What News Organizations Get Wrong About Conflict Reporting, According To A Veteran War Reporter

Business Insider sat down with Martin Bell, an award-winning former war correspondent for the BBC and author of “War and the Death of News”.

Bell said news organisations often favour neutrality over fairness in their reporting.

He added that there is a lack of eyewitness reporting of conflicts and atrocities in the modern world.

Read the full transcript below:

Martin Bell: I was brought up in the standard BBC tradition of: “On one hand, this, on the other hand, that, only time will tell.” One argument or set of images was balanced against another.

But by the time I got to the Bosnian war, it seemed to me this sort of “bystander journalism” was inadequate to the situation we found ourselves in.

I was not willing to be neutral between the armed and the unarmed, between the aggressor and the victim, so I devised what I call the “journalism of attachment”, which is not a partisan journalism, it’s not making arguments, it’s a journalism that cares as well as knows and it chooses its words very carefully.

Sometimes there are no words at all because your images are your adjectives. It’s a different way of thinking and a different way of writing, lightyears away from the bystander journalism. Very undistinguished – because I’ve seen it – that I practiced in Vietnam as far ago as 1967.

I was criticised for a BBC Panorama programme that I did in January 1993, at one of the worst of times in the Bosnian war.

“The heaviest fighting has apparently been in the town of Goražde, 45 miles south-east of here. According to government reports, 100,000 people are cut off there, including 30,000 refugees – 10,000 of them children.”

But I chose my words very carefully. I just set out the consequences if we stayed away – and we were only marginally involved at the time – and the consequences if we made a proper military intervention, which in the end, we did.

I didn’t advocate the intervention, I just said: “This is what’s going to happen if we don’t intervene.” And indeed, it’s what did happen. And we could have saved tens of thousands of lives if we had fully intervened in the beginning of the Bosnian war, which started in April ’92.

It was a difficult case to make, but I think I was proved right. Because in the end, NATO – It was the only use of force in NATO’s history, actually – and it did – The first use of force in NATO’s history – and it did achieve the results required. It could have saved so many lives if we had done it earlier.

A humanitarian intervention by armed force – there are four tests to be met. It has to be legal under the charter of the United Nations, it has to be proportionate under the Geneva conventions, it has to be reasonably supported by the people, and it has to be doable.

Bosnia passed all these tests, Iraq in 2003 failed them all, and Afghanistan failed – as it always will – on the test of do-ability.

I don’t think we’re turning a blind eye to what’s happening so much as we’re being kept out of the loop, kept ignorant, not knowing. The Srebrenica massacre – we weren’t sure about for months.

We’ve got very little idea about what’s going on in parts of Iraq, in much of Syria, because of the lack of eyewitness journalism. And if you don’t know about it, you won’t care. The NGOs, the aid agencies know this – the money flows in when the television pictures are showing the situation they’re trying to deal with. No television, no money.

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