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THE MAN IN THE
WHITE SUIT
Martin Bell
AFTER a long career as a war correspondent, and later as an MP, Martin Bell is a man used to being in the firing line.

But when he visited Edge Hill to talk to journalism degree students, he was the one firing the broadsides - at his own colleagues in the media.

In his talk at the Wilson Centre on Edge Hill's Ormskirk campus, he criticised the dumbing down of television news and journalists' "substantial egos". And he urged the students - the journalists of the future - to reject cynicism and get back to the basics of news reporting.

Mr Bell, who started his career in the Army, worked for the BBC for 35 years. He was assigned to 80 countries and covered 11 wars, starting with Vietnam and ending with Bosnia, where he was wounded.

In 1997 he left the BBC to stand as an Independent candidate in the Tatton constituency in the general election, against Neil Hamilton. His famous white suit - he actually has six - became representative of his anti-sleaze stance and he won the seat by more than 11,000 votes. Last year he was appointed a Special Representative for Humanitarian Emergencies by UNICEF UK.

Although he's rarely seen on screen nowadays, he has kept a close eye on developments in television news - and he confessed that he was troubled by some aspects.

He referred to BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies, who recently attacked critics of the dumbing down of the BBC as southern, white, middle-class and middle-aged people who consume a disproportionate amount of the corporation's services.

Mr Bell said: "Mr Davies did not deny the dumbing down because it is there. We have all seen it. The News at Six O'Clock used to be a serious news programme and now it is fashion and royalty and weather and medical stories and celebrity and Neil and Christine [Hamilton] and Posh and Becks. It is not what a news programme is supposed to be.

Meeting the local press

"One of the things you may have noticed as you watch television news these days, and it is part of the whole dumbing down scenario, is what I call 'rooftop journalism'.

"Instead of journalists being down there where things are happening, finding out what is happening, and telling you about it, they are parked on the roof of a television station or hotel and talking to the anchorman or anchorwoman in London.

"Unfortunately the BBC has been instructed by a television spin doctor in how to appear live and they wave their arms a lot and semaphore their reports. It has got nothing to do with journalism. I think we need to get back to basics and get back out into the field."

He was also critical of the type of people attracted to working in television news. "I was a soldier once and I prefer the military ethos. If there is a difference between soldiers and journalists it is that they are different kinds of people," he said.

"Soldiers are taught that they will succeed together and fail together, and they tend to succeed together because you can do things as a group you would not be able to on your own.

"Journalists, unfortunately, tend to think they are going to succeed at each other's expense. It attracts people with substantial egos."

The voice of experience: advising students

Prior to the talk, Mr Bell had enjoyed a tour of Edge Hill's industry-standard media facilities. He praised the high-tech equipment but issued this warning to those students who use it: "Sometimes you have to lift your eyes from the screen. The computer screen can be a screen in the old-fashioned sense in that it separates you from the reality. We still need old-fashioned reporters who go out and find things out."

He added: "If you are going to be a journalist you have to care about what you do. The worst thing a journalist can do is not care. The enemy of journalism is not censorship or manipulation by government, it is the cynicism that can lie in the heart of the journalist.

"Whatever you do, you will face various challenges. You will have a choice at some point of making a difference or filling a space and I urge you to make a difference."

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