It’s what 24 hour news channels are perhaps most well known for – ‘Breaking News’. I’ve covered many breaking news stories during my ten years as a presenter on Sky News including the death of Amy Winehouse, the dramatic end of the Sydney siege, the terror attack on the Canadian Parliament and the mass shootings at the Batman premiere at a cinema in Colorado. However, undoubtedly the biggest breaking news story I have anchored was the shocking and sudden death of the most famous man on the planet – Michael Jackson.
Just as I sat down in the presenter’s chair on that evening in June 2009 we were hearing that Michael Jackson had been taken to hospital, but that was all. We decided to start rolling coverage there and then. That means throwing the planned running order out of the window and presenting without any script. We knew this was a big story. All we had was a live helicopter shot from the hospital where Michael Jackson had been taken and our Sky News US correspondent to talk to. Pretty soon there started to be online speculation that Michael Jackson was seriously ill. We managed to get through to the hospital and confirm he was there, and indeed was in a critical condition.
But then the entertainment website TMZ reported he had died – I have to admit I was shocked. This was a website with a good track record in breaking entertainment stories accurately and ahead of anyone else. The producer made the call that we would report that TMZ were saying he had died. As I spoke the words I felt a huge sense of responsibility – I was the first UK broadcaster to break the news that Michael Jackson had died. I was careful in my wording and made it clear we didn’t have independent confirmation but that a well respected website was reporting that he had died. But I was aware this was one of those moments that people would remember for many years – just like with the shocking deaths of John Lennon, Elvis Presley and Princess Diana – people would remember where they were the moment they heard the tragic news.
As with all breaking stories we tell the viewer what we know as we know it – and certainly in this case the audience was on this journey with us. Within 20 minutes the LA Times reported they had independent confirmation that he was dead. There was an instant adrenalin rush. We now had 2 sources confirming the death of arguably the biggest icon on the planet. Like millions of people, Michael Jackson’s music had formed a backdrop to my childhood and I had even performed a routine to one of his songs while at school. He was certainly a controversial character, but there were few people on this planet who hadn’t heard one of his songs and admired his talent. I had to stay calm and collected, and not let emotion take over. I presented live coverage for 5 hours non-stop.
When I walked off set in the early hours of the morning most of the people who worked at Sky News were in the building. It felt like we had been part of something – a huge story that transcended the world of showbiz. This was a cultural event, and for many of us an emotional one.
After several hours of rolling coverage – now in the early hours of the morning - we paused to play one of Michael Jackson’s songs – ‘Don’t stop ‘til you get enough’ – it was the moment we all stopped and looked at one another and realised - wow, Michael Jackson has died...