digital images from cell phones weren’t immediately available to the media, once service was restored mobile phone technology accounted for the most emotional and evocative images of the human impact of the bombings. These images changed the way the day was reported.

According to the BBC, citizen journalists took more than 40 percent of the images the network used during its coverage of the incidents. The ability to e-mail images directly from cell phones within a few hours of the attack, the miniaturization of high-quality digital cameras and fast access to news networks through the Internet meant that ordinary witnesses to these extraordinary events stole a march on professional photographers who were unable to cross the police barriers.

The violence of the 07/07 London bombings has left an indelible legacy on the city. My wife, like many Londoners, avoids taking the Tube altogether. For months we both avoided carrying our small backpacks on the street and eyed with suspicion anyone who carried over-sized packs. Although I haven’t cycled for a number of years, I dragged my three-speed bicycle out of the basement.

The bombings also affected my work creatively. Long before the bombings took place, BBC Radio Drama commissioned me to write and direct Dostoevski’s The Possessed. His classic now had stunning relevance. I was so emotionally affected by the events of the summer that I had to stop working on the project for a few months. When I returned to the project, the sounds, images and events of 07/07 were a part of how I approached the adaptation. I have a feeling that my future choice of drama projects will reflect the feelings and conflicts I experienced on that day and in subsequent months.

The London bombings have left a darker legacy on London, too. In the weeks and months after the attacks many people became suspicious of fellow citizens who look Muslim. A good English friend whose family is from India says she constantly feels she is being stared at or even shunned when she travels on the Tube or bus. She now avoids traveling on public transportation completely. The public backlash to the events of 07/07 has made it clear to me that we mustn’t be thrown into the dark ages of racial and religious enmity. If anything it demonstrates how important it is for us to overcome unfocused anger and to be aware of any prejudices that may arise.

The notion of citizen journalism is now a permanent, and important, feature in how news is received and reported.

Even though there are many unresolved issues surrounding it, major networks like the BBC and Sky now take citizen journalism more seriously and have even dedicated new departments to sifting through publicly submitted images and reportage. In personal terms, my role as a citizen journalist in the reporting of the events of 07/07 has made me even more aware of my responsibility to witness, document and report events around me. I’ve even upgraded my mobile camera equipment, and I encourage friends and professional contacts to engage more fully as witnesses to events around them.

In the end, my involvement with the events of 07/07 was instinctive rather than thought through. My initial response could have been to leave the scene quickly for my own safety. I feel proud, however, to have had a “citizen journalist” instinct, which contributed to making sense of a chaotic and insensible day. It has also made me think deeply and thoughtfully about the legacy of such an act of terrorism and the importance of our responsibility to take part in and be aware of the difficult issues that our fragile world faces.

Lou Stein (C72) is founding artistic director of the Gate Theatre in London’s Notting Hill district. Stein was featured on BBC Television’s documentary Citizen Journalist that aired in November 2005.

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Lou Stein at London bus stop
Lou Stein Photo by Deirdre Gribbin
Tavistock Square bombing news flash