The Crises - Part Four. I was on holiday when it happened. Back then a holiday abroad was still reasonably affordable although the costs had started their rapid rise to the prohibitive levels of today. I needed a quick and very dirty break away from my then job of editing a series of professional journal web sites so Karen and I were spending a week in the south of France.
After a day in Nice we'd just decided to go to bed after a pleasant evening meal. If only I'd not flicked on the room terminal while Kaz was in the bathroom we might have spent a final night in blissful ignorance. But I did, and was astonished to see the international news channels all carrying unconfirmed reports about some sort of attack or insurrection to do with the Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh, with a nationalist Council announcing the dismissal of the Assembly and proclaiming itself to be in power. More details would follow as they became known, but in the meantime uninformed speculation padded the breaking story.
We were both shocked, but neither of us thought that the secessionists stood a hope in hell of succeeding. The police would soon break into Holyrood and turf them out, or the army would be sent in. We watched rapt through the night as the scale of the takeover, and further reports of seemingly well-trained, powerful squads of mercenaries taking over strategic points emerged. There was no hope of sleep now so we kept up with events as much as we could.
A special late-night sitting of Parliament was called at short notice: The Prime Minister - breaking for a moment from chairing the Cobra emergency committee - declared the forcible seizure of Scotland would never be tolerated, and if the terrorists didn't surrender immediately the armed forces would crush the plot by force if necessary. To thunderous jeers the timid Leader of the Opposition found his voice and asked exactly where the government was going to find the forces to perform that mission, given the army was fully committed 'supporting' the police in England. There were cheers and uproar when a rabidly right wing Tory moved the death penalty be restored for treason; he proposed emergency legislation to that effect, calling for the House to immediately approve it by acclamation. The Speaker ruled he was out of order and suspended the sitting for half an hour.
Breathless rumours swamped the rolling news streams. Two MSPs had been killed trying to resist the storming of the building. The mercenaries had surrendered. The plotters had pledged to die fighting if necessary. The SAS had been sent in. Quick reaction army units were flying north, and the RAF would obliterate any NuNat strong points if required. Leading Scottish politicians and public figures had been assassinated, kidnapped, or imprisoned; or were under house arrest. There were reports of fighting in military bases and the Faslane naval dockyard. There had been demonstrations both for and against the coup, with fatalities when the opposing factions clashed. Some of the rumours were frankly ridiculous, such as the one the usurpers were threatening a nuclear strike on London unless the UK government withdrew its forces and recognised the legitimacy of the new regime. Far away in a budget hotel bedroom we watched the Clauswitzian fog of war descending over the story.
As the night wore on the tone of the reports changed. It was most noticeable on the BBC which gradually stopped broadcasting breaking news and live studio or phone interviews with experts or witnesses. Instead it started repeating loops of the government speeches in the raucous parliamentary session; adding little in the way of new updates or reportage. Feeling I wasn't being informed I switched to the other channels to find them announcing that due to the emergency reporting restrictions imposed by the British government they were moving their coverage of the Scottish crisis to their offices in Dublin, Paris, and Brussels; where the EU Council of Ministers would convene to discuss the issue shortly.
This was the moment for me when the BBC's reputation was sullied beyond redemption. The various Broadcasting Acts had always specified during times of emergency the duty to report accurately and impartially was to be set aside; they made provision for the direct state control of the media. Anyone with half a brain who had watched the news bulletins for the past two decades couldn't have failed to notice how year by year the news had become less informative, more dumbed-down, and subtly more supportive of whichever government was in power. Over time, many people had come to regard the BBC as little more than a government news agency.
Thanks to the 'unique way it is funded' by a poll tax on viewers, the BBC had always felt under pressure from governments of all parties to justify its licence fee. This in turn made the corporation susceptible to political pressure; a pressure which intensified from the mid-noughties onward following the well-publicised scandals the corporation had become embroiled in. Once the political class had the Beeb on the defensive they used their advantage to compromise its notional independence as much as possible.
The law's reserve powers applied equally to all broadcasters operating in the UK, but the craven way in which the BBC was so eager to curry favour by complying with the act before being forced to, and the way it finally gave up the pretence of not being a state mouthpiece - adopting the uncritically deferential tone it usually reserved for anything to do with royalty - was sickening. Especially now of all times, when there was a desperate hunger for news of what was happening.
The censorship extended beyond the native broadcasters. Reporters inside and outside of the UK encountered problems of sudden internet blocking and loss of service. Making phone calls to and within the UK became problematic; partly due the volume of calls overloading the available capacity, as well as the mobile networks being restricted by both Westminster and the Albans, as they began to call themselves, to hinder 'the enemy' from communicating and organising themselves.
