A lifetime in TV news

I started in television news in 1962. It was like radio with pictures in those days. Its only model was the cinema newsreel – stilted, jingoistic and stylised beyond parody, but still playing in movie houses while the audience was settling down, between the sale of the popcorn and the start of

Bell is now a goodwill ambassador for the UN
Bell is now a goodwill ambassador for the UN

The first cameramen I worked with – it was of course still a male-only occupation – all came to us from the newsreels. The old film cameras were unwieldy and cumbersome, with the sound track running on a magnetic tape 28 frames behind the image.

This also made news-film egregiously difficult to cut, as the editors laboured to edit strips of it together with glue or scotch tape. And the reporters were trained in the management of time, especially the unforgiving two minutes and 40 seconds which equalled 100 feet of news film.

It was a primitive product, and the network controllers, who even then wanted TV to be stylish, had little time or space for it. The main BBC news programmes – or bulletins as they were called – lasted for only 12 minutes. TV news was at its birth an endangered species.

Some things change, others remain unnervingly the same. The news agenda of those long-gone bulletins consisted mainly of the comings and goings of the royal family, government announcements, politics, sport and weather. Studio graphics were cardboard cut-outs.

Occasionally there would be a few grainy black-and-white images of a foreign war, prefaced by a map and the words “Film has just reached us from …”   The war zone of choice at the time was the Congo, in transition from colonial rule to anarchy and bloodshed. The UN was experimenting with intervention.

War zones

So what has changed in the intervening years? Obviously, the agenda has changed, although there are still national broadcasters (you know who they are) who preoccupy themselves to an extraordinary degree with news of kings and princes.

New and more accessible war zones claim the medium’s attention. The Congo remains in a state of conflict, with the world’s largest UN peace-keeping force. I was there in April this year for Unicef, for which I work as a goodwill ambassador.

The country’s name has changed – it is Democratic Republic of the Congo – but not much else. It has been blighted over the past eight years by a war in which four million people have died, making it the most lethal armed conflict since the second world war.

But no one in the newsrooms seems to care. Pictures no longer reach us from the Congo – except that I had a cameraman with me and did a report for the BBC; but the viewers seemed astonished. It was as if I were reporting from a time warp – and was of an age to be part of it.


What has changed, of course, is the technology. In that respect, television is rather like warfare. It reminds me of a remark attributed to Napoleon III: “The history of artillery is the history of progress in the sciences, and is therefore the history of civilisation.”

Some civilisation! We have developed weapons of mass destruction – cluster bombs, cruise missiles and the like – with which to kill each other on an industrial scale.

We have developed means of mass communication – the satellite and the lightweight camera – with which we could, if we were brave enough, show the real effects of this killing in real time and broadcast the unpalatable truth of it to a global audience.

“We have developed weapons of mass destruction – cluster bombs, cruise missiles and the like – with which to kill each other on an industrial scale.”

But for all sorts of reasons, some commercial, some political and some just sheer loss of nerve, we tend not to. The technology advances, but human nature remains obstinately the same.

Constant struggle

In the early 1990s, I was assigned by the BBC to the Balkan wars. I found myself campaigning on two fronts. One was a selfish attention to safety and field-craft (I had the advantage of having once been a soldier) so that I could survive the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia as well as report them.

The other was a constant struggle with my editors to be allowed to show more of the realities of warfare than their “good taste guidelines” allowed. Their audience research told them that viewers did not wish to be upset by images of bloodshed and violence.

I replied that warfare was itself an upsetting experience, and we were under an obligation to provide an honest account of it, whether the destruction of Vukovar, the siege of Sarajevo or countless other battles and massacres.

Not only did I lose the argument, but I lost it progressively, as year by year I could sense the tightening of the “good taste guidelines”. We were encouraged to show armed conflict as spectacle, as if the Colosseum of our times – the outgoing artillery rounds, the militiamen blazing away in the ruins, but not the outcomes at the other end, the killing and maiming, the waste of young lives and even in one notorious case the grieving of relatives.

This was not only dishonest. It was immoral.  It depicted warfare as an acceptable way to settle differences. Maybe that is why in recent years Britain’s political leaders, with no personal experience of it, have seen expeditionary war as a policy option.


“We were encouraged to show armed conflict as spectacle.”

There is also a troubling question of authenticity. The old film equipment was clumsy and inflexible; but its very inflexibility was an aid to honesty. Film, unlike videotape, cannot easily be copied in the field and seamlessly spliced into your own or someone else’s report.

As a foreign correspondent, you either were there or you weren’t. There was no middle way.

The Vietnam war was shot entirely on film. It was common practice, especially towards the end, for the American networks to send their valiant Vietnamese cameramen out on to the battlefield and then for the correspondent to mark his presence by addressing some well-chosen words to the camera at the botanical gardens in Saigon. Only the distant sounds of traffic gave him away.   

But videotape is flexible close to the point of fraudulence. I once analysed a run-of the-mill report I had done at the height of the Bosnian war, and realised that its images had come from seven different cameras – not only my own, but those of friendly networks and contracted news agencies with sometimes an added element of “soldiervision” shot by someone in military uniform, to the greater glory of his corps commander, and probably paid for in deutschmarks.

