Martin Bell: Neutrality, safety and how not to do television news

Inspired to take up journalism after observing the press corps while serving in Cyprus with the Suffolk Regiment back in the 1960’s, Bell covered numerous wars including Vietnam, Bosnia and the troubles in Northern Ireland during his 30-year career.

Twice winner of the Royal Television Society’s TV journalist award, he got into the BBC with the help of an ex-girlfriends father: “You didn’t apply for jobs back then,” he said.

Three years later he was broadcasting from London and ended up ‘unintentionally’ covering the Vietnam War in 1967 after catching they eye of the BBC bosses for his coverage of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah the previous year.

His initial broadcasts were, in his own words, examples of “How not to do television news.”

His first clip, in black and white, showed a young Bell covering American operations in Vietnam where “You’ll see no Vietnamese from start to finish.” He still looks the other way while the clip is shown, hands over his eyes: “I imitated the voice of the officer class and eventually I found my own style. By 1972 I’d humanised myself; I was talking Vietnamese, going to refugee camps and had better connections in the government.”

Amongst his other assignments that included reporting the election of Ronald Reagan, Bell covered the conflict in Bosnia. Safety standards were less rigorous at that time and journalists only began wearing flak jackets in the summer of 1992; just weeks after Bell narrowly missed a sniper bullet. For him, Libya today is a sharp reminder of those days 15 years ago, where journalists once again are at risk.

“The real heroes of this business are people like Tim Hetherington, but they don’t get the recognition they deserve,” he said. “I’m glad I’m not doing it anymore.”

Bell expressed concerns that reliance on security advisers has had a negative impact on journalistic neutrality. He is also critical of the kind of reporting that developed, particularly during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when journalists remained in hotels in green zones and be at a distance from the conflict. This has led him to be somewhat critical of reporting today as for him there is no alternative to being as close to the action as possible.

“I always made the habit of hanging out with the bad guys because you have to understand why it is that they are doing what they are,” he said.

As UNICEF ambassador Bell enjoys “going to places where they can’t send celebrities like Robbie Williams and David Beckham” and a greater level of access compared to his time as a journalist.
Bell closed with a reading of one of his poems that looked back on his career from his latest book, For Whom the Bell Tolls: Light and Dark Verse. The closing line read: ‘You may recall I made no bloody difference at all.’

Martin Bell’s Advice for Future Foreign Correspondents:

  • Don’t ever go into a village where there are no people or chickens, it’s always a bad sign.
  • Know when to stop talking; silence is an art
  • Don’t be a hotel roof dish monkey
  • On reporting a shocking story: have one striking image, that’s all people can take
  • Don’t make yourself the centre of any story
  • Tone of voice is key
  • Make sure you don’t editorialise
  • Find your own style; there isn’t one for everybody.