Saturday, 2 August 2014

Eastbourne pier fire turns tourist and Prime ministerial attraction

One of the sillier media comments, as the fire tore through the amusement arcade of Eastbourne’s 170 year old pier was how its loss would hit tourism to the town. The comment came as part of an initial sort of hysteria built up by the media on a hot Wednesday evening, trying to make the fire on the pier seem a greater event than it was. There was a lot of early hype particularly in BBC broadcast reporting about the whole pier having gone and the effects on tourism. Now with all the will in the world, people come on holiday to Eastbourne for many reasons: to walk on the downs, swim and play on the beach, watch the air show, Airborne and attend the tennis tournament in the week before Wimbledon but few come purely for the pier itself. The pier is a background factor that helps make the town the pleasant place that it is but it would be true anorak or pier spotter who came purely to the town just to go on the pier. Until the fire that is. The way in which the story of the fire took hold in the media was almost more combustable than the pier itself. I was on the beach that afternoon having a swim. All was peaceful on a warm day, with clear blue sky overhead, there was no sign of what was pending a few hundred yards away to the left. I had got home, when a friend texted to say: “hope your not on the pier.” She’d seen the initial pictures on the news bulletins. The news of the fire seemed to get out from people on the beach, taking pictures on their phones and emailing them. The local paper must have cursed as the fire broke out,the biggest story of the year, just as that week’s paper was going to press. Credit though where credits due, the Eastbourne Herald came up with 11 pages of picture and reaction with a spectacular picture of a blazing pier on the front page. Most of the coverage was done in a hastily put together wrap around the main paper. The burning pier was soon featuring on BBC national news bulletins and BBC and ITV local news. The tragedy factor was emphasised with a series of talking head pieces, often featuring the Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd who was quickly on the scene. The leader of the council was another popular talking head. An assortment of locals and not so local were found to express their surprise, outrage and dismay. The disappointing thing as the evening wore on was the seeming inability of reporters to explain what exactly was going on, So Rebecca Williamson of BBC South East did an evening news report full of talking heads but inexplicably failing to say whether the fire was out and the extent of the damage. At this stage there seemed to be a deliberate effort to hype the fire and give an impression that the whole pier had gone up. In reality it was less than a third - the amusement arcade complex. The area was cordoned off. Constant references were made to the other local piers at Brighton and Hastings that had also gone up in smoke. Little mention that the damage to Eastbourne was far less than the other two blazes that took practically both piers, not just one part. The papers the next day picked up on the story, with the Times and Independent among those carrying the dramatic pictures a of the pier ablaze on the front page. Further reports appeared inside. The Guardian carried the story inside, then the next day had a huge picture of the pier forming its eyewitness feature across two pages. The day after the broadcast media arrived in force. BBC South East sending a presenter, reporter and even the weather came from the beach. More talking heads. I returned to the beach the following afternoon, where little had changed. There were people on the beach and in the sea. The only sign of “the tragedy” was a now charred edifice on the skyline, where once there had been the amusement arcade. In the sea, there were also some remnants as I swam around hitting stray bits of charcoal. The story though certainly had legs, stretching on into Friday, when who should arrive in town but the Prime minister and Chancellor. The fathers of austerity were here to see what had happened and offer £2 million of government money to help with the restoration. Some wondered why David Cameron and George Osborn had arrived in town, though it is a Tory marginal. Some wondered if the two would be visiting the town’s foodbank on the way home – one of the largest on the south coast – with cheque book open. And so the story goes on. Questions like what or who caused the fire remain to be answered. Who will pay for what is another interesting point, given that the pier is privately owned and insured. The poor stall holders who have now lost their businesses were not. The people deserving the credit were the fire brigade, who dealt so expertly with the fire, ensuring that most the pier was saved. All no doubt will be revealed in the fullness of time, as the story rolls on. The great irony is that despite my misgivings when the BBC reported on its national news about the significance of the pier to tourism in Eastbourne, the prophecy is now proving right. As a result of the fire people are flooding to the town. The pier no doubt has drawn in more people over the past three days than at most times in its recent history. The way in which the story took off has been incredible. No doubt the silly season, social media, all played an important part in sending the story round the world and back. But it also seems to have galvanised politicians and decision makers into action – no mean feat in this day and age. So misreport or not the saturation coverage of the Eastbourne pier fire has certainly suddenly provided the town with international fame. * Morning Star - 12/8/2014

No comments:

Post a Comment