It’s a chilly mid afternoon, Thursday, 20th November, 2003 and I’m one half of a camera crew that has blagged its way onto the TV media platform on the runway of Teesside Airport to film President George W Bush’s visit to Tony Blair’s Sedgefield parliamentary constituency. We really look the part, with state of the art camera equipment, housed in expensive looking carriers, and permits, okayed the day before, stuck to our coats. We’re there with the teams from the BBC, ITV and Reuters.
I’ve been there since early morning and I’m busting for a pee and shivering with the cold, so much so my knees are aching. But it’s worth it – I have some great footage of Bush arriving on board Airforce One* and we may well find a buyer and I hope my numbed hands can operate the fidgety camera controls when Marine One (a helicopter) is spotted approaching the airport for Bush’s departure. Christ, I’m cold. I wish I’d put on a decent coat.
The airport staff have generally been very accommodating. Their PR man was welcoming and his colleagues led us (me and my co film maker Carol) to a waiting area, upon our arrival, where we were offered refreshments. Even the police inspector standing next to me on the platform is on real friendly terms. Not so the paranoid security staff who have twice searched our equipment and bodies in a manner which, if I had have done it to another, would have been classed as sexual assault. Every bit of our equipment is thoroughly searched and X-rayed and our clothing scanned for explosives residue with some expensive piece of gadgetry. The bastards even demanded a look under my eye patch, I shit you not – Usama bin Laden has to be somewhere! Still, not to worry; I get through security without having to bend over and endure an internal. But the episode made me think that if you’re into touching people up and want to do it without getting arrested and imprisoned as a filthy perv, then go into security or customs.
As we wait for Marine One and the accompanying Black Stallion helicopters to arrive, the police inspector informs me that he has learned that Blair and the presidential party had a meal of fish and chips at the Dun Cow pub in Sedgefield.
“Christ on a bike,” I chirp, remembering the cost to Durham Constabulary for the day’s security operation, “a million quid for a fish supper? He could have stayed on the plane and I’d have got him fish and chips for a tenner, tip included.”
The sun is going down as Bush arrives back at the airport and there is much cheering and the usual sycophantic shouts of “Mr President!” from onlookers who will proudly tell their grandchildren that the gloopiest president in history looked their way.
In front of me a dozen local cops reach for their cameras and behind and to the right of me a dozen black clad snipers, perched on the roof of the airport terminal, drop and assume the position. I zoom in on the door of Marine One and await Bush’s descent, hoping to get footage of Dubya tripping or a close-up of a bit of fish batter sticking to his chin. And then:
“Fuck!” The camera battery has died on me. “Twat!”
I hastily remove the battery and squat, fumbling about in the camera case that is steadying the base of the tripod for the spare. I look up, smiling embarrassingly at the police inspector, who suddenly looks worried – maybe he thinks I’m going for a gun – and then directly in front of me where a sniper’s silhouette suggests he has his sights on me. I make it clear to anyone watching that it is only a battery, not a grenade, before fitting it and refocusing on Bush, who is now shaking hands with his ‘guard of honour’.
Lined either side of the steps up into the plane, and at right angles to the steps, are a few dozen members of the police, the local territorial army and US airforce staff. This is a last minute change to the schedule and the friendly police inspector standing next to me is happy his boys are being involved. And it suddenly occurs to me that this is not so much a last minute guard of honour but, with the airport widely exposed to the countryside on its southern side, Bush’s short walk from his helicopter to his plane exposes him to sniper fire. These mugs are a human shield for Bush against a sniper’s bullet.
I keep the film running, getting a mixture of close-ups and long shots of the scene, and when he’s aboard and the plane begins to taxi to the runway I zoom in on the front wheel of the plane and do a slow pan out to reveal the blue and white presidential plane in all its magnificent glory as it rolls along and film it until it is so far in the distance it is indistinguishable from a distant sparrow.
I’ve got some great footage – an assortment of shots and some clever stuff too and feel chuffed to bits. We pack our gear away and hurriedly head for the airport’s toilets and then a coffee and chat about the day’s shoot.
Aboard Airforce One and heading back to Washington DC, President Bush was given some distressing news. A fire at the White House earlier that day had destroyed the President’s personal library. Both of his books were lost in a blaze thought to be caused by an electrical fault. Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer later said at a press conference the president was devastated, as he had not finished colouring the second one.
*Airforce One is actually two planes - identical planes – the logic being presumably that an attacker would target the first, which contains mostly entourage - press, secret service agents and sundry Republican arsewhipes.
Some 500 Secret service agents had been in the country for weeks, posing as American tourists, and could been found sitting alone in pubs and cafe’s, looking somewhat conspicuous with their square jaws, crew cuts, long coats and well-thumbed copies of “Larn Yerself Geordie” (this being the nearest White House researchers could find to a ready translator for the North East accent.)