Thursday, July 28, 2005

An audience with Mark Urban

Being a news junkie I generally catch BBC2’s Newsnight most nights when I’m at home.

Newsnight sees itself as the flagship BBC current affairs programme and likes to give its viewers a little more in-depth coverage of what it sees as the most important current news stories. And, since the bombings on 7th July, it has established a curious little routine at the start of every show.

Every night, Newsnight’s diplomatic editor, Mark Urban, sits with that evening’s presenter for about five minutes and brings us all up to date with the latest news on the London Bombings. I’m not too sure about Urban’s full background. He was in the army for a bit. He also smells like a spook. He’s not a stupid man. He currently spends his days chatting with unnamed contacts in the government and the security forces then providing us all with a little precis of what he has learned at 10.30pm

Mark’s five-minute slots are curious wee affairs. He usually comes up with some new ‘news’ and also is one of the few journalists who has even remotely suggested that there are any inconsistencies in officially–sourced stories, but then he rationalises those inconsistencies away, right away; usually very badly.

Listening to someone acknowledge issues and concerns then blow them off unconvincingly in the next sentence can really do your head in.

Urban and his five minutes of clarity are clearly building up a devoted fan base.

Tonight’s Mark Urban slot was the most blatant for a long time. I just tried to download tonight’s episode off the Newsnight website to replay it but was greeted with this message…

Owing to rights issues we are unable to make Wednesday's edition of Newsnight available on the web.

No matter, it’s all still quite vivid. Urban was basically doing a recap of the early days of the bombing investigation with an underlying theme of the twists and turns such a huge investigation has to follow. What he ended up doing was listing some of the major outstanding issues to date:

Urban: Early on, many of the investigators had doubts that the four bombers were suicide bombers. The suggestion was that they were duped into carrying the bombs … The bombers bought return tickets. They left no suicide notes or explanation for their actions … but eventually investigators decided that they were indeed suicide bombers. The three train bombs were detonated between platforms to maximise casualties and that could not have been achieved with timers. Also, the police have recovered no traces of timing mechanisms.

  • No timers? So how did the blokes know how to set off the bombs simultaneously? Telepathy? Watches presumably. Watches are ‘timing mechanisms’.
  • Come to think of it, isn’t it coincidental that the trains were all in tunnels at the same time? Think about it for a second, if they did blow up at the same time, as we’ve been told, the fact that all three were in tunnels must be coincidental
  • Explosions between platforms to maximise casualties? Says who? Wouldn’t a bomb exploding on a rush hour platform cause plenty of casualties? Besides, the attempted bomb attack at Shepherd’s Bush last week took place when the train was above ground.
  • BTW Why has no one explained the initial official story that the explosions were the result of power surges?
  • BTW Where is the CCTV footage from the stations?

Urban: Police initially indicated that commercial explosives were used on 7th July … they subsequently discovered extensive quantities of home made explosives in a house in Leeds and in a car in Luton station car park. So it would appear that the explosives used in the London bombings were home made. The car was hired by one of the London bombers and contained 18 bombs, which they presumably intended to use later or were left for someone else to collect.

  • Hmmmmmm, just because homemade explosives were found in a house in Leeds does not mean they were used to blow up London. I don’t recall the police coming out and saying that homemade explosives were used in the first London attack. In fact, they’ve been quite coy about the whole subject.
  • Suicide bombers leaving bombs to use later? Have you ever hired a car in the UK a received more than one set of keys? Or was the second terrorist team planning to break into a car laden with 18 unstable bombs in a public place? Fuck off Mark…

Urban: Police originally thought that the bombs used on 7th and 21st were the product of one mastermind but now that they have found two separate bomb factories in Leeds and in North London that seems less likely

  • What also seems now less likely is that the five bombs which failed to detonate failed because they were out of date stock supplied by the 7th July bombers. So, what’s the explanation now for four out of four bombs detonating on 7th and five out of five not detonating on 21st?
  • While we’re at it, why did the guys on the 21st set off their devices outside of rush hour and why is it every picture I see of them they’re standing alone on empty fucking buses?

At the end of tonight’s piece Mark nonchalantly mentioned that the story about both bombing teams going on a rafting holiday in Wales together just before the attacks was, unsurprisingly, bollocks. Don’t hold your breath waiting to see extensive coverage of the death of that puppy in tomorrow’s media.


What makes the daily Newsnight experience all the more surreal is Mark Urban’s body language. He works exclusively in one of two modes

  1. Totally blank-faced, almost robotic, with cold dead eyes, when he’s reciting the latest ‘factual’ information he’s picked up.
  2. A really smug, knowing smirk, but curiously with the same cold dead eyes, when explaining why any apparent inconsistencies are nothing to worry about. At times he looks like he’s about to burst into laughter but, being a consummate professional, he never does

It’s really bloody obvious. Watch the first five minutes of Newsnight, and watch Urban's face in particular, c.10.32pm every weekday BBC2. It really is the most peculiar experience. Peculiar yet strangely compelling.


Anonymous said...

'Anything' that trips out the supply on LU is treated as a power surge, I think.

On the mainline if somebody or something falls onto the 650v line and trips the breakers 'they' (the electrical control room) just reset it and you get juiced 3 times...only then do they treat it as anything out of the ordinary.

When do I get a job on newsnight? :D

Shahid said...

A bomb underneath the train might seem like a power surge too. That's right, underneath.

Great writing Stef.

Stef said...

@anonymous (andy?): I could easily accept that - what bothers me is that no-one has come out and said it

re. the bomb under train comment from shahid - I think he's referring to the fact that one of the witnesses to the Aldgate explosion, Bruce Lait, said there was no-one near the bomb blast and that the floor of the carriage was blown up from underneath. Check out his account in that demented organ of conspiracy The Cambridge Evening News (he lives in Cambridge) ...

Anonymous said...

LU did a press comference the day after the bombs (broadcast on BBC news 24) and explained what happened (they played back their software of the signalling layout, showing each Train's 'headcode': that's a unique ID code for each train that moves along with the train throughout it's journey in a little window on the signalman's panel or perhaps these days VDU). The layout clearly showed a whole section of track going dead, from memory even the telephones which I think are alarmed. They also played back the train with the bomb that blew a hole in a wall tripping the breakers on the other line (I think it was this one that initially reported a power surge, together with the signalman seing what happened on his panel.).'s me andy (excuse the busman's holiday...but I work on the signalling side of the Westcoast mainline, so there is some corelation between LU and our stuff).

Stef said...

Fair dos - I didn't see that conference or any coverage of it but you did so I'll let that one ride from now on.