Martin Bell says he is always described as “the man who needs no introduction”, and his life indeed seems impossible to summarise. His position as one of the most prominent critics of the Blair government and the current state of the British media is secure.
After graduating from King’s in the early 1960s having served in the Army, he went on to become a central BBC correspondent until the 1990s. Known as “the man with the white suit” at the BBC, in 1997 he unexpectedly moved from journalism to oust Neil Hamilton from the safe Conservative seat of Tatton. In doing so, he became the first independent MP elected since 1951.
Now the UNICEF ambassador for humanitarian emergencies, Bell has just written his fourth book, The Truth that Sticks, described as ‘the definitive critique on the Blair years’. He spoke to us about his half-century long career.
When asked whether his time at King’s shaped his innate sense of injustice, Bell smiles. “It was a strange place when I was there – the Left was very strong, but there were also the sons of the factory owners, and I didn’t belong to either. Women were just alien creatures then, but I still think of them as a better class of people than men!”.
After graduating, Bell worked at BBC Norwich for three years before transferring to London. He subsequently reported on over 11 conflicts and from 80 countries.
Bell told The Cambridge Student (TCS) about his feelings on the state of journalism today. “Things are becoming more populist. We are also being less informed about the dark and hard things going on in the world”, he explained.
“For example, this whole war in Afghanistan is supposed to be helping the people, and we are pretending that they’re not there – that’s what really upsets me.”
“There are some wonderful journalists practising, but there’s certainly been a change in news values in the last 15 years – television has gone sharply downhill. It’s largely dominated these days by stories about girls in distress – we had Holly and Jessica, we had Madeleine.
“The news agenda is what they think people want to read about. That’s fine, until you realise there’s a war in Iran, and wonder where that came from”, Bell continued. “There’s not enough other stuff on our horizon.”
Bell explains that he would never enter into War Reporting if he was a graduate today: “The worst thing that could happen to me then was being caught in the crossfire, which happened once or twice, and I lost a few friends, but they were not targeted. Since the rise of Islamic militantism, Western reporters are targeted. What happened to Alan Johnston in Gaza is typical – he was lucky to get out with his life. You just can’t do it.
“Now, they pretend to cover the war, but it starts inside a fortified compound. I’ve spoken extensively about rooftop journalism – it appears to be the real thing but it isn’t. Bosnia was the last time we could report a war among the people from the people.”
“In the Iraq war, the Iraqis were not seen, other than Iraqi warriors surrendering, or terrified civilians waving at troops”, Bell added. “This is inevitable, if the only coverage of war that is allowed is embedded with military units.”
ell strongly criticized the lack of opportunities for war reporting outside of military units. “what you’re doing is trading freedom for access – you have to submit to censorship – there are constraints on your casual reporting. But now you can’t show things that are politically embarrassing, which we never had before.
“Before it was fragmentary but truthful, but now it’s fundamentally untruthful. People can’t understand what the war is about.”
Deeply unpleasant people
Speaking of both politics and journalism, Bell asserts “to be honest I think that one of the dirty secrets of journalism is that it attracts some deeply unpleasant people, and the same is true of politics” .
Despite being one of the most prominent critics of the Blair era, Bell said that his government was “not the worst” he has lived under. “The economy’s generally sound, the miracle that happened on their watch in NI, their record on foreign aid has been really good…and then in the middle of it he makes the worst mistake of any prime minister in my lifetime”.
Bell was most critical when he spoke of Blair‘s decision to go to war in Iraq. “This war has no supporters. The Tory rank and file are as against it as anybody and their own party let them down. It was a huge mistake.
“The whole system failed, the checks and balances were not there, and the warnings that should have been sounded were not. His own staff in number 10, the chiefs of staffs, and the cabinet, are all responsible. It’s a terrible mistake and we have to acknowledge it.”
He also dismissed claims that Blair‘s mistakes have only become obvious with hindsight. “We knew at the time they did the wrong thing, we certainly knew from the publication of the dodgy dossier, that the intelligence was falsified in its way into Downing Street. It was falsified in Downing Street by Alistair Campbell. The warning signals were there. There’s no excuse.”
But in spite of all of this, Bell still refuses to give up and become disillusioned. Speaking at the Union, he urged his audience not to fall into the trap of “leaving politics to the politicians”. He urges us, “don’t let the creeps and the cranks win. If you don’t try, nothing happens. Do what is uncomfortable. The option that you don’t have is to do nothing!
“We’ve certainly had an increase in political corruption which happened towards the end of the Thatcher years. The old gentleman politicians were fading away… We do deserve better politicians than some of them are.”
Alice Bloch and Jonathan Laurence