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March 1997

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[Guardian - 8 March 1997]

Television can be a powerful weapon of modern warfare. In Martin Bell's experience its effect on conflict is largely benign, and it can be a sharp corrective to indifference at home - but editorial decisions over what to show remain difficult and sometimes painful.

Here is the war - live by satellite.

True faces of the Bosnian war·transmitted to a living-room near you

I write as a war reporter of some antiquity - more than 30 years in the business, from the killing fields of Vietnam to the savage hills and valleys of central Bosnia. It was not a calling that I ever chose; rather, it chose me. One day a long time ago in a BBC newsroom, I happened to be the reporter nearest the door when a foreign war broke out.

Having survived one war zone I would then be asked to take my chances in another - and then still more, until today I have discovered that a journalist can be typecast just as much as an actor. I am well on the wrong side of 55 and had wished to end my career with a stint as a Peace Correspondent; but sadly I have concluded that such a job does not exist. I even tried to resign, but was vigorously dissuaded.

Have the wars themselves changed? Hardly at all. The modern high-tech high-intensity conflict exemplified by the Gulf war was probably the exception. The Bosnian war was more typical, in which civilians were targeted on a massive scale and the weapons used were essentially those of the First World War battlefields; rifles, machine-guns, mines, mortars and artillery. The only new ingredient was television.

But our way of reporting the wars has changed fundamentally, and not only because of TV and its satellite dishes. Our attitudes and ways of working have also changed. When I started out as a war reporter in the mid-sixties I worked in the shadow of my distinguished predecessors and of a long and honourable BBC tradition of distance and detachment. I thought of it then as objective and necessary. I would now call it bystanders' journalism. It concerned itself more with the circumstances of war - military formations, tactics, strategies - than with the people who provoke them, the people who fight them and the people who suffer from them.

I am no longer sure about the notion of objectivity, which seems to me now to be something of an illusion. I report with all the fairness and impartiality I can muster, and a scrupulous attention to the facts, but using my eyes and ears and mind as accumulated experience, which are surely the very essence of the subjective.

This is not an argument for campaigning or crusading journalism. That has its place, but its place is in political and polemical literature and not in the daily chronicling of the news. Besides, it is my experience that the campaigners and crusaders tend to find what they are looking for, ignoring inconvenient evidence to the contrary and the unstructured complexity of what is actually out there. Rather, I have found it useful to do the opposite and seek out the unfavoured spokesmen of unpopular causes - whether the Afrikaners in South Africa, the loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, or the Serbs in Bosnia; they will often hold the key to a conflict and its possible resolution.

In place of the dispassionate practices of the past I now believe in what I call the journalism of attachment. By this I mean a journalism that cares as well as knows; that is aware of its responsibilities; and will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, victim and oppressor. We in the press, and especially in television, do not stand apart from the world. We are a part of it. We exercise a certain influence, and we have to know that. The influence may be for better or for worse, and we have to know that too.

In my one and only book, which was mainly about the Bosnian war, I cited a story from Sarajevo which I hope is apocryphal but believe is not. It was about a journalist who wished to write a profile of a front-line sniper. It did not matter on which side the sniper operated: both sides had them. The reporter made his arrangements with the man's commander and visited the front line. The sniper was peering out from between two bricks in his forward defences. The reporter asked: "What do you see?" The sniper replied: "I see two people walking in the street, which of them do you want me to shoot?"

The reporter realised, too late, that he had embarked on a project which was inherently lethal and which he should not even have considered. So he urged the sniper to shoot neither, made his excuses and turned to leave. As he did so, he heard two shots of rapid fire just behind him. He turned and looked, questioning "That was a pity", said the sniper "you could have saved one of their lives".

Which of us has not, during a tour of the trench lines been asked by a soldier whether we would like him to blaze away, with rifle or machine-gun, for the camera's sole benefit? On one occasion an entire battery of 105mm field guns was placed at my disposal, had I wished to use it. To have done so would greatly have increased the marketability of what I had to offer my news editor. But the answer to all such invitations has to be a firm and principled "No".

Is that always the case? I somehow doubt it. I am fortunate in working for a news organisation, the BBC, in which - despite all its trails and travails - a culture of truthfulness still prevails, and which is not driven by the commercial imperative. The differences which have arisen between the BBC and myself - differences on a range of issues from "objective" reporting to rolling news to the censorship of real world violence - are essentially a falling out between friends on matters of perspective rather than principle.

These are the same differences that occur between an army's front-line soldiers and its staff officers. We see things that they do not see. We know things that they do not know. Yet they command and deploy us. This discrepancy of view is even greater in television, because of technical advances which have so much extended its reach, if not its grasp. Our staff officers - programme editors and network executives - are on the receiving end of such a flood of information that they think they see and know and that they have been there. The news itself takes on an aspect of virtual reality. So the screens become screens also in the traditional sense, blocking the view and filtering out the light.

