Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The veteran former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell told journalism students at the University of Lincoln, UK, that ‘journalism is a moral undertaking. You have to have a sense of right and wrong’. This particularly applied in war reporting when it was impossible to be neutral over issues of good and evil, including reporting war crimes. Describing this as ‘journalism of attachment’, he told the students in a workshop held on 6 February that ‘in extreme cases you are trying to do something useful’. The effect of war reporting was to change things ‘simply by being there. You have to think of the effect your reports have on soldiers’ families back home. Think of what you are doing. It affects the outcomes. Wars of the 21st century should not be fought in mediaeval darkness.’

Martin Bell and Professor Richard Keeble (Photo: Michael Smith)Bell, who has reported from 100 countries including covering the Vietnam War, the first Gulf war of 1991 and the Balkans conflict of the 1990s, admitted that ‘war reporting is fragmentary’ particularly when reporters are ‘embedded’ with frontline troops. But a journalism of attachment to the truth should not stop correspondents from showing things from both sides. ‘Go and see the supposed bad guys,’ he said.

The Srebrenica massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Serb troops in 1995, during the Bosnian War, had been one of the worst war crimes since World War II. But Bell said that a Serbian village had also been the victim of earlier Bosnian atrocities, provoking the Serb reprisal. ‘Never go in [to a war zone] with preconceived notions,’ he said.

Bell, together with John Bond and Michael Smith, representing the International Communications Forum were invited to the university by Professor of Journalism, Richard Lance Keeble, acting head of the School of Journalism. It was the fourth annual visit of the ICF to Lincoln to address groups of journalism students. The three visitors covered issues surrounding the Leveson Inquiry into the phone hacking scandal at News International newspapers, privacy laws and the freedom of the press. They met with 25 students in two journalism classes, were interviewed for 15 minutes on Siren Radio, the community station based at the university, and addressed a public audience in the evening.

Several students said they wanted to become war reporters but Bell, who was wounded during the Balkans War, warned them about the extreme dangers. ‘One danger is that you get too emotional,’ said Bell, who was known as the epitome of coolness under fire. The power of television was in its simplicity. ‘It is not just the words and the cadencies but also knowing when to shut up’, to let the pictures speak for themselves. But he also warned that embedded journalism, such as in Afghanistan, was one-sided; it allowed audiences to see the troops but hardly ever the effects of war on the Afghans themselves.

John Bond, former Secretary of Australia’s National Sorry Day campaign, described the growth of a campaign to apologise and restore for cruel and misguided policies towards Aboriginal Australians. Despite the hostility of the Government, a large section of the Australian media got behind the campaign, and nearly a million Australians took part. ‘Thanks to the media, the community led the way, and eventually the Government responded and is now taking large-scale action to overcome the harm caused,’ Bond said. It is putting an extra A$1 billion a year into Aboriginal health care and education, he said.

Martin Bell with Lincoln School of Journalism students (Photo: Michael Smith)Michael Smith, freelance journalist and an executive director of the ICF, told the public audience that two words probably never crossed the minds of the News of the World journalists who had hacked into people’s mobile phones, including that of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. They were ‘integrity’ and ‘conscience’. The integrity of organizations rested on ‘the sum total of the integrity of each of us who operate inside those organization’, Smith said. The late Bill Porter, founder of the ICF, has always stood against media censorship. That is why he had described the ICF as a ‘conscience to conscience’ activity. Regulations that limited press freedom would not be needed when journalists acted out of their personal integrity.
Refuting Lenin’s dictum that ‘the ends justify the means’, Smith said that the means too often determined the ends. Reporters at News International had used dishonourable means and the end result was the demise of the News of the World, Britain’s oldest Sunday newspaper.

Martin Bell said that he didn’t trust journalists in the tabloid media. ‘It attracts creepy and unprincipled people,’ he said. ‘What we have to recover is a sense of right and wrong. You alone can enforce this. In the end there is only one person you live with all your life and that is yourself.’

Lincoln has been ranked a ‘centre of excellence’ by the European Journalism Training Association and is accredited by both the Periodicals Training Council and Broadcast Training Council. Internationally acclaimed broadcaster Angela Rippon; Dorothy Byrne, head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4 TV; Phillip Knightley, the award-winning investigative reporter, and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Independent columnist and broadcaster, are amongst its Visiting Professors. William Lewis, former editor of the Daily Telegraph who masterminded the MPs’ expenses scandal coverage, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, and John Pilger, the campaigning, investigative journalist, have all been giving honorary doctorates by the university. Despite an increase in student fees to £9,000 a year, the university had bucked the trend of falling student applications and had this year seen an increase, Professor Keeble said.

The ICF now plans to offer its workshop programme to other UK schools of journalism. Click here for more information about the workshop programme.