The results were spectacular, but I couldn’t have vouched for their total accuracy. The process worried me then, as it still does.

Courting suicide

There is a further trend in TV news which undermines and mocks its technical advances. That is the insecurity of the landscape in which it seeks to operate.

Since the wars of the late 1990s, and certainly since the hinge events of 9/11, TV crews have found it increasingly difficult to operate in or even adjacent to most of the world’s major war zones.

Wars can no longer be reported from among the people, where they are fought, because it is simply too dangerous to do so. The worst that could happen to my generation was to be caught in the cross-fire in someone else’s war. The risks were calculable.

But today’s practitioners are in line to be targeted, captured, tortured and executed – not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but some of the failed states of Africa: Somalia has been especially lethal.

“Wars can no longer be reported from among the people, where they are fought, because it is simply too dangerous to do so.”

Small wonder that they rarely travel out of well-defended base areas; that when they do, under armed escort, it is for a maximum of fifteen minutes at a time; and otherwise they confine themselves to co-opting locally-shot footage and addressing the camera, if in Baghdad, from in front of the two best-known palm trees in the world. This is the phenomenon of “roof-top” journalism.

Its defining weakness is that it shows more than it knows, and pretends to a knowledge that it does not have. If I were still in the business regularly, I would be doing it too. I am all for taking reasonable risks. Courting suicide isn’t one of them.

Extra hazards

This brings me inexorably to Al Jazeera, whose first decade this article justly celebrates. It has been the network’s misfortune that these 10 years have coincided exactly with the rise of those forces which have made it more difficult than ever for TV news to operate internationally – impeding the access of its people, endangering their lives and in one case even imposing a power blackout so that its programmes could not be seen.

Al Jazeera has been subjected to extra hazards of its own for being what it is. Its enemies are not only those autocratic entities who see it as force for reform and a challenge to their traditional way of doing things.

It has also attracted the hostility of the world’s last superpower. It is inconceivable that the destruction of the network’s satellite dish in Kabul by rocket fire in 2001 was other than a deliberate act by the US military: that kind of precision targeting doesn not happen by accident.

“[Al Jazeera] has also attracted the hostility of the world’s last superpower”

The same applies to the tragic loss of life that accompanied the attack on its facility in Baghdad in 2003. The Arab network, Qatar’s highest-profile export, entered the marketplace of global news broadcasting at the most dangerous possible time.

Impartial and inquiring

Its pioneering is welcome, and indeed overdue. It always seemed strange to me that the Western democracies, especially my own, should enjoy a monopoly in the provision of TV news.

Here I must declare an interest: I worked for 34 years for the BBC, and so for regimental reasons, BBC World remains for me the most trusted of the global brands.

The TV news agencies base their operations in London and always have.

The American networks, although their commitment to news – and indeed to impartial and inquiring journalism – is not what it was, remain formidable competitors.

But the time has gone when they could remain unchallenged, especially after their lamentable flag-waving over the war in Iraq.

So many of the great events of our time are occurring in the Arab and Islamic world – where, interestingly, the British army’s major deployments are at the scenes of its greatest historical defeats, Mesopotamia and Iraq.

Real world violence

So influential and all-pervasive is television that it was not only time, but past time, for the Arab world to have an Arab voice. Indeed, it has several. But Al Jazeera has established itself in short order as the leader of the pack. It has rivals but no equals.

Its first decade has been dangerous and turbulent. From casting a weather eye on the world’s insecurity, and especially that of the Arab world, there is every reason to believe that its second decade will provide much of the same and probably more. The words of the English writer GK Chesterton seem to fit the case:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.”

For Al Jazeera to have come from nowhere in 10 years to establish itself as one of the three leading brands in international news broadcasting is a great achievement.

It has withstood the threats to its independence. It has a better record in reporting real world violence (in my view) than the BBC, and certainly than CNN.

“[Al Jazeera]has a better record in reporting real world violence (in my view) than the BBC, and certainly than CNN.”

It has a viable and principled code of conduct to pilot it through the sudden squalls of the moment. Whenever its English language network finally becomes a reality it will find that the pressures on it will multiply. These must be resisted, including pressures to compromise the original.

The network’s strength is not in its equipment, although it is technically among the best in the world; nor even its reputation. Its strength is in its people, of so many nationalities, whose esprit de corps has held it together.

What it will need in the years ahead is a military quality that can be learnt not from instructors but only from experience. That quality is steadiness under fire.

Martin Bell was a BBC correspondent for 33 years, reporting from 80 countries and 11 wars, from Vietnam to Bosnia. He was wounded by mortar fire in Sarajevo in 1992. In 1997 he was elected as the first Independent MP in the House of Commons for nearly 50 years. Bell is the author of three books, including In Harm’s Way about the practice and theory of war reporting. His sparse, uncompromising style of journalism won him the Royal Television Society’s reporter of the year award in 1977, and again in 1993. He was awarded an OBE in 1992. In 2001, he was appointed as Unicef ambassador for humanitarian emergencies. His Unicef assignments have included Bosnia, Kosovo, Tajikistan, Malawi, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Darfur.

Source : Al Jazeera

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