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Reading between the lines

Tessa Mayes won't be signing up for the new school of war reporting

Attached journalism is bad journalism

  • The tenth circle of hell: A memoir of life in the death camps of Bosnia
    Rezak Hukanovic, Little, Brown & Co, £14.99 hbk

  • Bosnia by television
    James Gow, Richard Paterson and Alison Preston (eds), British Film Institute, £12.99 pbk

  • A hack's progress
    Phillip Knightley, Jonathan Cape, £17.99 hbk

  • In harm's way: Reflections of a war-zone thug
    Martin Bell, Penguin Books, £16.99 pbk

Imagine being a foreign correspondent covering Bosnia. Witnessing bloody deaths in godforsaken places, you are surrounded by other journalists trying to convince editors in the safety of London, New York or Frankfurt that people should know what you have seen and risked your life for. Alan Bleasdale tried to imagine it. The mood of the war reporter character in his Channel 4 drama Melissa (broadcast earlier this year) summed up the modern war reporter's psyche: frustration. Reporter Guy Foster kicks in TV sets wherever he goes. What irks him is that he has spent '14 years attempting to write the truth' and yet war continues to rage and even TV reporters can't seem to stop it. Why?

Real war reporters are trying to answer that question and do something. For many, the war in former Yugoslavia became a watershed in how wars should be understood and reported. Some journalists now argue for a new type of war reporting. Martin Bell, veteran BBC foreign correspondent, is one of the leading protagonists of this new school of journalism. In his book In Harm's Way Bell argues that journalists should no longer report from the sidelines with little to say on how to stop war. Instead they should adopt a 'journalism of attachment'.

LM editor Mick Hume has stirred up the media debate about foreign reporting with his pamphlet, Whose War is it Anyway? The Dangers of the Journalism of Attachment (see back page for details). For me, as an investigative reporter, one of the many dangers which Hume touches upon stands out as a pressing problem. The trouble is that what is being advocated by Bell and Co marks a decline in journalistic standards. The Journalism of Attachment leads to bad journalism.

Attached journalism in Bell's view is a journalism that 'cares as well as knows'. The idea is that journalists should be morally responsible by standing up for 'good' against 'evil'. Above all, journalists should call for something to be done about war; they can no longer be neutral.

The case for Bell's attached journalism is elaborated in opposition to the traditional BBC idea of 'balance' - that all sides would get to put their case, and that the reporters would remain impartial, reporting only the facts. As Bell says, he felt 'neutered' as a BBC foreign correspondent. But the real problem with the old BBC tradition, was not that it was impartial. On the contrary, it was profoundly partial to the world-view of the British establishment. It dressed up its own imperial view of the world as if it was an impartial account.

Bell recounts a story that illustrates the limitations of impartiality in the old BBC tradition. Writing in the Listener magazine in the sixties, he denied that censorship was a problem at the BBC. 'I still don't know why I wrote that', he concedes (In Harm's Way, p207). While reporting in Northern Ireland, he had been asked to substitute the word 'refugees' for 'Roman Catholics' after Loyalists burned Catholics out of their homes in the Shankill Road in August 1969. Denying the significance of the religion of those ousted from their homes meant censoring the truth of the situation. What Bell does not appear to notice, is that this is an account of the BBC's lack of balance, not an excess of it.

At a recent media conference in London, Martin Bell advocated that journalists give evidence at the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague (set up by Western powers to convict those seen as responsible for the war in former Yugoslavia). Bell is concerned about doing the right thing according to his own political thinking, but then applies it as a code of conduct for all journalists to swear by.

Bell's strictures can only be disastrous for journalistic independence. If journalists have to hand over their news footage and other evidence to the authorities on demand, how can they hope to protect their sources, gather information and investigate, free from interference?

