If You Ask Me: Martin Bell

Hampstead Garden Suburb. Just the name oozes images of comfort, security and domesticity. It's not the first place that comes to mind as a likely abode for the bullet-dodging, white-suit wearing, war correspondent Martin Bell. Out of action war correspondents should live somewhere more edgy, like Primrose Hill, more media, like Islington, or more establishment � a little pile in the country, perhaps.

But no, it is in London's NW11 that I meet Bell. In his trademark white suit, he strikes a reluctant pose as the photographer snaps away. You can sense that he has no regrets that this side of his career has passed. Bell has come to define what the words foreign correspondent mean to a whole generation of viewers. He made his name covering events over four decades from the civil rights protests in the United States during the '60s to Sandinista rebels storming the Nicaraguan capital in 1979 with his most memorable moment coming in the '90s when he became the BBC's man of Bosnia.

Along the way, he won the Royal Television Society's reporter of the year in 1977, and again in 1993. He was awarded an OBE in 1992 and stepped away from journalism to fight against Tory double-standards in the 1997 election campaign with his anti-sleaze battle against MP Neil Hamilton.

When, in 1992, he was badly wounded by shrapnel while reporting in Sarajevo, it was a life-changing moment. In his book, The Journalism Of Attachment, Bell wrote about journalism that cares as well as knows a marked difference from the "only time will tell" school that BBC journalists were educated in.

"Bosnia knocked that out of me," Bell says with a chortle. "You can be fair to everybody, but you can't stand neutrally between good and evil. You can't say well, Hitler killed six million Jews, but my word he made the trains run on time, because you are not dealing with moral equivalents."

As he talks, nursing a glass of white wine in his hand, he speaks thoughtfully, but always to the point. He seems to time each statement as if there was a clock running in his head, no word wastage, filibustering or attempts at creating an impression of himself based on anything other than the facts. Indeed, the journalists of the "new" generation who Bell admits to having respect for — Fergal Keane, Matt Frei, Bill Neely and Kylie Morris — bear something of the no-nonsense approach that the former correspondent himself is renowned for.

What is striking about Bell is the sense of injustice that still rises to the surface of his generally calm demeanour, despite a lifetime of working in the media, when talking about issues such as the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Four million people have died in eight years," he says. "Four million, that's the highest death toll since WWII, but there is almost no coverage, because it is so dangerous, and by and large newsrooms don't care."

Bell certainly doesn't pull his punches — this is after all the journalist who entitled the first chapter of his third biography "The Death Of News". Best of all, he shows no sign of softening with old age — at this year's Edinburgh Television Festival he described working for Channel 4 as "the greatest nightmare of my professional life" while on stage with Channel 4's head of current affairs.

For all the issues he raises about the current state of journalism, it would be easy to typecast Bell as the media's own Victor Meldrew. He is a slightly mischievous sage, offering words of both wisdom and warning.

He says: "I'm not criticising it, it is just the way that the world has gone. If I were in Baghdad, I'd be just the same as everybody else � you can't report a war that you don't survive, to put it mildly."

In a war zone, you're either bored stiff or scared stiff.

There were places in war zones that I wouldn't go to. There was a particular death-run to a suburb of Dobrinja when you came up out of Sarajevo — you couldn't go there without coming under fire. Christiane Amanpour did it and I thought she was nuts, and I told her so. And then she wanted to do a story in the zoo, and I told her she was nuts to do that, but she did it. In a war zone, you're either bored stiff or scared stiff. You can't just cower in the bunker and refuse to go out. Each situation you judge for yourself, there is no point going to head office and asking shall I do this or shall I do that, because they don't know what the circumstances are. You judge each risk you take on its merits.

You come back and you think, these guys here are living on a different planet.

Every time I would come back from these war zones and I would be amazed at the things that people were exercised about in this country. Is the winner of the National Lottery entitled to anonymity— CRAZY! You come back and you think, these guys here are living on a different planet. That's what you think when they drop your stories as well. There's a wonderful moment in the film Welcome to Sarajevo, which I didn't like, but it did have one good moment, where somebody had been busting a gut all day to get the story and it was dropped because there was a royal divorce scandal. These things happen.

I probably wouldn't have refused Iraq, simply because it was the only way that I knew how to make a living.

