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 he gave to promote his book last year, if he thought television news and current affairs had dumbed down, he said, "I see it happening. The smartest decision I made last year was not to appear on Celebrity Big Brother," an apparent non sequitur, until you work out that he means the story to indicate that television seeks to reduce serious journalists like himself to the level of vacuity. Then he began to complain that war reporting was now done from hotel roofs – a phenomenon he first noticed, he said, when reporting from El Salvador in the early 1980s, "and I was the only poor sod in the trenches." The alternative to hotel roofs was "smartly dressed blokes in front of video walls" – a sign that television executives "want more control over the awkward squad, people like me."
He thinks that independent television has stopped doing serious news, and that the BBC is consumed with celebrity; that reporting has become more about performance than the imparting of information; and that pressures of 24-hour news mean that "too many people don’t know what’s happening on the ground." But like any celebrity, he knows that he is the story, he sells the books, and he is the reason producers want him on television shows and literary festival hosts want him at Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham.
His main professional principle – the journalism of attachment – is bidding to be one of the central organising principles of modern journalism. He defines this first by a negative. "It’s not polemical. John Pilger [the journalist who believes US imperialism is the greatest danger in the world] is too polemical for me. What I mean is a journalism which cares as well as knows." Bell knew that war in Bosnia was giving rise to massacres, rape, looting and misery; he cared enough to go beyond the reportage, and to call for intervention by those states – above all Britain, his main audience – with the capacity to stop it. An incoming mortar, he writes, knocked "detachment" out of him – although why it should have had that effect, he doesn’t say.
I put to him the hypothetical case of a journalist who believed that membership of the EU is destructive of British values. If such a journalist believes he knows this and has proof of it, and cares about his fellow countrymen, shouldn’t he bear witness to his knowledge and concern, and call for an end to Britain’s EU membership? "That’s the job of a columnist," said Bell. But hadn’t he performed just such a columnist’s job in April 1996, in his last news broadcast from Bosnia? In this, he declaimed against scenes of desolation in Grbavica, a Serb-held Sarajevo suburb: "There are surely some lessons to be learned here if this ordeal is not to be repeated – important lessons, diplomatic and military. Diplomatic: that action not taken can be just as dangerous as any action being considered; that procrastination, delay, the expedient diplomatic fudge – all these can cost lives. They can and in Bosnia they have. And the military lesson is surely that, if there’s no agreement between the parties, then a measure of enforcement is going to be necessary. And if you’re going to threaten force you have to be willing to use force, and to bear the costs and casualties that go with it." (The passage is reproduced with pride in Through Gates of Fire.)
Wasn’t this an opinion, I asked? More, it was an opinion calling for a direct political and military decision; for soldiers to risk their lives and to kill others, who would almost certainly include the innocent. Bell, a little curtly, repeated what he has said in his book: "It was a decision arising out of three and a half years of experience." During those years, the governments of Europe and North America, and particularly Britain, were committed to not intervening. The line was that the Balkans was a place of ancient enmities, best kept out of. The British foreign secretary of the day, Douglas Hurd, made a speech in which he spoke slightingly of people like Bell as the "something must be done brigade."
If not a brigade, the shifting collection of men and women who covered the Bosnian horrors were certainly a platoon whose esprit de corps, the product of shared dangers and pressures, issued forth in a bitter indictment of politicians’ spinelessness. Allan Little, now BBC bureau chief in Paris and another correspondent who travelled back and forth to Bosnia in this time, told me that one night, in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn where the journalists stayed, a group got out a whisky bottle and a copy of AJP Taylor’s Causes of the Second World War. "We took turns in reading out paragraphs which you could directly transpose from then to now. We read Hurd back into Halifax [the pre-war, pro-appeasement foreign secretary]."
But Little – who did not become famous as a result of the war, despite writing, with Laura Silber, the FT correspondent in Belgrade, a fine book, The Death of Yugoslavia – does not share Bell’s view of a journalism of attachment. "I share Martin’s view that there should have been an intervention," he said. "I agreed that the line ‘everyone is guilty and so nothing can be done,’ was terrible. But Martin thought that war was awful and must be stopped through advocacy. I thought reporting should show that the Serbs’ drive to extend their area was the motive force behind the war, and that once that was shown, the conclusion would speak for itself. You couldn’t be an advocate and work for the BBC. The Guardian or the Independent could do it, fine, but not the BBC." Little’s view – which was shared by such reporters as John Burns of the New York Times – was sharply at odds with Bell’s. The latter believed that war was a horror, like earthquake and famine, and that it had to be stopped. The former believed that war had a main cause (in their view, the Serbian leadership under Slobodan Milosevic) and that this was ascertainable through inquiry and thus had to be broadcast and written in the name of objective journalism pursuing the truth.