At the World News 1996 conference in Berlin, Bell said that victims of war should not be censored. Underlying this call is the idea that images of atrocities will spur people into action, since the sanitisation of war has led to political apathy. Calling for less censorship in news sounds radical enough. But a flood of news footage portraying tragedy after tragedy does not offer an understanding of war; it ends up sentimentalising the news as one 'human interest' photo-story after another. According to Bell 'pictures speak for themselves'. Actually they don't. The Times' Simon Jenkins makes a good argument against Bell here: 'He used the images to make the world want to come and stop the killing. He never said how. He wanted to blot out thought. His was a bias against understanding.' (quoted in In Harm's Way, p134)

Shocking images may cause a reaction: revulsion. Yet offered without a clear understanding of the political and social causes of a war they can only confirm the view that human suffering is inevitable. Despite the pro-active language - 'don't censor', 'do something', 'stop being a bystander' - the Journalism of Attachment limits human action and dehumanises war by denying the ability of people to work out the causes of war and ultimately to stop them. Bell's reply to Simon Jenkins is instructive: 'The best answer I can muster to this is that there are problems which cannot be solved, but can only be managed.' (In Harm's Way, p134) In this, Bell shares an outlook with the former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd he has so often criticised, who commented 'disorder is as natural in this world as order'.

Opinions are not the problem in the Journalism of Attachment; it is what those opinions are based on. It is one thing to express a view, another to be able to explain it convincingly and with sufficient evidence. Unfortunately the history of war reporting in Bosnia - examined extensively in past issues of LM magazine - shows that opinions about the war have often been based on flimsy evidence, knee-jerk reactions, lies, propaganda or a limited understanding of the causes of war.

The editors of Bosnia by Television - a collection of papers from a British Film Institute conference in 1994 - warn that there is 'competition for the truth over the Yugoslav war, that some of the detail contained in the following chapters should be treated with caution' (p1). However, establishing the truth is more than just an endless round of fact-checking, important though that is. It is also about working out the meaning and significance of facts. An objective approach at least recognises this by starting with a thesis to be tested, rather than a view to which you fit the facts. Otherwise journalism can end up giving up on analysis, ignoring the whole picture and concentrating on individual examples of human suffering.

It is the objective approach, however, which Bell discards as an 'illusion'. At the very time that objectivity in war reporting seems to be at an all time low, the implication of the Journalism of Attachment is that opinions and moral judgements should be the prime mode of analysis in war reporting. In practice, the danger of elevating opinions over objectivity can all too easily lead to the type of biased journalism that Bell says he wishes to avoid. Facts will be included only if they fit a preconceived opinion. Some truths will be ignored as inconvenient.

Alongside a decline in the questioning of mainstream assumptions comes the elevation of a new type of truth: the Greater Truth. Facts are held to be sacred but only if they fit the bigger picture of how a conflict should be understood. The view that the Serbs were mainly to blame for the Yugoslav war, and were the 'most evil', led many journalists to assume the Serbs were the aggressors in most skirmishes. Bosnia by Television provides some examples of this. James Gow and James Tilsley from the Department of War Studies, Kings College, London, point out in their chapter that the May 1992 bread queue massacre in Sarajevo was assumed by most journalists to have been the Serbs' handiwork, despite the lack of evidence. Tough sanctions were imposed on Serbia as a result. Yet the War Crimes Tribunal seems unable to find sufficient evidence to make this charge against Bosnian Serb leaders. News coverage of the bread queue massacre was not reportage a sabotage of the truth.

Eye-witness accounts are held to be part of the new truth. Witnessing events is claimed to lend the journalist credibility because 'I was there'. But eye-witness reports are no guarantee of the truth. Mort Rosenblum, a US journalist working for the Associated Press, warns that journalists must get a feel for a story while not being drawn into it. 'A minor skirmish can seem like D-Day to a correspondent pinned down all day by artillery.' (Who Stole the News?, 1993) First impressions can be wrong.

