This is the story of a 25 year old man who is dying of bone cancer. It’s a little longer than my usual posts. But I want to share it with you to help spread the word about the charities he is supporting — and tell you the precise wording of a question that has never failed to help me when interviewing people who may be nervous on camera, and when I may be nervous, too.
It was just after 2pm when I took the call from my News Editor. My assignment that afternoon would be to drive to the St Peter and St James Hospice in Chailey, about 40 minutes away, to meet David Willie, a young man who may have only months to live. He had been due to marry his girlfriend Olivia Meheux in early April, but after receiving the latest medical prognosis, they had brought the marriage forward by a month.
I set off from Brighton thinking hard. I was due to meet them within the hour, my report broadcast that evening. As a journalist, I am paid well to think of appropriate questions, in difficult circumstances, on tight deadlines. I make no apology for saying I felt anxious as I drove past the sun drenched daffodils along the drive to the hospice. I simply had to get this right.
I needn’t have worried. David and Olivia were smiling when we met, and remained smiling throughout the hour we spent together — as my cameraman George filmed David being craned into a wheelchair, and wheeled by his bride into the gardens to pat the donkeys in the meadow beyond. They chatted happily on camera in the hospice’s bright day room, talked us through their photo album, and then, as George moved quietly around them, got stuck into a game of Trivial Pursuit.
I had chosen four questions. I asked them how they had met, and what it was like planning a wedding in ten days. I asked them what their best memories of their wedding day were. And finally, the one question that reminds me without fail why I choose to be a reporter. “What” I asked them, “do you want people to think as they hear your story?”
“What do you want people to think tonight?” It is a question, I believe, that distils the essence of journalism. Yes, questions to those in power often need to be tough, and probing, perhaps crafty or blunt. But very often, we are interviewing those that feel power-less. Good journalism should surely hand over power, not display it. Hand power to those let down by authority. Hand power to victims of a crime. Hand power to a dying man and his bride with an urgent message.
“We want to tell people about the work of this hospice , the charity that helped us arrange the wedding, the campaigns (Sarcoma UK and Bone Cancer Research Trust) to tackle this disease, chondrosarcoma,” David and Olivia said. Olivia then added, as David nodded vigorously: “We don’t want people to feel sorry for us. We want them to be happy for us — yes, happy, that we got to have our special day.”
I look back on that hour with a happiness of my own, their gift to me, a special day of my own. It was one of the most privileged — and powerful — of my working life.
You can see David and Olivia in the BBC South East report here: https://vimeo.com/261075700