In place of absent facts the rumours became more credible. Cars with Scottish number plates were prohibited from travelling; their occupants subject to summary arrest at ANPR road checks (as if Scots with evil intent couldn't have hired or stolen a car with English plates in advance!) There were reports of refugee convoys fleeing south from the major Scottish cities at speed. All air, rail, and road links with Scotland were suspended. Anyone with a Scottish accent in England was advised to keep a low profile or surrender themselves to protective police custody. A ginger-haired man with a Scottish accent had been kicked to death in Hackney. The Westminster government again denied receiving a nuclear ultimatum from the Albans. The London transport system was apparently in chaos as a result of real or imagined bomb threats that may or may not be second front attacks by Alban sympathisers. A broken down lorry on the Edgeware Road had prompted a precautionary evacuation of nearby areas. The French authorities were to require UK nationals living or on holiday in France to register themselves with the local Gendarmerie, or their hotel management.
Just as we heard that report there was a polite knock at our door. It was the apologetic hotel receptionist with our freshly printed forms and a cover letter from the Ministère de l'Intérieur regretting the inconvenience, but politely requiring we register ourselves in case we were to need assistance in the future; and to inform the authorities of our travel plans and destination should we decide to move on. An online link for registering had just gone live so we did so electronically. Suddenly it sunk in; we could be trapped out here, unwilling refugees for the duration of this crisis. There were worse places to be stuck, but for how long could we stretch our finances if we were forced to stay here?
The French government must have been remarkably prescient because soon after it was announced from London and Paris that all international air, Chunnel, and ferry services to the UK were suspended until further notice. Regular updates on the travel situation were promised but failed to materialise. The hairs on my neck began to rise: Something must be very wrong back in Blighty. Why should an outbreak of fighting, however serious it may be, hundreds of kilometres north of London lead to a transport shutdown of services to southern England? In the news vacuum that was the UK something more serious than we were led to believe must be going on.
As dawn broke a further trickle of news and rumour began to emerge as more people discovered ways to circumvent the online censorship. A lot of information could be gleaned from blogs, blurts, and social media but due to the high demand for these services they were running frustratingly slowly. Instant blurt spaces appeared relaying eyewitness reports and spliced CCTV feeds of the ongoing fighting, but they rarely stayed live for long, as the Albans obviously had a unit dedicated to tracing them and shutting them down either remotely or physically: Violently so by the looks of some of the last live images 'cast before they went offline.
Yet more rumours: The government was meeting in a continuous emergency session. And this unreported on the UK news, but carried by the international feeds: The British government had activated its Emergency War Plan, with second-tier ministers and members of the Royal family being evacuated out of London and dispersed to Regional Seats of Government. In a statement downplaying the move we were informed it was purely a precaution; a decades old contingency plan automatically set in motion, and no conclusions should be read into it. I doubt if many people were reassured. Westminster sources also claimed the situation was bound to be resolved in the next few hours. A twelve hour nationwide curfew was announced to come into force at 18.00 hours tonight, and subsequent nights until further notice: To allow the army to move freely about the Essential Service Routes, and ensure public order was maintained at this difficult time.
Less than a day of sleepless hours had passed since news of the coup broke; but as the crisis continued my sense of foreboding increased.
Another headline flashed across the bottom of the screen while the picture panned across airport floors of camped out stranded tourists: The French Direction de la Défense de la Sécurité Civile had been placed on Alert Orange. Then the programme cut to a live test transmission on French TV from the Réseau national d'alerte explaining what people should do in the event of nuclear contamination being detected in France. What the fuck was going on?
The log jam of information broke again. There had been an inadvertent massacre when a column of refugees heading south had met the army heading north, and been mistaken for Alban rebels believed to be heading for Berwick-upon-Tweed. Apache helicopters had attacked and destroyed an Alban unit attempting to establish a border checkpoint. The newly constructed extensions to the detention camps on the bleak northern moors, planned to incarcerate the latest wave of insurgency prisoners would instead be housing displaced people in those bare wooden huts. The Albans had begun broadcasting using captured radio stations in addition to their online presence, and warned unless the Westminster occupiers stopped attacking the Alban freedom fighters within the hour they would suffer "extreme consequences". A group of ninjas had taken over the Sullom Voe oil terminal and booby-trapped it; ready to be destroyed on command from Edinburgh or if there were any attempt by special forces to recapture it. London was in constant consultation with our US and Union Treaty Organisation allies. The Prime Minister had been summoned to Buckingham Palace for urgent talks with His Majesty...
Then everything changed.
