Martin Bell: ‘Instead of what’s happening in Somalia we are watching the Kardashians’

SANA'A, YEMEN, AUGUST 2010: Images over the ancient old city within the heart of Sana'a, the capital

SANA'A, YEMEN, AUGUST 2010: Images over the ancient old city within the heart of Sana'a, the capital city of Yemen, August 16, 2010. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.) - Credit: Archant

Ahead of his Jewish Book Week talk former foreign correspondent Martin Bell tells Bridget Galton why we are witnessing the death of news

jacket image

jacket image - Credit: Archant

As current affairs descend into social media echo chambers and the blurring of fake and real news, many look back with nostalgia to the relative certainty of stoutly independent foreign correspondent Martin Bell reporting from war zones in his trademark white suit.

Approaching 80, he has penned a passionate plea to restore the substance to news reporting. The provocatively titled War and the Death of News laments the dearth of the kind of authentic eyewitness reportage he filed from the Middle East, Angola and Bosnia.

“I stopped being a journalist in 1997, but for 32 years that was my job. I do take an interest and go to countries like Somalia, Yemen and Congo for Unicef. What strikes me is I don’t meet foreign correspondents any more. They have disappeared.”

Things changed, he says after 911 with a reluctance for journalists to be “caught in the crossfire in someone else’s war and the very real risk of being captured, shackled, ransomed and executed.”

“Journalists retreated to Green Zones, hotel rooftops, or sat on a border watching unverifiable video footage and speculated. We have lost the authenticity of actually being there.”

Bell, whose book tells how one correspondent dubbed gunfire over his report and was filmed running across an empty road, also blames the internet’s obsession with celebrity clickbait.

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“Foreign news is both dangerous and expensive and becomes a disposable commodity. All the websites have celebrity correspondents. Instead of knowing what’s happening in Somalia we are watching the comings and goings of the Kardashians. It’s the death of news as we have known it. I find this rather sad.”

Journalism is in Bell’s blood. His father worked for Ham&High sister paper The Eastern Daily Press, and he started as a BBC reporter in Norwich in 1962. But before that he did his national service in Cyprus - which later stood him in good stead.

“Correspondents today don’t have military experience,” he laments. “It teaches you fieldcraft, helps you relate to soldiers and means you don’t ask any damn fool questions. You know the difference between an APC and a tank.”

Early postings included Vietnam where: “you could hop on any helicopter and go anywhere. It was unbelievable”.

“My own reporting was pretty dreadful. I was very taken by the huge fire power and orders of battle and I didn’t show any Vietnamese.” The same couldn’t be said of his impassioned reporting of the Balkans war where he put the victims front and centre while arguing for intervention by the West.

As BBC Washington correspondent during the Reagan years he gained insight into the workings of the White House.

“Trump is no Reagan,” he says. “He surrounded himself with very smart people and had experience of office, he was a marvellous communicator. It is inconceivable that Trump could have been elected other than in the age of the internet and rolling news. Goebbels only had press, cinema and radio. Imagine what he could have done with the internet.”

Posted to Berlin after the wall came down, Bell claims he was the original embedded journalist in 1991. “What you get is a fragmentary account of war, but all war reporting is fragmentary. Embedded journalists do show vividly what it is like to go to war alongside 21st century troops and frankly it can be that or nothing.”

The Bosnian war of 1992-1995 is the one that stands out for him.

“It was the only one I got hurt in – I was shot in the ankle - I covered it from start to finish, we had the freedom to do what we wanted, no censorship, and it was easy to get on the news because it was happening in Europe.”

If modern journalists sport flak jackets and helmets, Bell’s rumpled linen suit was a kind of superstitious talisman against the real danger of flying shrapnel. “We were sent out to a Croatian town with no helmet or body armour, operating on a wing and a prayer in a hostile environment. Journalists in the field today have training in war zone survival, but when I was driving a battered BBC Vauxhall across the runway of Sarajevo airport it came under fire and a bullet hit the driver’s side. I got straight on the phone to the BBC asking for armoured protection. We got an Army Landrover property of the RUC. It certainly saved lives.”

Bell’s mantra of “stick together or fail together” (“I never liked those who believed they could succeed at the expense of others”) was carried through to his stint in Parliament in 1997, when he stood as an independent on an anti Tory sleaze ticket.

“I was rather shocked and dismayed by my four years in the House. Not by the routine bad behaviour but by the willingness of MPs of all parties to disregard their consciences in the furtherance of their careers.”

His unusual retirement has included testifying in war crimes trials including that of former Bosnian General Slobodan Praljak, who tried to use him as an alibi.

“He said he could not have ordered the blowing up of the ancient bridge in Mostar in November 1993 because he had been with me somewhere else. I checked my notebook, and he was one day out.”

The father-of-two has lived in Hampstead Garden suburb since 1974 and says it was always the perfect place to return after time in a conflict zone.

“But after Sarajevo, I was so used to sniping and gunfire all night, the silence of the Garden Suburb kept me awake.”

Martin Bell appears at Jewish Book Week on March 7 at 7pm.