By proposing a "journalism of attachment," Bell led lesser reporters down a false trail.by John Lloyd / February 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
The 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, between 1992 and 1995, was one of the more important of our contemporary ethical crucibles. It was a time when, in Martin Bell’s words, journalism became a "moral profession," and when journalism won a decisive battle against its great rival, politics. Neither profession has fully recovered its equilibrium: many of the politicians who think about these matters still feel guilt, and many of the journalists still feel smug. The battle between them for the moral high ground continues, presently cast in the slippery form of a struggle for the possession of the "truth" in the matter of the reasons for the US and Britain going to war with Iraq.
Martin Bell was BBC television’s main man in Sarajevo in the crucible period, and is a very important person in these moral wars. A man who had the stamina and physical courage to be a successful television war correspondent in his fifties, he was elected an independent member of parliament in 1997, winning, with Labour and Liberal Democrat support, the solidly Conservative seat of Tatton. Its sitting MP, Neil Hamilton, had become perhaps the most unpopular MP of his generation. Like the contrast that his once ubiquitous white suit presented to the dull panorama of middle-aged British men’s fashion, Bell has set himself against backgrounds which he has painted as brutal, corrupt, mendacious or conformist.
In the 1990s, Bell wrote two books – In Harm’s Way and An Accidental MP – and published a third last year, Through Gates of Fire. In this last, he draws deeply on the moral capital he believes he acquired as war reporter, as independent MP and as anti-celebrity celebrity. In the latter two of these roles, he presents himself as a severe critic of the constraints of party, political ambition and lack of moral fibre in the political and media classes. In the first role, he proposes a "journalism of attachment" – an engaged journalism, which bears witness to horrors and deliberately stirs the consciences of the mass audience and of public men and women who have the power and command the resources to put a stop to them.
Bell is a star, and talks like one. That is, he assumes – reasonably in view of past experience – that interviewers want him to talk about himself. Thus when I asked him, in an interview…