Kurt Barling is Professor of Professional Practice at Middlesex University London. He is the BBC’s Special Correspondent for London.
In the second in the Series of Broadcasting Debates Professor Barling was joined by undergraduate Philipp Sandmann in conversation with the eminent BBC war correspondent Martin Bell.
There are not many British legends of broadcasting but Martin Bell in his trademark light suits is certainly one of them.
When I joined the BBC nearly a quarter of a century ago he was one of the old school who was approachable and good with advice. He remains so.
For a start don’t dream of journalism as amoneymaking venture, but do think of it as a suitable profession if you are curious with a low boredom threshold. But its important to recognize if you plan to report from overseas it is now more than ever a dangerous job.
Since 9/11 journalists have been deemed by many protagonists in conflict zones to be legitimate targets. But if you can preserve the urge to deliver a scoop each time you come into work he still believes this is a vocation replete with romanticism.
Its true that there are always constraints as a journalist as to how far you can push a news editor and there will be times when you cannot get a particular important story on air but that is why resilience is such an important quality for aspiring journalists. Bell once lost a Vietnam war story to the death of 12 swans on the river Thames but recognized early on that these are the frailties of broadcast news.
In a competitive newsroom strong serious stories will always compete with lighter entertaining ones. This is always part of the light and shade on the canvas of news output.
Martin Bell intriguingly characterized an enduring characteristic of human understanding, capturing it organisationally with the notion of a “Department of Pre-conceived Notions”.
Battling prejudice or sloppy thinking is as much a battle in a newsroom as it can be in the world beyond and critical thinking is a valuable weapon in fighting your corner as Bell found when trying to convince his editors that Ronald Reagan was not just an actor who’d appeared with a chimpanzee. In Bell’s judgment he was a pretty accomplished President too and he took it as his mission to make the audience understand this underplayed dimension in the tone of news coverage.
Television and journalism does still have the power to change the world as it did when he was a correspondent in 1989 in Berlin. His view remains that the citizens of the DDR (former East Germany) grew tired with the falsehoods of the regime and forced the pace of change. It was indeed a great moment in the liberation of the human spirit.
But it is for his reporting from conflict zones that Martin Bell is marked out from his peers and he had an important confession to make. That over his career as journalist he had migrated from impartial observer of the big picture to involved participant in the lives of those on whom he reported.
The siege and destruction of Vukovar in November 1991 was a critical tipping point that taught him the importance of being humane. “Good journalists are human too!”
Indeed just a few days before coming to Middlesex University Martin Bell had been at the International War Crimes tribunal in the Hague to testify in the trial of Ratko Mladic. In 1992 the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army had ordered his forces to bomb Sarajevo ‘to the edge of madness’. Journalists can do justice too.
It also brought home to him the frustrations of trying to convey the human cost of war. It is his assertion that the decision not to show the dead, the wounded or even the grieving may pass for something else but it is essentially a political decision.
In his experience from the first days of the embedded journalist he recognized it is has become very difficult to be a unilateral reporter in conflict zones and embedding makes it more difficult to cross the lines and see both sides. If we are not careful it can create the confection that war is a casualty free business.
He contends that by failing to convey the essential truths of war, it makes it easier for politicians to take its people to war.
He may be of the old school but Martin Bell is very conscious of the potential potency of new media but reminded his audience, as Mary Hockaday did in the first of the series of talks, that reliability and accuracy remain serious concerns.
So whilst bloggers and user generated content might improve the authenticity of the story from conflict zones, establishing the veracity will always stand as a priority for the mainstream broadcasters. “Falsehood has its boots on and is trampling all over the world, whilst truth is busy slumbering in bed”.
The Broadcasting landscape is changing and those attempting to deliver a serious agenda are more plentiful than we often realize including Al Jazeera English that has Correspondents in places many don’t dare tread. The BBC is still a trust worthy broadcaster and still widely respected abroad for its World Service output even if Bell feels his former employersometimes suffers from a loss of nerve on important stories.
As you would expect there were some unconventional tips on how to sharpen your skills fit for broadcast. Read the football writers because they have to write quickly and to a deadline once the match has ended. Find the rhythm of the language in which you are working, because you are performing not reading a script. And the best tip of all if you are writing for television learn “the art of writing silence”; let the pictures and sound breathe and for goodness sake know when to shut up!
Journalism is a funny old business but in the end it’s about how well you tell the story.
The next In Conversation with debate with Hugh Muir, Diarist and Columnist for the Guardian takes place on Monday 18th February in the Boardroom at 6pm
Martin Bell composed a poem for the occasion and it reflects how the rhythm of language is an essential ingredient in telling stories.
War Crimes Tribunal
In January 2013 Martin Bell testified in the Hague in the trial of Ratko Mladic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, who in 1992 ordered his forces to bomb Sarajevo ‘to the edge of madness’
The sound of seagulls plays in the life of the Carlton Beach Hotel,
I am listed there as a number not a name,
And a crowd of ghosts is checked in just the same.
On a screen in the darkened room the scenes from hell
Unfold of the siege and its victims as if tethered,
And the guilt that lurks in the great box files
Of craters, bombs and projectiles
And high rise ruins, miles and miles:
No seagulls there but birds of prey unfeathered,
Hard-eyed and hatred driven and unforgiving,
Training their rifles and RPGs
On a city of flinching refugees.
Yet once I ran the trench lines among these
And thought, what a wild way to earn a living,
But the courtroom newsreel stand as bedrock fact,
And the edge-of-madness man, in the dock, avoids eye contact.
A poem by Martin Bell January 2013