A mirror does not affect what it reflects: the television image does. Journalism is not a neutral and mechanical undertaking but in some sense a moral enterprise. It must be informed by an idea of right and wrong. It operates frequently on morally dangerous ground. It makes a difference. I happen t believe that especially in the case of television the difference is mostly benign.

I know there are critics who hold otherwise, and that in situations of incipient riot and civil commotion the very presence of television can be inflammatory. But for most of the past five years I have spent my working life in an environment rather less agreeable than civil commotion: the projectiles were harder-edged and moving faster. That time served in the war zones has left me with the settled conviction that the effect of television has been to make things a little less worse than they would have been without it.

To take the example of prisoner exchanges: there was no deal between the three peoples and armies of Bosnia more likely to be undone than the handing over and retrieving of prisoners. So at quite an early point in the war they came to insist on the presence of a foreign television crew at the handover point, as a means of holding each other to honour agreements already reached. The TV camera made failure less inevitable.

The presence of television in the satellite age makes war crimes harder to commit, and certainly harder to get away with, than in the darker ages preceding it. In this decade of the dish, Bosnia showed how a military victory can swiftly turn into a political defeat. The Serbs' killing and maiming of civilians in Sarajevo, under the eye of the camera, left them friendless and isolated. The major bombardments of Sarajevo were viewed instantly all over the world. The counter-attacks, by Bosnian government forces, were either not viewed, or seen as acts of defence by a people cruelly besieged. The Serbs' case was lost in the court of world opinion before ever a war-crimes tribunal was even mooted. War crimes will do most long-term damage to those who commit them.

The same applies to the indiscriminating targeting of civilians: television may now be changing the conduct of wars and the ways in which they are waged. The British Army's Staff College regularly introduces into its war games an element of media intrusion, in which an army's willingness to fight may be weakened by a public relations disaster - the bombing of an orphanage, perhaps. I have come to wonder whether, had satellite television existed in 1945, the carpet-bombing of Dresden and Hamburg by the British and Americans would have been politically possible: or would the tens of thousand of civilian casualties have turned Allied opinion against such ruthless prosecution of the war?

Much ink has been spilled on the relationship between television and diplomacy - the so-called "CNN effect", which I call the "BBC effect". The British establishment tends to resent such pressures as an impudent challenge to its wisdom by an upstart medium. When Douglas Hurd was Foreign Secretary, he pointed out that murder, warfare and the forced migration of peoples were nothing new: they had always been with us. What was new was that, mainly through television, they were much more widely known: and so politicians were challenged to take action on issues not of their choosing. Mr Hurd was scathing about the "Something Must Be Done Club".

I am, I suppose, a founder member of this club. I find the company I keep there more honourable, and easier to live with, than those who associate with the opposing faction, the "Nothing Can Be Done Club". Besides, I never openly advocated intervention in Bosnia. I did not need to. The images did if for me. But if, as a result of the TV reporting from Bosnia, governments were moved to take action which they would not otherwise have taken, and people were helped who would not otherwise have been helped, I see nothing there for which we need apologise. It probably saved 100,000 lives.

But I do worry about the representation of real-world violence. What we should show and what we should not show are issues that cause more difficulty to a TV reporter in a war zone than any others. I have even wondered whether it isn't easier to deal with the warlords than the editors. The editors are 1,000 miles away, cautiously determined not to cause offence, we are negotiating about raw footage that I have seen and they have not, and working to guidelines that are vague and variable.

I do not believe that we should show everything that we see. Some images of violence - pictures of both the market-place massacres in Sarajevo - are almost literally unviewable. But people have to be left with some sense of what happened. To do otherwise is to present war as a relatively cost-free enterprise and an acceptable way of settling differences.

We have retreated too far in British television, and a measure of course correction is now in order. We should flinch less. We should sometimes be willing to shock and to disturb. We should show the world more nearly as we find it, without the anaesthetic of a good-taste censorship. And if we do not, then perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we are merely being considerate, or indifferent. And in a world where genocide has returned in recent years to haunt three continents we should remind ourselves that this crime against humanity requires accomplices - not only the hatred that makes it happen, but the indifference that lets it happen.

This week's essayist, Martin Bell, joined BBC TV News as a reporter in 1965, and has held posts including Washington, Berlin, Eastern Europe, and now Foreign Affairs Correspondent. He was RTS Reporter of the Year in 1977 and TV Journalist of the Year in 1992; his book 'In Harms Way' was published in 1995. He set out his philosophy of bystander journalism on the Guardian's Comment Page last July, and develop the arguments here more fully in the current British Journalism Review, and in a four-part Radio 4 series from March 28.

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