Renowned BBC correspondent Martin Bell sits down with Dazed to discuss journalism on the front line, the rise of the celebrity reporter and writing poetry
This year Edinburgh has devoted much of its efforts on special film events. The Conflict/Reportage strand picks up on growing interest and importance on how front-line news is delivered. Films showing include The Green Wave, a fascinating account sewn together from blogs and talking heads that have been illustrated into animations, on the demonstrations and human rights abuses that followed the 2009 elections in Iran. Hell And Back is a touching look at a soldier’s struggle to adjust to the mundanity of returning home. Legendarily dapper former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell will also be appearing as special guest at EIFF to talk about his own thoughts and experience of reporting among the mist of blood and bullets on the front-line. Dazed were lucky enough to speak to Martin Bell about the hazards of reporting, the impact of celebrity culture and are even treated to a few lines of verse of his poetry.
Dazed Digital: How has war reporting changed since you started out?
Martin Bell: The whole business has got impossibly dangerous in the last few years. The greatest risk you used to face was being caught in the crossfire, now people are being targeted, kidnapped, ransomed, executed; it’s a different world; everything changed 9/11. Journalism as we used to practice it is no longer possible.
DD: Is that purely because of the environment or the current pressures of news media?
Martin Bell: It comes from outside because of the extraordinary hazardous nature of the environment. But partly it comes from the inside; there’s been a slide in agenda, an obsession with celebrity; a retreat from the real world. And this is something the journalist has done to themselves.
DD: How does celebrity culture interfere with conflict reporting?
Martin Bell: Instead of devoting attention to what’s going on in Sudan at the moment, which is clearly worth attending to, and the news bulletins are completely obsessed with what seem to me like trivial issues like Cheryl Cole and who’s in the line-up of Strictly Come Dancing or whatever. There’s been a retreat from foreign news. Editors recon they’re the least read pages of the newspaper, they’re lopped by and large. There aren’t many documentaries about what’s going on in obscure parts of the world, and that’s all changed, there used to be a lot.
DD: Does the obsession with celebrity also effect how other news items are reported?
Martin Bell: I have noticed the rise of the celebrity reporter, which never used to happen. I had a little piece in the Guardian in which I complain about the affliction which I call ‘correspondentitis’; that when a reporter has been around for a long time, he or she thinks they have peculiar or special insights to offer. And by sort of curious creeping mission, their reports become increasingly about themselves. It ruffled a few feathers, I can tell you. I didn’t name names, I don’t need to!
DD: Has the rise in popularity of 24-hour news coverage effected how front-line news is reported?
Martin Bell: Yes, because the journalist ends up being tethered to the satellite dish on a roof top, not out and about doing the real thing. And it ends up showing more than it knows, and some of it is false.
DD: Has technology helped the war correspondent?
Martin Bell: Technology has come on in leaps and bounds, it’s possible to broadcast from anywhere immediately, but the journalism has retreated. Reporters aren’t on the front line unless they’re embedded.
DD: Did you feel limited as an embedded reporter?
Martin Bell: At the time I wasn’t going to go tearing around the battle field not knowing where I was going, I was quite happy to be embedded, there was no possibility to go unilateral. I was the first embedded reporter, I’ve actually got an accreditation card with the serial number “001” to prove it. I know the trade off between freedom and access. There’s a place for it, but if it’s the only source of news, then the public’s being shortchanged. You get something out of it but it’s a very fragmentary glimpse of the whole story. There is too much reliance, some of it comes over like an army recruiting movie.
DD: Is there a tendency for conflict reporting to rely too heavily on PR?
Martin Bell: All armies now pay attention to what they call the narrative, they want to seize it. There’s a war of words that goes along side the other war, and if you lose the war of words and images, which is what the Americans did in Vietnam, you lose the other war, how ever strong you are militarily.
DD: Did you write your poetry as a means to express your experiences in a way that isn’t possible in reportage?
Martin Bell: Yes, absolutely. I find I can encapsulate things in a few verses which I couldn’t do in a thousand words, I might even be field testing a few of them in Edinburgh. I’ll give you a sample of how plain and blunt it is:
"Iraq, Afghanistan now Libya too,
We learned one lesson and we learned it well,
Going to war’s the easy thing to do,
But getting out is hard as hell."