After a shambolic and ad-hoc premiership, it’s fitting that Boris Johnson’s time in power crashed to a halt in such a chaotic and ad-hoc way. During this morning’s Today show on Radio 4, BBC political editor Chris Mason was busy filling time with speculation about Johnson’s future when he suddenly stopped mid-sentence. “As I speak to you, I’m getting a call from Downing Street,” he announced, audibly surprised, adding: “I’m going to take that call and come back on to you in just a second.” moments later, he returned to air and announced: “The prime minister has agreed to stand down.”
It was an incredible moment; the sort of spontaneous, unplanned event that can almost single-handedly justify the existence of live news broadcasts. However, we arguably live in a world that contains too much news, so we’ve come to expect a level of messiness when it comes to breaking announcements. Here are some other all-time greats.
Famously, radio stations around the country have detailed plans in place for the death of the Queen. “Every station, down to hospital radio, has prepared music lists made up of ‘Mood 2’ (sad) or ‘Mood 1’ (saddest) songs to reach for in times of sudden mourning”, wrote Sam Knight in 2017. Which made the way BBC Radio Dance reacted to the death of her husband, in an audio clip that went viral, all the more surprising. In the clip, the relentless thumping of Alan Fitzpatrick’s We Do What We Want gave way to the following sombre announcement: “Buckingham Palace has announced the death of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh”, before listeners were instantly slung back to the relentless thumping of another Alan Fitzpatrick hit, entitled Brian’s Proper Dun One.
Sadly, though, all was not as it seemed. full fact subsequently clarified that the clip was edited. In truth, the station played the national anthem after the announcement, which is obviously much less of a banger.
Meanwhile, the cosiest corner of the BBC was faced with a different quandary at the same moment. The traditional audience for CBeebies is comprised of people too young to understand who Prince Philip was. A classic interruption, and cutting to Huw Edwards introducing pre-school viewers to the concept of human mortality, would probably be jarring. But on the other hand, ignoring the news completely would be a gift to the BBC’s detractors. In the end, the channel settled on a compromise. During a lovely, gentle children’s cookery show, a banner flashed up reading “Major news report on BBC One”. It was a smart move: not only were parents allowed to make their own decision to discover the news, but their discovery that a very old man had died rather than, say, the outbreak of nuclear armageddon, would have probably come as something of a relief.
There was a time, before his ill-advised but mercifully brief defection to GB News, when Simon McCoy could be relied upon to break news in an astonishingly withering manner. When the Duchess of Cambridge announced the due date of her third child de ella, for instance, McCoy responded impeccably, muttering “I’m not sure how much news this really is”, before suggesting that he was going to book the date off work .
On Saturday 26 November 1977, STV viewers watching ITN’s report about the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army were stunned when the sound and picture dropped out and were replaced by the voice of Vrillon, a representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command, issuing a stark warning to humanity . For years, Vrillon said, the Ashtar Galactic Command had been observing Earth with growing horror, since mankind’s tendency towards senseless violence would prevent it from participating in the Great Awakening. After six minutes, Vrillon left the airwaves and a Looney Tunes cartoon was shown. The official explanation is that a television transmitter in Hampshire was jammed by a hoaxer. As such, Vrillon’s warning was ignored, and humanity’s dark destiny was set in place.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism