I’ve just seen the preview of the new Chernobyl series on BBC Breakfast and it took me back to my days at BBC Monitoring. I believe I was the first person to learn about the disaster here in the UK. It was my first scoop!
Monitoring Finnish and Swedish Radio
It was an ordinary day in 1986. I was settling down for another long, lonely stint in my small Finnish/Swedish cubicle at BBC Monitoring Service in Caversham when a news item on the Swedish radio made me prick my ears.
My job as a Language Monitor was to listen to Finnish and Swedish news bulletins. I’d select relevant items, translate them as a whole or summarize the text for the in-house news bureau. They’d either include the item to be broadcast on the BBC News Networks or add it to our monthly, printed news report.
On this late April day, the Swedish newscaster said that local scientists had noticed high levels of radiation in the air. They evacuated both of their nuclear power stations but found no leaks. When the reporter said they thought the leak was coming from Finland, I nearly fell off my seat.
Next, I heard a report on the Finnish radio station YLE that there was something coming in from the Eastern border. Then, finally, the Soviet news bureau, TASS, admitted they had a problem at Chernobyl.
By this stage, there was a queue of fellow reporters outside my door. They included my supervisor and guys from the newsroom, all waiting for each piece of translated radio news broadcasts from Finland and Sweden.
It was like a scene from one of those 1970s an 80s films about reporters in a newspaper office with papers being ripped off typewriters and people running everywhere.
Except I was on my own. I’d only been qualified as a monitor for 6 months and was still slow in my translation and transcription. There were only three of us in the team, and so we always worked on our own.
‘Just give it to me, don’t worry about the spelling mistakes,’ I remember one particularly keen American newsroom guy tell me when I wanted to read through what I’d typed. It was like doing a simultaneous translation, alternating with Finnish and Swedish, something which I’d never done before.
Even though BBC Monitoring never had any reporters on the ground anywhere, we were always trying to beat the other news agencies and our biggest rival was Reuters. So my scoop on Chernobyl was pure gold to the Monitoring Newsroom.
It took a few hours before my team leader had been alerted. I was glad to see her when she rushed in to help me with the flood of reports from Finland and Sweden.
I found that day exhausting but incredibly exhilarating. It was a serious matter, deadly, but I was in my element. I could have worked 24 hours straight, had my boss not sent me home after twelve hours on duty.
It was only when the Swedish Premier Olof Palme was shot dead on a Stockholm street that I got that same news reporter’s hit. But that’s another story.
On the day that the Chernobyl story broke, was also the first time I’d listened to Radio Moscow in Finnish and Swedish live. Usually, we recorded the broadcasts and listened to them days or weeks later. The Russian reporters spoke with heavily accented Finnish and Swedish so they were hellish to translate so quickly.
Those were the days before the internet!
Chernobyl And The Cold War
It’s difficult for people who’ve never lived through the Cold War to remember how secretive the Russian media was. However, it provided us at the Finnish and Swedish team a lot of work. Sometimes TASS choose one of our languages to announce some small tidbit, like the closure of some political department or other.
Even though Finland was never a Communist country, we were Russia’s Western neighbours. And as such, we were their Cold War buffer. That is why Finns, although they too had noticed the higher radiation levels coming from the Soviet Union, only came clean about it until they had the approval of the Russian authorities. I must stress, this is my theory, something I haven’t publicly shared before. There was a war going on and Finland couldn’t rock the boat.
I left BBC Monitoring Service before the Berlin Wall fell, after which the BBC disbanded the Finnish/Swedish team. It’s a job I miss terribly. I really got the news bug and learned so much about newsworthiness and writing. I also really honed my English language skills. Of course, we didn’t always have days with stories like Chernobyl and the shooting of Olof Palme. But even if there was nothing interesting happening in Finland or Sweden, there was always something kicking off in another part of the world.