The question of the BBC’s position in journalism – not just in relation to other British media but also in relation to world media – is critical. It is caught in a paradox. It is a state-funded broadcaster which must be independent of the state in order to deserve its state-funded privileges. The British state would lose prestige if it had a tame broadcaster, and parliament would not support it. At the same time, its independence cannot be that of the British newspaper culture. That culture has, of course, a big influence on the broadcaster’s journalists. But if the BBC became indistinguishable from the newspaper culture, it would jeopardise its privileges, since polemic in opinion columns and reporting is being efficiently supplied by the market. It must thus find an independence which does not share the newspaper assumption that politicians are inherently objects of suspicion – a quest which, in the past few years, it has apparently renounced.
The BBC’s independence is surely to be found in a kind of journalism which Bell seems to reject: a journalism which assumes the existence of the truth and that aims to discover it – but which eschews drawing any conclusions from it. Many journalists no longer believe in the existence of truth – or believe that, even if it does exist, it is unattainable by journalism. In an online debate organised earlier this year, the discussion website Open Democracy canvassed a range of views from journalists and observers of journalism on how they should practise their craft. David Loyn, a BBC foreign correspondent, argued that even if the goal of a "single absolute truth" could never be reached, the effort must always be made. This view provoked a tide of derision from those who saw the media as structurally biased – like Danny Schechter, editor of mediachannel.org, who called for a journalism which did "more to examine how conflicts could be resolved rather than focus on the blood and the gore." Jake Lynch, whose NGO Reporting the World seeks to popularise "peace journalism," argued that "journalists are always already involved, whether they like it or not." Behind these arguments are the polemics of Pilger, Noam Chomsky and filmmaker Michael Moore – which claim that objectivity is either impossible, or that the dominant media distort objective reality on behalf of various political or economic interests, or both. Few people argued that objectivity was both desirable and at least theoretically possible; perhaps tellingly, the main representative of this view was not a journalist but a philosopher – Julian Baggini.
Baggini chided Loyn for selling the pass too easily: if journalists’ duty was to pursue truth, there must be a truth to pursue. He defined it as an increasingly objective perspective – the wider the frame of reference, the more transparent the process of selection and judgement in constructing the news, and the closer the reader or viewer felt to an informed perspective.
Although the BBC has been damaged by the kind of journalism of suspicion that the Kelly affair revealed, it still retains the resources, and the public and political support, to develop the "informed perspective" which is necessary to retain that support in the long term. With that goal in mind, Bell’s "journalism of attachment" must be a false trail.
In our interview, Bell mentioned his colleague Fergal Keane, whose "Letter to Daniel" – a broadcast letter to his newborn son on the violence and poverty Keane had witnessed in Africa – gave him a moral lustre which many listeners found attractive, though some found saccharine. Bell commended it, but remarked that it had encouraged bad imitations among BBC reporters of lesser talent. I called Keane, who had just broadcast a long commentary on the Remembrance Sunday parade (9th November), and asked him about attachment journalism, expecting an endorsement. To my surprise, he vigorously rejected it – "I don’t believe reporters should be attached to anyone or anything" – and spoke from the position of one who was rethinking his journalistic attitudes. "I’m weary of heart on the sleeve journalism," he said. "I don’t like the working assumption that all governments are wrong all the time. My experience in Northern Ireland and Africa showed me that the media tend to identify with an anti-government position, or with people they see as the underdogs. But look at Northern Ireland: the people you had to understand there were the Ulster Protestants. Or the assumption made in South Africa that the ANC were always the good guys, when of course it’s more complicated than that."
When I relayed to him Bell’s view that he was widely and badly imitated, he said, "I would hope not. I’m more and more aware of the limitations of journalism. You fly in and out of places and you make instant judgements because you must. The work I’m now most proud of are programmes which attempt to find out the facts and lay them out carefully."
Keane has been through a period of emotion-driven stardom and, it seems, has emerged the other side. The hottest BBC correspondent of today, Rageh Omaar, who reported from Baghdad throughout the Iraq war, still backs the journalism of attachment. Indeed, he reproaches himself for not doing more editorialising. "I did editorialise a bit. After all, I had been in and out of Iraq for seven years – and I used my pieces to camera before the war to say things about how ordinary Iraqis felt. But I didn’t say there was a disaster coming. Maybe I should have said so. Maybe we all failed to say that there was a disaster coming after the war. There were a number of journalists who weren’t there during the last years of Saddam, and who hadn’t seen the country eviscerated by sanctions. We didn’t point out how hard it would be after the war, because of what sanctions had done to Iraq. We should have said that before the war."