I got myself into the situation where in the last 10 years I was doing almost nothing but wars, so if you suddenly refuse to go to war zones then it's going to be a very short goodbye. It's always voluntary, but somebody has to do it and I think it makes sense for older people like me to do it rather than younger people with families and children. But what has happened is that in the past 10 years, they've gone from a danger where the main risk was being caught in a crossfire — it could happen to anybody — to being targeted, taken out, executed, held hostage. What happened to Simon Cumbers and Frank Gardener was pretty well absorbed in the rest of the journalistic community. They just had no chance, they were singled out. Simon was killed and Frank is in a wheelchair for the rest of his days.

We live in a uniquely dangerous world.

Suppose you're going as a tourist to the Canaries and you suddenly find boatloads of hundreds of desperate West Africans washed up on your beach. It's helpful to know what's happening, it's no good protesting to the travel agent that that wasn't in the brochure. In parts of Africa, conditions are so catastrophic that people in their thousands are fleeing. Some 24,000 Africans have arrived in the Canaries this year, and probably a fifth have died on the way.

You can wage a war because, well, nobody gets killed do they?

I was once even prevented from showing pictures of grieving mothers and wives whose husbands and sons had just been killed, because it would have upset people. The danger with that is not only that it is false, but it is also immoral, because it gives the people who lead us, our politicians, the idea that war is a cost-free experience. You can wage a war because, well, nobody gets killed do they? That's partly the problem with the expeditionary wars of the 21st century. And you have a generation of politicians — the Blair government since '97 is the first in living memory — which has no one in it with any military experience. Not a minister, not a junior minister. Of course, they blithely go off to war — Iraq, Afghanistan.

You are there to bear witness, and people will take notice or they won't.

Sometimes there'll be a situation where a government doesn't have a policy on something, and Bosnia in '92 was a classic when all these hundreds and thousands of people were suffering and being driven from their homes. The television coverage forced the government to have a policy. It was because people said: �What are you doing about this?' I was accused by [former foreign secretary] Douglas Hurd of being the founder of the "Something-must-be-done Club", and Simon Jenkins wrote a piece to denounce me. But what do you do? You are there to bear witness, and people will take notice or they won't, but I think to some extent they still do.

There's a difference being hauled off to hospital yourself and going to hospital to see other people.

Getting hit in Sarajevo made me more cautious. It made me aware that I was not immortal, and I think on the whole it did me a lot of good. To some extent you've shared the experience of so many other people. This was a war among the people, and in the war journalists were able to be down there also in a way that today they are not. So you had some sense of the suffering of the people, so when you see what they've been through, it's not the same. There's a difference being hauled off to hospital yourself and going to hospital to see other people. You connect more intimately, I would say.

I'm a superstitious guy.

I happened to be in uniform in Gulf War One, in 1991. The next wars were the wars in Bosnia and Croatia in the June, July that year. I happened to have a couple of white suits with me because after being in uniform in the past I thought, I'm going to be a civilian. But there is so much stuff flying through the air, there are a lot of bullets out there and none of it hit me, so I ascribed my survival to the white suit. So I've worn nothing else ever since. I don't like the arm wavers — I hate the arm wavers.

I admire Matt Frei, Bill Neely, Allan Little — you know, the guys who can write.

They write to picture and they have a sense of rhythm in what they say. You know that the words and the pictures are interacting with each other and it is not just a lot of words laid down over a lot of pictures. I don't like the arm wavers — I hate the arm wavers. There is a lady in the BBC, she's actually American, who teaches them. She comes from Iowa and she teaches them to walk and talk and to wave their arms at the same time. It's all in Vin Ray's book How To Be A Journalist, he's a friend of mine, but he more or less gives the game away there. It's called "being in the moment", there is an actorishness about it and I just hate it. They appear too much, they say too much and I just don't like them.

You can't be objective, because you are a subjective person, you see things with your own eyes and ears, and through the prism of your own experience. But you can be fair.

With someone like Fergal Keane, his job was to report things from the Lebanese side. He didn't have to counter or have an internal dialogue with himself. He does use emotion like nobody else, I've said this before. I have a high regard for him, he writes very well, but he's a little bit like Samuel Johnson. He's very good of his kind, but he spawns all kind of dreadful imitations. After "A Letter To Daniel", BBC correspondents were weeping into their microphones from all over the world.

You sacrifice freedom, you gain access.

