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September 1997

Aug 97 Sep 97 Nov 97




[THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH - 14 September 1997]


We are entering a new age of journalism, and antiques like myself don't like it. Nowadays, journalists go to war zones not to tell us who is winning or who is behind it all, but to tell us how painful and upset it makes them feel.

They explain (as though, after this calamitous century, we need to be reminded) that it is the civilians who suffer most.

Worse, they want to tell us who are the good guys and who are bad.

Some of this, I'm afraid, is the legacy Martin Bell MP has left to his old colleagues.

He may well have been the best news reporter the BBC ever had. He was certainly one of the most intelligent and principled. I know from experience how generous he is. His courage is legendary. But he has changed his mind about the virtues of balance.

In British Journalism Review recently, he wrote: "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, the victim and the oppressor."

And yet, reading this, many of us will feel a twinge of unease. It is hard enough to parachute into someone else's country and find out what is going on. Who are we to start announcing which side is good and which is evil? And can it, in anything short of the Nazi SS or Stalin's NKVD state, really be so simple to know which is which?

Martin Bell decided that the old BBC virtues of balance and cool-headedness were outdated as a result of his experiences in Bosnia.

At the time he did not tell us in so many words that ethnic cleansing and the siege of Sarajevo were crimes against humanity. He did not need to say so: it was blindingly obvious from what he showed us. He merely gave us the facts and let us decide. Now it seems that we need someone to explain to us how to think. But what do the reporters do when the good guys start behaving badly? According to a fierce and trenchant pamphlet just published by Mick Hume, the editor of LM magazine, they ignore it entirely.

Mr Hume and his magazine are being sued for libel by Independent Television News over an article he published last February questioning a much-praised ITN report about a Bosnian-Serb detention camp.

I do not want to discuss the rights and wrongs of the case, beyond asking whether a powerful organisation should really try to pursue a small but intelligent magazine such as LM in the courts in this way.

In his new pamphlet, Whose War Is It Anyway?, Mr Hume makes a devastating attack on the "journalism of attachment", especially as applied to the war in Bosnia.

His target is the army of British and American journalists in Sarajevo who - he maintains - demonised the Serbs and ignored the inconvenient reality that the Muslims also did a lot of things they should not have done.

Once, when I was in Sarajevo, the UN discovered that Muslim troops were holding a couple of dozen Serbs in a section of drainage pipe three feet high. They opened the front of the pipe once a day to throw food into the darkness inside.

The journalists, many of them committed to the principle of not standing neutrally between victim and oppressor, showed no interest at all in this story. It was inconvenient and, as far as I know, was not reported.

Mr Hume believes this whole business of wanting to search out right and wrong is a twisted kind of therapy. Because there is a moral vacuum at the heart of Western society, he says, "the new breed of journalist have taken it upon themselves to fill it through their mission to the world's war zones".

Nik Gowing, who was once Channel 4's diplomatic editor and is now one of the stars of BBC World Service Television, takes the same line.

In a recent interview, he said there was a taboo on discussing all this, "partly because to do so would undermine the perceived integrity and objectivity of correspondents who report from battle-zones".

He and Mr Hume believe the "journalism of attachment" does just that.

In the distant past, a BBC editor told me that if I wanted to influence the way people thought, I should become a politician; if I wanted to tell them what was going on, I should be a journalist.

Martin Bell has done the honourable thing and made the switch. Those of us who remain in the business have a duty to present things as they are, even when that is inconvenient.

We do not need less of "the dispassionate practices of the past", we need more. But we could do without the self-indulgence.

*Whose War Is It Anyway?: The dangers of the journalism of attachment by Mick Hume is published by BM Informinc, London WC1N 3XX.

*John Simpson is the BBC's World Affairs Editor.

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