Award-Winning Journalist Wanted to Capture Compassion

 “I went into the hospital knowing this illness kills loved ones; this illness breaks hearts. But I also went in knowing how important it is to report from the frontline.” Camera journalist Harriet Bradshaw (Broadcast Journalism, 2011) spent 2020 reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic with BBC Health Editor Hugh Pym. Together with her team, she won a BBC News award for their work. 

Harriet, looking back at the work you did last year, what left the biggest impressions?

I will never forget the 2nd April 2020. The text message my other half sent me didn’t seem real: “Will you be home soon? I’ve got some sad news.” Work is distracting when you’re filming in a pandemic. But when I got home the tears woke me up to the reality: Our friend was dead.

Less than a fortnight later, as I prepared to film in Addenbrooke’s hospital at the height of the first wave, the post-mortem came back. Our friend had died of COVID-19. He wasn’t a statistic. He was a friend, a son, a brother, an uncle … I went into the hospital knowing this illness kills loved ones; this illness breaks hearts. But I also went in knowing how important it is to report from the frontline. Hospital staff wanted to show the world what was going on. Doctors wanted to warn the public: People were dying of heart attacks and strokes because they were so frightened about catching coronavirus, they were avoiding going to hospital when they should. Staff also wanted to reassure all of us that they were doing everything they could for patients and their families in unprecedented times.

I took my friend, his memory, his untimely death, into the hospital with me that day, making sure I saw every patient not as a ‘case-study’, but a life. I tried hard to capture compassion because I knew that’s what I wanted to see and know. The small things mattered, like the consultant gently holding his patient Graham’s hand and giving words of comfort; the healthcare assistant Nathalie telling me her tearful breakdown on camera was the first time she’d expressed and let out her emotions; the relief I felt after her interview as I watched colleagues in ICU gather around her in solidarity to support her.

I don’t think it is easy sometimes to witness and capture, and that is essentially what we do as camera journalists. When you’re holding that camera and choosing what to film, there is a weight of responsibility none of us behind the lens should ever forget: You are holding the gaze, the eyes of the public in your hands.

What are the specific challenges when reporting on such a unique and difficult subject?

It goes without saying you need emotional and physical resilience. You need huge sensitivity. Safety and media law need to be at the forefront of your mind. And you need energy and respect. When you’re filming in PPE including gloves, a visor, a mask, in unknown environments where people are poorly, it is tough physical work. But it’s really hard to talk about my challenges. I have met patients with friends and families who no doubt will be facing far more significant challenges. When I think about the challenges NHS staff face – every day – from cleaners and porters to consultants and nurses, my filmmaking challenges pale into insignificance. Every person I have met during the past year is extremely dedicated, and it is a privilege to give them a chance to tell their story.

What helped you do the work to the best of your ability?

It’s a pleasure to work in such a superb and supportive team. It’s like having a second family at the moment. Having colleagues who look out for you and the camaraderie that goes with it takes the edge off the pandemic and makes it possible to tell the tough stories we have to tell. Our team is mainly Hugh, producer Dominic Hurst, brilliant apprentices and myself, and humour in the form of puns and ‘dad-jokes’ is definitely something that keeps our spirits up. I think our enthusiasm and positive energy also keeps us going, and the united desire to do the best job we can in sometimes difficult circumstances. On a lighter note, you may be interested to know Hugh Pym is 6 foot 7 and I am 5 foot 5, so using a special pole in a pouch does help me raise the camera high up enough to film an effective Piece To Camera to the best of my abilities!

What does it mean to you to receive an award for your journalism?

Do you know what; this is a difficult question to answer, perhaps the hardest. I had this moment of guilt at first. The pandemic has been a grim time for so many of us. So, getting an award in the midst of this, yes, it was a strange and unsettling feeling of guilt at first. But then I thought, right now, the human spirit has to sparkle to keep us going. We have to celebrate purposefully because – if anything this pandemic has taught me – life is precious. So, when I got my hands on the trophy, I milked the moment shamelessly. In the absence of a red carpet, I slapped on some makeup, dug out a fancy dress from the back of my wardrobe, and had my partner take photographs of me and the award in my living room (mainly for my mum and dad). I also paraded the trophy around the newsroom grinning and ended up getting a socially distanced selfie with Huw Edwards. But I guess the most touching part of winning this BBC News accolade was that it was awarded jointly to me, David McIlveen, Tony Fallshaw, Adam Walker, and Phil Edwards. These guys are super-star cameramen. I look up to them. I’m not being self-deprecating: They have superior experience and knowledge compared to me. So, to be recognised alongside them was an absolute honour.

If someone at City wanted to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

Someone once told me: there is no set path in journalism. I think they’re right. Every journey strikes me as different. So, don’t compare yourself to other people.

I would say the most unexpected opportunities have come out of risk-taking. I’m an anxious person, so my risks are definitely calculated, I wish I took more risks. But when I moved to Jersey, for example (to work for the BBC in the Channel Islands), I knew no one there, I didn’t know what to expect, but I made friends for life and the team there was so generous in giving me a chance. Kindness and respect actually go a long way in this business. And remind yourself why journalism is so important. Perhaps I’m naïve and idealistic, but journalism to me is a pillar of democracy, it is storytelling, it’s about highlighting issues; challenging authority; it’s about documenting the first draft of history; it’s about giving voices to people who would otherwise not be heard; it is about representing Jo Public in places Jo Public can’t be… So when you’re in a space thinking “what am I doing?”, remember why journalism is important. And be humble – always remember who you serve…

What have you personally done to get through the pandemic?

When I get time off I have been doing some creative writing. Getting myself lost in an imagined world is an unexpected way of practicing mindfulness! I run every morning, I am part of a community allotment, so I grow veg. My partner cooks tasty food, which definitely keeps me going. I watch films. I am very lucky to have friends and family who I treasure and stay in touch with, and who are helping me get through.

A big congratulations to Harriet for her achievements!

Watch some of Harriet Bradshaw’s reporting here: 

Refugees of the Lost Rainforest – YouTube

Coronavirus warning: people dying of strokes and heart attacks as they avoid hospitals – BBC News – YouTube

Second wave: NHS staff ‘feeling the strain’ – BBC News