If the alternatives you are given are to be embedded or go nowhere, you take embedded. You sacrifice freedom, you gain access. It's a trade-off and I think it's alright. I was embedded in the '91 Gulf War and I enjoyed it, and I think I got something out of it. But so long as you treat it as just one source among many. It was particularly clear during the 2003 war that embedded journalists were getting just fragments. They met no Iraqis, they saw no Iraqis, except those surrendering. A lot of the best coverage came from the unilateral in Baghdad as the war came towards them, and that was quite a brave thing to do. I think embedding in itself is inevitable and there is no more point complaining about embedding than there is complaining about the weather.

Journalism is great for people with low boredom thresholds.

My grandfather was the news editor of The Observer in the 1920s when the paper had a total staff of about eight and was then a pre-eminent Sunday newspaper. He died when I was 12, but I had time to quiz him about his work. I said: "This is fascinating." I was a kid with a low boredom threshold, and journalism is great for people with low boredom thresholds, it was then and it is now. It did live up to my expectations.

I think now I was very lucky to do it when I did, because the particular sort of journalism which I enjoyed doing most, which was the rough stuff in among the people, you can't do anymore. It's simply too dangerous.

Young people today have spent all their lives looking at screens, and this applies especially to young journalists. You get your information from screens, you get your entertainment from screens. The people working in local weeklies � many of them hardly leave the office. Information comes from screens, from hand-outs and PR people. Its all about story count and actually the old-fashioned sort of reporting � getting out on the ground, finding things out. There is less and less of that.

I'm tempted to go back into politics all the time.

But I won't. The time of the Iraq war, I would have liked to register my vote against that. That war was a terrible offence against democracy. But the two main political parties went off and believed a whole set of false assurances. I'm still active in my support of independents all around the country.

Whatever it takes for the Hamiltons to earn a living.

Christine Hamilton has made a career out of hand-bagging me on Knutsford Heath. I don't know if their "celebrity" is still ongoing. Whatever it takes for them to earn a living, I don't have a problem with that. I just hope Neil never tries to go back into politics.

They universally predicted my catastrophic failure.

Initially, when I crossed the line, my former colleagues were a bit iffy about it, because they thought I had done something I shouldn't. Matthew Parris said that I had no chance whatsoever, but he and the others were wrong.

Suddenly they all wanted to talk.

It was marvellous having been a journalist, to be an MP. Suddenly my calls were being returned by government departments, from utilities, from railway companies — all kinds of people. Suddenly they all wanted to talk. That was great. It was a huge advantage to have been a journalist, because when you were dealing with them, you knew who the ill-intentioned ones were. You knew who was out to get you.

The greatest lesson I learnt from my time as an MP is that democracy really isn't something we can take for granted.

We have to work at it. I was truly shocked to the extent, never having been there before, never having had any ambition to be there, suddenly I'm in this place where people, on matters of great importance, are routinely voting against measures that they believe in and voting for the measures that they don't. What truly shocked me was the power of the party whips. My three and a half years on the Standards and Privileges Committee was pretty shocking too. But I met some very good people and it was a very huge privilege.

I knew I had made it when…

I never knew that I had made it. I lived in a state of constant fear of being found out from start to finish. You feel that you are doing OK so far, but I think most journalists are insecure, and it is my experience that the ones who seem to be doing best are the most insecure of all.


My nightmare news story

In the mid 1980s I was sent to interview the elderly relative of a minor member of the royal family whose father, according to the Daily Mirror, had fought with the Nazis in WWII. I didn't want to do the item, but the BBC was suddenly into royal stories and I had to charter a flight to a place called Industry, Illinois. Once there I had to find this woman, who really didn't want to talk to me and was protected from my enquiries by her husband, who was an elderly gentleman and was himself dying of cancer. I thought this was a disgraceful thing that I was doing. I wished the satellite feed to go down, but it didn't so I vowed to myself that even at the risk of my career, if I was asked to do a thing like that again I would never do it. It was a gross intrusion into their privacy.

The person who most influenced me

There are two people in the business who I very much admire. One is James Cameron, who was the original great global columnist. It is an art that doesn't exist anymore except perhaps with Robert Fisk of The Independent. Cameron was quite opinionated, a brilliant writer and a very humane and decent man. He wrote for the News Chronicle and I was at university when it folded, and I cried because it was such a great paper, he was such a great columnist and I hugely admired him, both for his fluency with words and for his brilliantness. The other one was Charles Wheeler, who is the great BBC television journalist.

The hardest lesson I learnt

The most difficult lesson in television news is knowing when to shut up. If you look at what you see on the screen today, especially from a lot of the younger reporters, it's swamped with words. There are words wall-to-wall, whereas in actual fact it is the art

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