Just back from a trip to cover the aftermath of the 1 October referendum on independence from Spain and the soles of my feet still ache from all that walking with reporting kit slung over my shoulders.
Slept a solid nine hours the day after I returned to England but what an experience: to have the privilege of reporting and witnessing one of the biggest, perhaps most baffling, political crises in Europe since Crimea (I was there too for the unrecognised referendum in March 2014). Mind you, I knew roughly what to expect because I’d been there for a week in November 2014 for the first, dry run indy ref. Only the mobile reporting kit had changed slightly in the intervening years.
Last week I shipped out with my kit on the Sunday night, hours after the disputed vote, when police had beaten and kicked voters trying to stop them seizing ballot boxes. Those shocking images had moved the story on to a new level and I was off to catch a plane from Gatwick.
I stopped at the Beeb to collect my kit: bag, iPhone, SLR, iPad, tripod and all the gadgets. An hour’s kip on the plane, a short wait at Barcelona airport as our bookings company found me a hotel, and then into the city. The next four days went by on a stream of adrenalin. I had pre-agreed pieces to write which took me around Barcelona and up to Girona:
- The human cost of playing political hardball
- A profile of Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont
- The Catalan Spaniards feeling anxious
On top of that, the front page editors would ask me to do text boxes, which is what we at the website call those 180-word sketches from correspondents in the middle of news stories:
And I squeezed in some vox pop videos too (no time to edit anything more elaborate):
As usual, I tried to share extra content on social media, mostly Twitter but Instagram and Facebook too, whether it was a time lapse of the Columbus Monument in Barcelona (I also did a version which accidentally captured the Spanish flag being lowered nearby) or a bunch of people telling me how to pronounce the name Puigdemont.
It was hard work as ever but I loved it, marveling at how little tech you really need nowadays to do web reporting, bashing out copy sitting on a filthy, pungent kerbstone a few metres away from a huge beery, weedy crowd yelling into the faces of impassive riot police. I have no complaints but the downside of being parachuted into a story (as a colleague put it afterwards) is being unable to plan and thereby use our resources fully – something I was able to do back in 2014…
The piece I am most happy with from that time was a portrait of a divided community in the Barcelona suburb of Santa Coloma, when I commissioned VisJo (our visual journalism team) in advance to create a map. With time on my side, I went out and got vox pops to build into the page. Long afterwards, a bemused local journalist asked me why had I picked Santa Coloma and I enjoyed explaining to him how I had researched it with an editor before going out, combing through earlier election results.
That trip was different in another respect: I was just about the only BBC journalist on the ground for the vote and found myself being asked, for instance, to go live for World Service on voting day. If there were others, I wasn’t aware, but it was pretty cool to feel the website was leading the coverage. By contrast, this month we have multiple teams on the ground at any one time with an IC (the person “in charge”) and a busy BBC Whatsapp group account.
I was in Crimea for its unrecognised March 2014 referendum on reuniting with Russia – read how the two very different votes compared for me.
The thing I discovered in 2014 was that people got really interested in Catalonia if you told the story right. On voting day, our web story got more than 1m page views, which was phenomenal for a Sunday news story about a crisis international audiences used to rarely hear about.
Other pieces from that trip:
I revisited the story again, briefly, this August after the terror attack on the Ramblas asking how it might affect the independence drive. It was the only time I didn’t enjoy reporting from Barcelona – how could anyone when there were people crying their eyes out on the boulevard? Back at the hotel, I wept too. I interviewed people for their thoughts and then, just when I was getting ready to leave, I looked up and noticed the towering plane trees had an intellectual life of their own and wrote a coda. Later, I gathered my social media posts into a Twitter Moment – a neat way to tell a story.
National identity is far from the only story in Catalonia. In late 2015, I visited Barcelona for the Spanish election coverage to look at the activists battling housing evictions in the “biutiful” city.