It was coming up to 9am on 27th November 2008. I was on CNN's London set, anchoring rolling coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks. There were multiple assaults taking place across the Indian city. The producer in the control room told me she was putting an eyewitness through to me on the phone. His name was Anthony and he had just escaped the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Anthony had checked in to his room and was heading to a meeting with colleagues when, 'suddenly we hear gunfire erupting and before we know it, there’s people running through the lobby. They come in, all guns blazing. It was just chaos,’ he said. He saw a man being executed - shot in the legs and head.
Anthony and his team ran to the restaurant on the first floor and barricaded themselves in. The doors then exploded with bullets and what sounded like grenades. They ran through to the ballroom until they couldn't go any further and were backed up against a window.
They took cover behind wooden tables.. ‘We kept waiting for sirens and kept waiting for the police to turn up but there was just nothing,’ Anthony explained. ‘It just seemed no relief was in sight. And more and more gunfire, more and more explosions that rocked the ceiling and windows exploding. And then we could hear the gunmen walking the hallways and it seemed like they were hunting people and we had heard from the hotel staff that they had been trying to draw people from their rooms by calling them and looking for foreign tourists. We had iPhones so were able to monitor CNN and could call home to find any information we could just to find out about the whole extent of the attacks.’
Imagine the wait. The gunmen could have burst in at any moment. The ceiling could have collapsed under the pressure of the explosives. When they looked out on the streets below there was nobody there. They knew from the information they were getting that the security forces were dealing with sporadic attacks and wouldn't be in the search and rescue phase yet. After an agonizing six hours, the group decided to make a break for it.
‘It was when the smoke started filling in and the heat in the place started to go up and then we saw burning embers and flames we knew it was time to go,’ Anthony recalled to me. ‘So we smashed these quite thick double-glazed windows. We were totally locked in so we had to really smash them. And then the first thing we did, I pulled the curtains down and tied them onto the window and we started feeding people out by climbing down the curtains on to the street.’
They all got out alive but 164 others weren't so lucky and perished during the four-day killing spree which, we later learned, was perpetrated by Islamic militants from Pakistan.
Anthony's group made the decision to smash the window and save themselves, in part, based on information they received from CNN. If they doubted it, they could have made a different call and not lived to tell their story.
My audience relies on me to be right. They use the information I give them to make decisions on all sorts of levels. If they don't trust what they hear in the news then they will make less informed choices. Our clout as journalists is rooted in our credibility. That's why we have to be right and why flippant, false accusations of 'fake news' are so wrong. It's not just we, the media, that suffers, it's the audiences that rely on us.