‘Most dangerous times since 1963’ says Martin Bell

Tom Byrne reports on a talk by the very experienced British journalist on war reporting.

The first time Martin Bell attempted to become an officer in the British Army he failed the intelligence test. Undaunted, he tried again – and failed again. That failure tells us more about the inadequacies of intelligence tests than the abilities of the man who eventually did become a soldier, completing his two years of national service as a corporal in Cyprus before going on to a distinguished career as a journalist, politician and writer. 

Martin Bell was in Ireland at the end of September to take part in the Dublin Festival of History. He spoke to a large crowd at Dublin Castle about his life, and drew on his wide and varied experience to reflect on current events and the future of news in the context of climate change, Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump – what he described as “the most dangerous times since 1963”.

Now 79, Mr Bell joined the BBC in 1962 fresh from a degree in English at Cambridge University. For the next 35 years he served as a foreign correspondent and war reporter. Over that time, he said that he has seen journalism as a profession, and the context in which journalists operate, change drastically.

He believes a lack of direct experience of war is detrimental to news reporting and political decision making – and both of these result in an ill-served watching and voting public. Drawing on his own experience, he criticised his own journalistic approach and sensibility at the beginning of his career.  Covering the Vietnam War, said he had “failed the audience” because he had been “enthralled by the military hardware and orders of battle” when “wars are about people”.

“A good journalist is one that cares as well as knows,” he said. Over time, Mr Bell learned to be a better reporter and an important facet of this was “letting expressive pictures speak for themselves”.

“People want news that they can trust”

In a way, he believes, this is similar to the war poets of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Wilfrid Owen, “who brought truth [about World War I] into the public bloodstream” with their descriptive evocations of the real horror of conditions in the trenches. These poets were, Mr Bell believed, the real heroes at a time when there was no impartial reporting of the war by journalists – indeed he went so far as to say that the reportage that appeared in the newspapers of the time “was disgraceful”, amounting to propaganda because of the “limited access and careful scrutiny by the military”.

Fellow war reporter and former colleague John Simpson has criticised Mr Bell himself for being judgemental. Mr Bell though makes no apologies for “not being neutral between victim and aggressor” or for not striving for a “false balance”. He said that much that is wrong with news today comes from the catch-22 situation of it being now too dangerous for journalists to report on the ground from war zones, as he himself had done. “Journalists are now targets and much reporting is second-hand from the sidelines.”

Much of the degradation of news and of truth itself today comes from how wars are fought and how they are reported, he said. Demands for “balance” and “good taste” have sanitised depictions of grief and pain. The adage that journalism exists “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” has been downgraded so the “viewer is not disturbed or upset”.

The visceral impact of news reporting has itself been eviscerated, and the commensurate influence of news diminished, Mr Bell believes. A major failing was “leaving out the violence”, which was “desensitising and falsifying”. Without a true picture of war and understanding of the horrendous nature of violence and its impact, “war can come to be seen as an accepted way to achieve objectives”.

This, he thought, was why Tony Blair thought that the Iraq War was a good idea and even justified. Blair had had “no personal experience of war and what it means to people who suffer through it”. Earlier governments did contain people who were veterans of conflict, especially the British cabinets of the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom had fought in World War II. With Blair, as with Margaret Thatcher, “a sense of a reality of the costs of war was not present”.

To Mr Bell’s mind, “war has become more and more spectacular…except we don’t see the human cost. War looks less and less like the real thing and more like fireworks.”

Alongside these developments, he also worries about the celebrification of news reporting. “A real problem with current journalism is fabrication and falsehoods. Ambition leads to short cuts. Some websites and news channels exist solely to make money, regardless of falsehoods.” A prime example cited by him was “how the media and particularly rolling news channels were hijacked by Donald Trump for free coverage”.

Mr Bell believes that we must defend fact-based journalism by holding people to account. Quoting the author Joseph Conrad, he expressed his belief that the best way to tackle the crisis of “fake news” was to “face it, always face it – that’s the way to get through”. He is adamant and heartened by the fact that “people want news that they can trust”.

Unless and until it becomes plain to people that that is the case and that there are cogent and credible differences between news and media outlets, he suggested that people will continue to adopt the old saying that he thinks best describes attitudes toward news and indeed politics at the moment: “Everyone is lying, but it doesn’t matter because no one is listening anyway.”

As an example of hope and exemplar of the right way to approach the “crisis in news”, he cited the New York Times. Its subscription base continued to increase, despite Donald Trump’s continuous denigration of the newspaper as the “failing New York Times”. However, this fact-based approach can be dangerous. Mr Bell cited the repeated and multiple murders of journalists in Mexico as a sobering example.

However, ending his talk to the audience at Dublin Castle on a positive note, he said in the face of all the challenges faced in news, politics and global events, “we must all stiffen our resolve and bash on regardless”. 

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