Martin Bell is the war correspondent who fought to clean up politics. Ahead of a visit to Lancashire he tells Tony Dewhurst his fears for the future of news reporting
Martin Bell has stood in war zones as both a soldier and a journalist.
He’s the fearless front line reporter, with shrapnel still stuck in his body after being wounded in Sarajevo, while reporting the Bosnian war.
The injury left with him with a limp, but his persuasive call for intervention in Bosnia in front of a burned-out tram and a harrowing image of an infant’s coffin being carried by his grieving father on BBC’s Panorama will long be remembered.
Bell has witnessed first hand the dramatic changes in how conflicts are fought and how they are reported. In an age of international terror, where journalists themselves have become targets, and more and more reports are issued from the sidelines or other countries, Bell has made an impassioned plea to put the substance back into our news coverage.
“It is a strange time for journalism to turn its back on swathes of modern life,” said the former BBC foreign correspondent, who will present his talk: War and the Death of News at The Grand, Clitheroe, on March 21.
“We stand precariously at the most dangerous juncture in world affairs since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Some of the dangers are old and others new: nuclear proliferation, rogue states, the plague of jihadism, climate change, and the wild card presidency of Donald Trump.”
“We should be better informed than ever before because the communications technology is extraordinary and should contribute to a better understanding of the world.
“Fine, we can reach out to each other in an instant by satellite, on the Internet or through social media.
“We can circle the world with our iClouds. We can friend or un-friend each other in an instant.
“But the technology has run ahead of us: it is not our servant but our master. The lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. We know increasingly less about more, and more about less. We are entering a new Dark Age – and news as we have known it has died and been laid to rest.”
Bell sounds the alarm for a TV journalism that’s under fire as never before and admits he despairs at what he calls the ‘celebrification and churnalism’ of some of today’s news agenda.
“It is surely no time for soft news, the fluff and froth of a journalism crafted to entertain rather than inform. If Strictly and Big Brother are essential to the news, and the overhyped comings and goings of the Kardashian family, then what is optional – the war in Yemen or the attempted coup in Burundi.”
Bell believes the reporting of conflicts changed dramatically after the September 11 attacks on America 17 years ago. This is when, he says, free ranging and independent journalism lost its foothold.
“Before, the chief danger we faced in a war zone was to be caught in the cross-fire. After that time, we were at risk of being targeted, kidnapped, ransomed and executed.
“One of the casualties of the new world disorder was the veteran war reporter Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times. She was killed in 2012 in the city of Homs. She was not caught in the cross-fire but targeted.
“The Syrians knew she was there, since she had appeared on CNN the day before in a report which she pleaded for outside intervention to help the wounded children.
“She was inside the rebels’ press centre. The Syrians knew where it was, and where she was, and they bombed it.
“Now, since journalists have become an endangered species, they have retreated to green zones and fortified compounds, venturing out occasionally and under close escort, so, subsequently, they never get the true picture of what is going on.”
Bell’s anger over the war in Bosnia led him into conflict with his bosses at the BBC, some of who felt he strayed from its tradition of neutral reporting.
“You don’t report genocide in the same terms as a flower show,’ Bell told them.
He added: “I covered 18 conflicts, from the Six Day War (Arab-Israeli conflict) to Iraq. I also reported on the Civil Rights Movement in America and the death of Martin Luther King, but nothing challenged me more than the Bosnian War.
“It was very frightening because reporters were caught up in the middle of it; we shared the dangers, to an extent, with those around us.
“It was Bosnia that also really got me thinking about the traditions of even-handedness, which we inherited but which did not seem adequate to the realities of a city under siege for four years (Sarajevo) and the phenomenon that became to be known as ethnic cleansing.”
Bell became well known on TV for wearing a white suit on assignment, adding: “I have several and it’s a superstition thing. I wore one during a sweltering June day in 1991 in Croatia, when bullets were flying through the air and none connected with me. After that I resolved to wear a lucky white suit.”
He added: “When I got injured, I’d been without cover for far too long at the back of the Marshal Tito Barracks in Sarajevo. I was surrounded by shelling and sniper fire when a mortar shell fragment struck me in the abdomen.
“I had to spend the next two weeks in the UN field hospital where they operated on me and took out most of the shrapnel. I was lifted aboard a returning aircraft and taken home to the UK. I didn’t do too much after Bosnia, but I made a documentary about Kofi Annan, who’d been made Secretary-General at the United Nations.
“While opening an exhibition of photographs of the Bosnian War I was asked to stand as an MP.”
Then Bell broke the rules of politics by becoming Britain’s first Independent MP, winning a seat in Westminster on a ticket to stand against government corruption.
“I was surprised that I won by an 11,000 majority, but some of the awful characters I met in Parliament appalled me,” he said.
Bell says one of his greatest concerns today is the rapid decline of the provincial press, with 48 regional newspapers having closed since 2012 and many more facing an uncertain future.
“It is a massive worry, and the Internet has ripped a gaping hole in the business model of many great news organisations,” he said.
“And, as a result, vast swathes of modern life are increasingly unreported. I joined BBC Norwich in 1962, reporting stories about local farmers, flood drainage in The Fens and interviewing Sir Alf Ramsey, the then Ipswich Town manager who later became England’s World Cup winning coach.
“It was an exciting job but I always had a love of newspapers too. When I was an MP my constituency was well served by two newspapers, the Knutsford Guardian and the Wilmslow Express Advertiser, each with a visible presence in the community.
“If you had a story to tell or a case to make to the editor, you could knock on her door. They were real newspapers, holding authority to account and covering institutions like court and council properly.
“However, I believe both their offices are now closed and their titles are edited from media hubs miles away.
“I heard of one local newspaper in London inviting readers to leave a note in a drop box at a local supermarket if they had a story.
“It is all dreadfully sad.”
n Martin Bell, War and the Death of News, Clitheroe Grand Theatre, Wednesday, March 21. 01200 421599 or www.thegrandvenue.co.uk