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How terrorism in Munich led to ABC's first 'live' report

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In the early hours of 5th September 1972, the Munich Olympic Games were rocked by a terrorist attack. Eight terrorists from the Palestinian organisation Black September (BSO) seized members of the Israeli Olympic team, killing two in the initial attack, with nine more Israeli athletes and officials taken hostage – and worse to come. Six days earlier, John Highfield thought he’d finished his current affairs reporting assignment at the Olympics, but within hours he was back in Munich, an eyewitness to the dramatic events unfolding and becoming the first ABC journalist to report ‘live’ into a radio news bulletin.

By John Highfield / 25 January 2022

September 4th, 1972.  I took the evening Channel car-ferry to Dover, then drove to my flat in the ABC premises in the West End of London just before midnight. I was returning from a brief camping holiday on the Rhein (Rhine) River after completing my reporting assignment for ABC Radio Current Affairs AM/PM, together with a TV News Review profile on the preparations by the Aussie wonder swimmer Shane Gould for the Munich Olympics. 

After the Opening Ceremony in the week before, my role concluded, and the team from ABC Sport had the coverage. This was such an important event for Germany – trying so hard to make ‘The Friendly Games’ the perfect antidote to the lingering shadows from the ‘Nazi Olympics’ of 1936.    

Tired, after the long day’s drive and cross-Channel trip, I went to bed without unpacking my kit – including Olympic village security passes and tape recorders. 

Within an hour or so my bedside phone rang – a short conversation with the duty News Editor in ABC Sydney – and an adamant instruction ‘Terrorists are in the Olympic Village, get back to Munich ASAP’. 

September 5th.  Pre-dawn at Heathrow Airport, begging British Airways staff for the earliest flight to Munich. An offer to fly in a passenger-empty charter flight on its way to pick up a holiday group in Munich. Yes please! ‘You’ll have to hurry, we’ll take you to the gate, through security.’ 

By 0830 Central European Time I was back on the ground at the historic old Munich Riem International Airport, arranging a taxi back to the Olympic Park. A reporter’s miracle.  

As the late arrival I was positioned at the bottom of a grassy bank skirting the exterior chain wire fence of the Olympic village. Most TV, radio and print crews were higher up the embankment, in prized positions with a long lens view of the Israeli team apartment. My view was limited to the open basement carpark. 

A long sunny day followed. Tense negotiations continued throughout the morning, afternoon and into the early evening to try to release the hostages. International television broadcast images of the hooded Black September terrorist leader on the balcony of the Israeli team apartment. An ill-fated local Bavarian counter-terrorism police plan to crawl through ventilator shafts to take out the terrorists came to nothing.

Suddenly, at around 9pm (early morning 6th September, Australian time) as I watched through the wire fence, figures in tracksuits carrying automatic military weapons spread through the carpark, dodging behind pillars. 

Moments later a military bus entered at high-speed doing a skidding U-turn just on the other side of the fence in front of me. 

I started my Nagra tape recorder, describing this emerging action and holding the microphone up for the sound effects. 

Then suddenly again, through a doorway passage not 30 metres away, masked men with AK-47 weapons pushed nine hostages in front of them on to the bus steps. After a minute or two – loaded with terrorists and hostages, the wheel-spinning bus careered away to an access road. 

As I ran up the bank shouting ‘They’re out’ to the crowd of journalists waiting further up the bank, word was quickly being passed from authorities to the media throng that the operation was shifting to Fürstenfeldbruck NATO Military Airport. The scramble for transport swung into place. However, being a radio reporter in the era before digital mobile, the instant need was for communication facilities. 

My mind focused on the Games Media Centre, just a hundred metres away. There, ABC Sport had a fully equipped broadcast facility with a quality connection to Sydney Master Control. 

Making my way into the now darkened studio, I used a torch to find the mains power. Going to the now bright desk console I opened a microphone channel and called down the line, ‘John Highfield in Munich, anyone listening?

Within 30 seconds a voice came into my headphones, ‘Yeah, Lionel here in Master Control, what do you want?’ My thankful response, “Can you patch me to the Radio Newsroom urgently.’

Seconds later the voice of Annie Ringwood, the duty cable-sub, as they were then defined in newsrooms, came back to me. ‘Yes, John what do you want?’ I informed her of what I had witnessed moments before. 

In those days there was a barrier between News and us newcomers in Radio Current Affairs. Annie informed me that she’d seen nothing of the hostages on the move via the international wire services she relied on through teleprinters.  

As I explained my first-hand witness of the drama, suddenly another voice came back from Sydney, ‘Russ Handley here, John, what’s going on?’ Handley was the Radio News editor who’d welcomed me as a casual reporter, bringing a new form of reporting from commercial radio news when I came to the ABC looking for a job several years prior. 

Explaining the situation quickly to him – Russ Handley then took a very brave ABC News decision. He said – ‘John, we have a bulletin going to air in 2 minutes on 2FC (today’s Radio National) – can you handle a live spot – and how do we intro it?’  I told him, just intro “Dramatic developments in the Munich hostage situation – ABC’s John Highfield is there’.

A live reporter broadcast into ABC Radio News. History made. The first time ABC permitted a live reporter voice piece into Radio News, without carrying out editorial checks and clearance.  

Over the many hours which followed, there were live reports into AM, other News bulletins and PM, during that long Australian day and German night-into-morning. 

After the initial report on 2FC, I was able to monitor the graphic developments with constant information flow through the internal Olympic CCTV. The Bavarian State Police Commander had been joined at a room in the Village by German Federal officials and the Security Minister. This was the Central Operational Control.  Incredibly, their official handling of the terrorist crisis was being seen, with every deliberation, communications conversation and decision on the internal CCTV distribution, originally purposed to carry the Olympic sporting coverage throughout the village! 

Next door to the ABC studio was the BBC. Inactive because of the crisis, the only person there was a young production assistant who spoke German. I asked for her assistance, and she provided running translated notes for me as we monitored the CCTV. Even the graphic live pictures of the dark-shrouded NATO airport were transmitted as helicopters erupted in explosions, accompanied by Commanders’ orders. So it was that this ABC reporter was able to deliver unprecedented reports of the momentous international drama, with great detail from a very reliable primary source – the Anti-Terrorism Operational Command Centre of the Bavarian/Federal German Governments!     

POSTSCRIPT:

John Highfield would continue sending stories, dictated and ‘live’, for more than 40 hours. ‘Highfield’s work’, the News Division said officially, ‘was of heroic proportions’ (K.S. Inglis, This Is The ABC, p.310). 

The West German government’s efforts to resolve the hostage crisis ended in mayhem and tragedy. The Black September terrorists murdered the nine Israeli hostages at the Fürstenfeldbruck NATO airport (plus the initial two at the Olympic village, 11 in all). German police killed five of the eight terrorists. A West German policeman was also killed.  

John Highfield covered news and current affairs for the ABC for nearly 40 years. As a foreign correspondent he’s reported from London to Moscow, Washington to South Africa. He’s also worked in the Canberra Press Gallery and hosted radio current affairs programs, including the first-ever ‘PM’ in 1969. 


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