Rezak Hukanovic, a former journalist, produces a forceful, firsthand account, of life and death in the Omarska camp during 1992 (Tenth Circle of Hell). Written in the third person, as a father called Djemo, one chapter describes how two prisoners were forced to bite the testicles off two others. 'The camp resounded with frantic screams' as the men died. Testimonies like Hukanovic's have been compiled as evidence against former guards and soldiers in the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. In a BBC2 documentary - 'War crimes on trial' (broadcast 7 May 1997) - the method of justice at the tribunal was questioned. Sources were found to be lying and hearsay evidence was admitted even though in a British law court it would be dismissed. During the trial of Dusko Tadic, a Bosnian Serb reserve policeman, only one man was alleged to have been castrated, only one man was alleged to have carried out the act and he withdrew from testifying.

How does one react to such accounts as a journalist? You might think, like a lawyer, the journalist would be expected to substantiate claims with further evidence and question their sources. In the reporting of Bosnia, the problem has been that journalists are all too ready to publicise claims based on individual accounts or hearsay. It may make a shocking read, but where does that leave the truth? Such testimonies by definition fail to offer analysis. Even if they are true, they can only give a dramatic description of events. Beyond that they are limited.

Despite the stress on opinions and judgements, many contemporary foreign correspondents deny they are being political. Bell says his views are based on an objective reporting of the truth. Christiane Amanpour, the famous CNN journalist says, 'I do wars. I don't do politics'. Although presented as non-political and commonsensical, the new journalism is politic-ally charged.

Mort Rosenblum warns the reporter about using politically loaded words such as 'human rights', 'torture' and 'genocide' so liberally that 'in some cases it triggers little revulsion' (Who Stole the News?). To Rosenblum, the problem is one of term overuse rather than abuse; use such emotive terms too much and the reader becomes bored. Yet he fails to question his own use, or abuse, of such terms. Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, devised something 'close to a final solution', according to Rosenblum. Roy Gutman, the US journalist, is described as exposing the 'Serb concentration camps'. If every war becomes a 'holocaust', every camp a 'concentration camp', the words no longer signify anything distinctive. They become empty labels applied to anything that smacks of war. The particular characteristics of a conflict and explanations for a war get ignored.

Such journalism leads to a self-righteous view where other views are heretical and not allowable within the consensus. Morally correct journalism is dangerous because it stifles debate, particularly alternative political ideas which do not see the world in terms of moral battles between Good and Evil.

The last thing war reporting needs is moralising. Reporters used to at least pay lip-service to the facts, but now they are expected to be moral missionaries bringing the 'Greater Truth' to those at home and lecturing those abroad. The language of the new journalism has much in common with that justifying Western intervention. Western armies are described as peacekeepers who reluctantly intervene abroad to stop war; we now have journalists as peaceshapers who reluctantly have to report on wars (or as Bell puts it, war chose him).

In an age that scorns politicians there has been an elevation of the journalist's role. Bell writes that he had expected to be a peace correspondent by now, but the politicians have let him down. He recounts in his book how politicians frequently called on his advice before he entered the world of politics himself. As a foreign correspondent he had visited the wartorn areas in Bosnia and spoken to all sides, so he was viewed as having some insight into what could be done. The elevation of the role of foreign correspondent has put pressure on journalists to pontificate on world events. Equally, the journalist can rise from being an unknown reporter to one whose views count as they enter the political world stage, using their position as a loud hailer for their opinions.

In his entertaining, and thoroughly humane account of 'a hack's progress', Phillip Knightley, a veteran of the Sunday Times' Insight Team, paints a different picture. Knightley's acount is a lot more honestly self-depreciating than Bell's false modesty. Knightley tells his story warts and all. He readily admits that, as an investigative reporter, he has often been manipulated in unseen ways by the security services. He is bemused to discover many years later that the publishing company he worked for promoting American literature in India was a CIA front. But unlike Bell, Knightley lays off the moral indignation, because he knows that things are often more complicated than they seem.