The first the international audience knew of it was from a small Dutch fishing boat. As soon as news of the putsch broke an enterprising Nederlandse Publieke Omroep news presenter, Babette Veldjans, expecting travel to the UK would be restricted decided it would be a good idea to charter a trawler to sail across the North Sea to an east coast English port. Captain Van Oort; master of the Vermeermin - at that moment fishing mid-way between the Netherlands and the UK in the southern North Sea - was only too pleased to accept the satphoned offer. With the state of fishing the way it was, any source of income would be welcome. A chartered helicopter would rendezvous with Van Oort's vessel, and rope ladder the film crew down. A tricky, possibly dangerous manoeuvre, but one worth trying. All went well and the TV crew boarded without injury.
Veldjans' logic was flawless: If she encountered the Royal Navy or a coastguard vessel and was turned back she had a story. If she and her crew were able to dock in a UK harbour she could report on the mood of the British people at the moment, and their reaction to the events. This far away from the conflict they would be in no danger, but while they were making their eight hour journey they could create an air of mounting tension with a series of piece-to-camera commentaries to occupy any slack airtime in the developing news.
It was while they were filming a false jeopardy update as the Zeemeermin sailed west-northwest towards Lowestoft with approximately twenty kilometres to go until landfall the event occurred which would define Veldjans' career and change the destiny of two nations. The images have become as much a part of our common culture as those of the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As then we will never forget where we were and what we were doing at that moment.
We'd left the hotel to go to a nearby bar-restaurant for a light lunch, though neither of us felt very hungry. As everywhere a muted TV tuned to Euronews was on in a corner. Suddenly we heard a startled "Mon Dieu!" and looked round to where the exclamation had come from. The trio of regular patrons at the bar were looking ashen-faced at the screen which was just beginning to replay the footage we have all come to know so well. The French voiceover drowns out the language used in the report but the video speaks for itself.
Veldjans is standing in the bow with the haze of the horizon behind her; the Suffolk coast is not yet visible. She has just finished recording a Dutch language report; then she switches to her fluent English to repeat the same account before uploading them both.
"As we approach the English coast near Lowestoft, we can see no sign a war is in progress. We have yet to see any aircraft, or be intercepted by the coast guard. We have not even been interrogated by radio as we enter UK territorial waters. Everything seems so normal. We hope to dock in-".
Suddenly there is a flashbulb pulse of intense blue-white light; it fills the screen, bleaching out the picture. The fact it happens so silently is the most unnerving thing about it. The stunned pause is broken by Babette's scream of pure terror and string of shocked oaths as she realises what is happening, as well as the howl of pain from cameraman Peter Stecker: He was looking in the direction the flash came from and has been blinded.
Van Oort shouts for them to dive to the deck and beware of the blast wave, which arrives with a thunderous clap soon after. Stecker, still unable to see, puts down his hand-held camera and the screen is filled with nothing but a view of the deck; but it is what we can hear which is compelling. There is more Dutch swearing, Stecker screaming "My eyes! I can't see! I'm blind!" and Babette calling out "Is anyone burned?"
Captain Van Oort, himself suffering visual impairment, turns his vessel hard about and heads for home at top speed: He radios a mayday. Veljdans leads Stecker below decks where a crew member gives him first aid.
The Zeemeermin was far enough from the detonation to avoid serious damage, and the team's satellite gear is unaffected by the electromagnetic pulse so Babette is heard calling the studio and demanding to be put on the air at once. She gets her way. As she awaits her cue she picks up the camera, sets it up on a mini tripod, and points it toward herself. Now we can see her reddened face, as if she's suffered a bad case of sunburn. In the moments before the short countdown to going live Veldjans retrieves the footage of the airburst and transmits an impromptu report along with it, speculating - correctly as it turned out - the Secessionist conflict had just gone nuclear.
Her breaking story electrified the world. The fact of the detonation was quickly confirmed by observers on the north-western continental coasts; then by the governmental civil defence services. Across Europe air defences were scrambled in fear another errant missile may come their way.
A Dutch rescue helicopter was rushed to the crew's aid. All aboard were evacuated. A Koninklijke Marine radiological protection unit dressed in full hazmat suits took over the ship and sailed it to the navy base in Den Helder.
Everyone rescued was flown directly to a military hospital and subjected to exhaustive medical examinations before being discharged. The Zeemermin was scanned for signs of fallout contamination but none were found. Astonishingly all those aboard escaped with just minor injuries, apart from Peter Stecker who suffered longer term sight loss. They were just far enough away from the hypocentre to escape with superficial burns and minimal radiation exposure.
More images of the Sizewell flash were later recovered from various surveillance cameras and other sources which happened to be pointing in the right direction at the right time, but it was the on-the-fly "Nueken de hel!" report which became iconic and would go on to win Babette Veldjans numerous awards.
Yet even as they were being released from hospital, the remarkable story of the Zeermeermin and her crew was being eclipsed by the collapse of the United Kingdom.