Remembering landmark events and how they were reported

An aeroplane flies towards the twin towers on Tuesday, September 11, 2001

The terror attack on the twin towers in New York took place 20 years ago - Credit: AP

Once in a while, an historic event occurs which is so momentous that it leaves a permanent mark on the lives not only of the people directly involved but on those of almost everyone living through that time.

The assassination of US President John F Kennedy in November 1963 was one such event. Even outside the USA, the murder of the young president created a tidal wave of shock and grief which is difficult to imagine today. It is often said that everyone at the time remembers what they were doing when they heard Kennedy had been shot. Anyone who does remember the tragedy would, of course, now have to be at least in their early 80s today.

Although it was reported on the TV and radio, the shooting which occurred at 12.30pm on a Friday at Texas and at 6.30pm in the UK, filtered through slowly. My own father, for example, was just 20 when he overheard the news of a presidential shooting on a landlady’s nearby radio while he was changing a lightbulb. Initially, he assumed it was a story about the death of an obscure overseas leader. Only when he heard the report refer to Mrs Kennedy being involved did he realise the shocking truth. To give another random example, the author, David Lodge was appearing in a play which required the use of a radio to supply background music when the music unexpectedly gave way to a special news announcement about the shooting. The play, which was intended to have been a comedy, had not been going well anyway. Now, many in the audience assumed the news report was part of the show: a joke which would have been in very poor taste had it been the case. The audience only learned the truth later while Lodge and the other young performers were forced to continue, knowing all too well that the devastating news was only too genuine.

The East Devon floods of October 1960 are another major event that no one living here at the time could ever forget. England’s World Cup win in 1966 and the Apollo 11 Moon landings were two more unforgettable stories from that decade. Neither occurred quite as suddenly as the JFK shooting, however, and the Apollo 11 landings happened in the middle of the night.

The news of Princess Diana’s death in a car accident in Paris in August 1997 also broke overnight. While many people will have been on holiday at the time, generally most people first heard the tragic news when they awoke on Sunday morning. I was a student on my summer break at the time and saw an early TV news report about the accident (although not about Diana’s death) as I had stayed up late to watch a film, Reds, on BBC Two. By coincidence, I was then exactly 20 years old, the same age my father had been at the time of the Kennedy assassination.

Last month witnessed the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Although horrifying, the day's events were given an added drama as they unfolded over the course of a few hours on TV. This was unusual: most of the time we only get to hear the news after the key events have already finished. This time, viewers were able to witness many of the day’s terrible events: the second plane crash, the Pentagon attack, the collapse of each of the two Towers as they unfolded on TV before their very eyes.

Technology had moved on by this point. Like most people in 1997, at the time of Diana’s death I had never sent an email or used a mobile phone. By 2001, I was experienced at doing both. I remember texting people about the September 11 attacks although I was not yet able to look up the news about it on my mobile as I am today. The rise of technology has ensured that today big news travels more quickly.