Not only does Knightley put his hand up for the bad stories that he was implicated in, however tangentially, such as the famous Hitler Diary hoax at the Sunday Times, when that paper was persuaded to print a forgery of the dictator's memoirs. He also questions great scoops he was involved in, like the Insight Team's exposure of the thalidomide scandal, where the drug company Distillers was shown to have promoted a drug that caused severe disabilities. As he explains, the question of compensation often created new divisions between families, and within families later on. Knightley does not blow his own trumpet like today's attached journalists. His modest view of the journalist's powers has made him all the better a journalist.

It is bad journalism if so many journalists cannot see beyond their own laptops and end up repeating the new gospel according to the Journalism of Attachment. Are we condemned to a world where our interactive tele-vision channels give us daily moral guidance, while we are reduced to the role of a congregation? We might all end up putting the boot into our TV sets.

Tessa Mayes is a journalist and Director of the London International Research Exchange media group currently conducting the Journalists at War project. For more information please contact the London International Research Exchange, BM LIRE, London WC1N 3XX

Tel (0171) 388 7167, e-mail: media@easynet.co.uk

Read On

  • Mother Teresa: beyond the image
    Anne Sebba, Weidenfield and Nicolson, £20 hbk

Mother Teresa was often described as a master of media manipulation. If so, her decision to give up the ghost the day before Diana's funeral must go down as one of the most ill-timed media disasters of the twentieth century. Sebba claims to ask all the hard questions, but the answers leave a lot to be desired, resulting in a hagiography of the 'saint of the gutters'.

Sebba does recount the most oft-repeated criticisms of Mother Teresa: that she was treated at the best hospitals in the world while she allowed her own charges to die in agony for want of some analgesia; that she 'prescribed' prayer and love instead; that she suggested that the survivors of the Union Carbide accident which killed thousands of people 'love a little more' rather than demand recompense; her opposition to abortion and birth control: Aids sufferers in her homes are denied condoms (Anthony Burgess called into question the nuns' sanity, claiming they thought Aids could be 'assuaged with loving words and a little hot soup', p114); that she was apparently autocratic and she and her order of nuns may even have salted away vast fortunes in Vatican banks.

While the giving of a little hot soup is clearly not a crime, Teresa's suggestion that misery is beautiful, and even a noble aim is nauseating. Sebba boasts that 30 000 people died in the building Mother Teresa used in Calcutta. It seems rather apt that when Teresa took it over it was called Kalighat - an abandoned temple to Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction.

Mother Teresa glorified the essence of poverty. Love and affection, she held, would do more to solve our problems than wealth and power. 'We are all called to love, love until it hurts' (p275) she was fond of saying. 'Accept your lot and seek God's love rather than material happiness on Earth' was another favourite of hers. 'There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love.' People died hopeless deaths in agony because of what she believed in. And they want her to be saint? But then, as Sebba points out, 'for Mother Teresa we are all just souls', (p275) so bodily pain must be immaterial.

Sebba wraps it up beautifully in her closing comments when she says that Mother Teresa inspired people 'because she demonstrated a way, not always effective, of using the power of love as a force of healing and redemption. In spite of all the criticisms levelled against her, Mother Teresa gave tens of thousands of people the opportunity to express their love for their fellow human beings' (p276). Presumably by their dying without causing a fuss and demanding what should rightfully be theirs.

Though maybe we ought to give Prime Minister Tony Blair a crack of the whip. He said: 'In a week already filled with tragedy, the world will be saddened that one of its most compassionate servants has died. Mother Teresa devoted her life to the poor and her spirit will live on as an inspiration to all of us.' An inspiration to those who do not want any apple carts upsetting and want those who want for everything to accept that state of affairs. The Cork Examiner's headline on the day of her funeral ran: 'Living Saint Buried.' The poor the world over might have been better off if that had been the case somewhat sooner.

David Nolan

Reproduced from LM issue 105, November 1997

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