Omaar is now finishing a book, to be called Revolution Day: the Human Story of the Battle for Iraq, in which he stresses his engagement with ordinary people and his ability to speak for them. In the Huw Wheldon lecture he gave to the Royal Television Society conference in September – an honour usually conferred on television’s greybeards – he criticised the central position television coverage gave to the toppling of the statue of Saddam in central Baghdad and suggested that "the image of young doctors carrying guns to protect their patients" would "speak more eloquently" on Iraq’s future. Omaar is right to draw attention to the use of iconic images in television. But he is not opposing their use, or asking for more contextualisation of them: he is calling for a different image, conveying a different judgement. The hospital image says that things will get worse; the statue-toppling image says that things will get better. Who can know? Omaar cannot, for all his courage and expertise: yet he believes, with Bell, that a reporter on the spot should make these definite calls.
The view that journalism can never be objective and thus that it must become "attached" or "engaged" is now at the centre of controversy within the profession. Bell, as he pointed out to me, was the subject of a polemical pamphlet – "Whose war is it anyway?" – put out by the magazine Living Marxism during the Bosnian conflict and written by its former editor and present Times columnist Mick Hume. Hume thought Bell was a bleeding heart – one who, with colleagues like CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Newsday’s Roy Gutman and the Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy, had turned suffering Bosnians into "cannon fodder" for their "personal crusades." However, Hume and his colleagues were not advocating objective journalism: they were calling for pro-Serb journalism, a position taken by other radicals, such as Noam Chomsky and Harold Pinter.
Ironically, Britain’s most famous war reporter no longer wishes to engage in the conflict: for him, there are certain verities, and they are largely dismal. The world has grown dishonest and shallow, peopled by elegantly coiffed young men and women who describe wars they do not see to an audience which does not care. They are like the anonymous reporter on the 1991 Gulf war whom Bell mentions in Through Gates of Fire: "a good-looking Canadian who had a following among the ladies and who reported for the American network NBC on some explosive development in the war during the half-time break in the Superbowl." Much of what he says is conventional cynicism about both politics and journalism. His book contains the breathtaking remark that, "the great American tradition of telling truth to power was incinerated in New York on 11th September 2001" – an observation that the most casual reading of any decent US newspaper or magazine, or viewing or listening to any one of dozens of news or discussion shows on television or radio, would itself incinerate.
The idea of a journalism of attachment – that journalists should bear passionate witness, that experience brings the right to editorialise – is one worth having. Television, and especially the BBC, has a proud record of a journalism of attachment: programmes, whether fictional or reality-based, which draw public attention to scandals and horrors, and implicitly or explicitly call for action. But these are not news programmes. It is when Martin Bell or Rageh Omaar start suggesting that "something should be done" on mainstream news programmes, with their aura of objectivity, that problems begin. Policy prescriptions have to come properly labelled otherwise public service broadcasters take over the role of elected politicians. The BBC has sold that pass: indeed, it seems not to recognise the problem.
The best testimony on this I know is by the writer and journalist, Michael Ignatieff, who himself made television documentaries and reported on the wars of a disintegrating Yugoslavia. In the essay "Is Nothing Sacred? The Ethics of Television" in his 1998 book, The Warrior’s Honour, Ignatieff makes the point that, "whether it wishes it or not, television has become the principal mediation between the sufferings of strangers and the consciences of those in the world’s few remaining zones of safety… it has become not merely the means through which we see each other, but the means by which we shoulder each other’s fate." In this essay, Ignatieff – whose new novel Charlie Johnson in the Flames is about a television war correspondent’s search for the reason behind the immolation of a woman who has helped him – makes a similar point to Little: that moral disgust has its limits. But he goes further, suggesting that moral disgust can become the antithesis of what Bell aims for – sour indifference: "As a moral mediator between violent men and the audiences whose attention they crave, television images are more effective at presenting consequences than in exploring intentions: more adept at pointing to corpses than in explaining why violence may, in certain places, pay so well. As a result television news bears some responsibility for that generalised misanthropy, that irritable resignation towards the criminal folly of fanatics and assassins, which legitimises one of the dangerous cultural moods of our time – the feeling that the world has become too crazy to deserve serious reflection."
Bell had the platform, the guts and the brains to make a difference. But he opted for celebrity, and celebrities, in order to become and stay what their public wishes them to be, are doomed to an endless round of repetition. Little has eschewed that road; Keane seems to have left it; Omaar is facing temptations to tread it. He has a six-figure publisher’s advance, he was a Huw Wheldon lecturer, and his good looks have been commented on everywhere. That he loves it is obvious: he spent part of his Wheldon lecture saying how embarrassed he was to be f?ted on a television breakfast show when he returned, and how angry he was that the media wanted to talk about his clothes, and not about the issues. After our talk, he sent me an email saying how nice it was "not to do an interview about being called ‘the Scud Stud.’" If public service broadcast journalism coexists uneasily with "attachment," it is ruined by celebrity; but celebrity is what now stalks it, with the aid of the Man in the White Suit.