More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 50

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

As journalists in a war zone, we were, of course, supposed to be hard-bitten, fully objective and to remain unmoved by the entreaties of the underdog. I detected a change in that traditional view during the course of the war in Bosnia.

The veteran BBC newsman, Martin Bell, coined a phrase around the end of the Bosnian war: ‘the journalism of attachment’. Going very much against decades of firmly established BBC tradition, Bell suggested that journalists should not stand back but, instead, actually take sides with those patently oppressed in a conflict like the Bosnian war.

After years in Bosnia – and much time spent in towns and cities like Sarajevo held in the vice-like grip of siege – he came to see this as a moral duty. Once the end of the Bosnian war came he was rather ‘put out to grass’ by the BBC before – as his erstwhile boss, John Simpson, strangely puts it in his book, Strange Places, Questionable People: “The poor man forsook it all and went off to be a politician.”

On the occasions I met Martin Bell in Slovenia and, later, Bosnia, I rather took to him. He had a permanently troubled air – which, at the time, I put down to the shrapnel injury he dramatically acquired in his groin on camera in Sarajevo – and seemed buried in his own perplexing thoughts. I found him infinitely preferable to the loudmouthed crowd of louts and misfits who generally populated the press hangouts. In fact, I think he was genuinely struggling with his own conscience and seeking to rationalise his own thoughts on what we all were doing in Bosnia.

I never got around to asking him if he had taken his cue from the veteran Polish war correspondent, Ryszard Kapuscinski, to my mind one of the greatest of all time. I met him one year at the Frankfurt Book Fair where he told me: “You cannot be impartial. I have always taken sides. It is inevitable and lends emotion to your work.”

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