AFTER a long career as a war correspondent,
and later as an MP, Martin Bell is a man used to being in the firing
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
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
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,"
"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."