The ping and whoosh of breaking news is what most journalists live for. And I’m certainly one of them. But yesterday afternoon I was in no position to respond.
The first WhatsApp message – one word, URGENT, in bold capitals from Luke on our Channel 4 News newsdesk – dropped at 12.18, followed immediately with a Reuters snap, headlined: “Russian forces fire warning shots at British destroyer in Black Sea”. Four more increasingly exasperated messages followed: “PLEASE CONFIRM RECEIPT”, “PLEASE MAKE SURE CATHY KNOWS”.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know. I wish I had. Because at 12.18 I was in the middle of a very testy interview with Russia’s ambassador to the UK.
The incident in the Black Sea would have been the main topic of conversation. But it wasn’t until we’d unmuted our phones to discover the ping, ping, ping of WhatsApps – and breaking news alerts from every news organisation under the sun – that we realised what a story we’d missed.
We’d started to derig, and the ambassador – Andrei Kelin – had long since gone. In fact, we all got the impression he couldn’t wait to see the back of us. I’d quizzed him extensively on the state of Russia’s relations with the US and the UK, but also about the poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, currently languishing in jail. A question about whether the president of Belarus was Russia’s “pocket dictator” had gone down particularly badly.
The minute we’d finished, he’d declared himself “disappointed” with the interview. And that sounded like a particularly Russian understatement. The idea of persuading him to indulge us with a second interview – hot on the heels of the first – seemed about as fanciful as Vladimir Putin being asked for tea at Buckingham Palace.
We had to try though. My producer Shaheen, who’d landed the interview in the first place, sprung into action; imploring the ambassador’s press secretary to go and find his boss. In the meantime I assembled what little we knew about the story – and the camera operators, Philippa and Jason, hurriedly reassembled the set – including a pot plant which had been moved so as not to spoil the shot.
Remarkably, the ambassador returned, jacketless and seemingly far more relaxed. After he’d donned his jacket and sat down once again, he revealed Russia’s version of events – later denied by the Ministry of Defence.
The royal navy destroyer “did not respond to several warnings” – warnings which had, he said, been “issued every 10 minutes”. As for the shots fired, he declared “these were not real”, and demanded to know what “your ship” was doing in “our territorial waters”.
In our first interview, he’d spoken of his determination to improve diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia, three years after the two countries expelled dozens of diplomats in the wake of the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury. After the latest incident in the Black Sea, his diplomatic mission just got even more impossible.
Joe Biden has just met Putin, but I can’t see Boris Johnson following suit any time soon. And although Berlin and Paris are reportedly pushing to “reset” relations with Moscow, it’s hard to envisage Russia entirely shedding its pariah status while it continues to target its enemies with Novichok – at home and abroad.
Just like the last ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, the current one uses the same playbook, questioning the evidence of Russian skulduggery and malevolence, even when intelligence agencies the world over say it’s there.
The current incumbent of the palatial residence in Kensington Palace Gardens added one new tactic yesterday. When I asked about the dozens of Russians who have died in mysterious circumstances on the streets of Britain, he laughed, presumably to convey the message that the question was so ridiculous it didn’t merit a serious response.
The second interview done, the relief all round was palpable. The Russian embassy camera operator quipped that next time I needed to bring some Irish whiskey to smooth things over. I’m more of an English sparkling wine girl, myself.
Will I get invited back? I hope so. It surely can’t be too long before the next diplomatic fracas sails into view. News outlets across the globe picked up on our ambassadorial interview in the hours that followed. I feel hugely privileged I was in the room where it happened, and – notwithstanding the pot plant – ready to hit record. That’s what breaking news is all about.
Cathy Newman presents ‘Channel 4 News’, weekdays, at 7pm