Bell attacks Iraq rolling news coverage

by Marcus George | BBC News | 23 May 2003

It was a bold assertion, especially bold, given the rapid victory against Iraqi forces and the ousting from power of Saddam Hussein.

"I think historians are going to come to judge this as the greatest mistake by a British prime minister in 50 years," said the man in the white suit.

Coming from the lips of Martin Bell, the veteran television war correspondent and, latterly, independent Member of Parliament, it was no surprise. Bold assertion - with a heavy garnish of controversy - has been his lifelong business.

The former MP for Tatton was against this war. Why? Because it wasn't sanctioned by the United Nations and might well be seen as a war of aggression.


But his most scathing attacks weren't on George W Bush, or his British 'poodlites'. He saved them for some of the war reporting which he variously described as "one-sided", "excitable", "unwatchable" and "a disgraceful betrayal of what journalism is all about."

"There now exists in any major foreign news story a satellite dish on the roof of a hotel," he said warming to his theme.

"And some poor soul for his or her network will be put up there all day. It has nothing to do with journalism. It's puppetry and I think it's time to let it go."

Rolling news channels didn't escape his wrath either. He watched the symbolic downing of Saddam's statue in central Baghdad intently as channels scrambled to say something new.

"Twenty-four hour news shows more than it knows and doesn't give you the context. It's having a very bad effect on the coverage they serve up."

But it wasn't all one-way traffic. He heaped praise on journalists in Baghdad who pursued difficult stories in highly censored circumstances.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, he was an advocate of the embedding system. The best footage of the war, he said, came from an embedded NBC team who found themselves in a gun fight in a Baghdad suburb.

The tape shows a wounded US Marine being treated whilst continuing to fire at Iraqi positions. Another Marine was filmed jumping into a burning ammunition truck in a desperate attempt to save the lives of his subordinate troops.

Sanitising war

"It was absolutely in the best traditions of war reporting," Martin Bell said, clearly moved by the pictures of genuine war which he himself has seen so much of.

"The reporter on the tape said it makes your teeth rattle. Well that's what war does. It makes your teeth rattle."

But his strongest message was a profound fear of media reports sanitising warfare. Showing the shooting and not the victims, he argued, tells viewers that war is a viable solution to settle differences. And the BBC was not immune from such criticism.

"The BBC has tended always to be too cautious and afraid of upsetting people. I was able to show very little of the realities of the Bosnian war.

"I argued about this for three years and lost the argument."

As for now, Mr Bell is happy to talk and write about war. He worked as a pundit for Channel 5 throughout the conflict and has started writing a new book. But his days of reporting from the frontline are over.

"It's an affliction, or addiction, of which I've cured myself," he says, as if trying to convince himself.

"It took a long time. I'm out of it, thank you very much."

Posted by: Ed Howard on May 31, 03 | 2:29 pm