Martin Bell OBE: my journey from war reporter to anti-sleaze politician

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On a late afternoon in January, I entered Hotel Indigo to meet Martin Bell, the renowned war journalist turned independent politician, who was in Durham to make an appearance at the Durham Union. The ‘man in the white suit’, as he has always been known, was easy enough to spot, because, fittingly, he was donning his memorable suit when we met. Over the next five hours or so, over drinks, dinner, at his Union address, and at the post-event reception, I was struck by the heart this man has for the world and for upholding good values, through his various lives as a war journalist, politician, and humanitarian ambassador.

We sit down for an hour in a quiet corner of the bar, Bell enjoying a glass of wine, and me a lemonade. Bell tells me that, during his first decades as a war journalist, the humanitarian journalism that he would become famous for spearheading had not yet taken root in his journalistic aims. In the early years, for example in Vietnam aged 29, his “reporting is far too much about weapon systems and orders of battle,” rather than the humanitarian crises he was covering.

“It was only really when the Balkan wars happened […] suddenly you are in the middle of the longest siege in Europe since Stalingrad. And the people suffering are very largely the civilians, children, I mean hundreds of children were being killed. And I started to see it entirely from their point of view.” This was a transformative moment for Bell and his journalistic philosophy, for it saw him transition from the traditional, unemotional, impartial journalism that had been “the BBC’s mantra,” to a journalism in which the journalist “cares as well as knows.”

I mean hundreds of children were being killed. And I started to see it entirely from their point of view.

It was here that I first understood that Bell is a man with a heart. He had seen tragedy after tragedy through a career which saw him travel from Vietnam to Ghana to Nigeria, among other places, and had conformed to the BBC’s journalistic standards. But the utter brutality he witnessed in the Balkan wars awakened him to the need for journalists to “care,” not merely to “know.” As a journalist, he could not simply sit back and watch, whilst “the western democracies were hanging back at the time […] our job was to hold the peacekeeping force to the fire, which we did and out of this there sprang this whole theory I developed about a different sort of journalism, which I call the journalism of attachment.”

Bell’s “attachment” to what he saw in the Balkans meant that he served as witnesses in four war trials in the aftermath of the war. He felt a moral imperative to do the right thing, “because I thought my duty as a citizen was more important than my duty as a journalist. I was a citizen first and foremost. Otherwise if you didn’t [testify], then murders would be more likely to get away with murder.” In Bell’s view, he could not separate the journalist from his own conscience, and acted to ensure criminals would not get away.

Bell’s memorable white suit, his armour, originated when war “came very quickly in June ’91 in Slovenia and Croatia, and it was blazing hot summer weather, and I happened to have a white suit with me,” which he wore. “I took it as a lucky charm, so it was a superstition thing, and I wore it in wars ever since and even in the House of Commons, talk about hostile environments, but it works.” For the most part, Bell’s lucky charm seems to have worked, for he did not suffer severe injuries. The exception to this is when “I ran out of luck one day in August ’92 but I was moderately wounded, I was hit by mortar fire at the back of the Marshall Tito barracks. And then I was wonderfully looked after by the UN medics […] I spent about ten days in hospital, and it was difficult to persuade myself that I was willing to go back to Bosnia.”

After covering much of the conflict of the 90s, Bell “discovered my phone wasn’t ringing anymore,” and “I sort of complained I didn’t have anything to do, give me work, and they gave me a really interesting documentary to do.” He then spent two months travelling alongside the incoming secretary-general of the UN, Kofi Annan, to make a documentary about him. This saw him accompany Annan to the Hague, to Angola to meet its rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, and finally to South Africa where he met Nelson Mandela. “So it was a brilliant experience.” Clearly, such work sprung from the humanitarian instincts Bell had been developing as a journalist and foreshadowed his later career of dedication to humanitarian causes as UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies.

As a war journalist, he obviously did not fight, he observed. This changed in the 1997 election in the constituency of Tatton, occupied by the sleaze-embroiled Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, when the opposition parties “came up with the idea of standing their own candidates down and finding an independent to take him on.” Who better to take on one of the greatest electoral battles in political history than the man who had been a witness to more than a dozen? “The candidates were most gracious in standing down, and we got a mighty campaign going in a matter of days.” Bell’s campaign was widely publicised, even attracting the support of the late American actor David Soul, who played Hutch in Starsky & Hutch, and, Bell tells me, canvassed alongside him for a week. This, therefore, was no small periphery battle. It was about whether sleaze could be successfully challenged. Bell overturned Hamilton’s majority, and proved that it could be challenged, and this moral success was a continuation of Bell’s moral instincts that had come to the fore during his time as a journalist.

We got a mighty campaign going in a matter of days

When he was approached by the opposition parties to stand, “I thought why not,” and in less than a month he put together one of the most successful campaigns in political history, against the odds. “A lot of my team, certainly the press, were convinced I was going to lose, being totally without experience or a proper machine, but in fact we won by 11,000 votes, it wasn’t even close.” Perhaps “why not” defines much of Bell’s career. He is an adventurer, able to turn his hand at all sorts of situations and landscapes. Only this time, the landscape was not a physical territory, but the chaotic sphere that is British politics.

From my conversations with politicians and journalists, the fact is inescapable that there is no suitable preparation to becoming an MP; no degree to pass; no experience that ensures success. They thrown into the alien world of Westminster and must work their way through. I couldn’t help thinking how underprepared Bell must have felt once elected. But Bell thrived, despite the fact he “thought I might be side-lined.” With William Hague’s help, he got a seat on the standards committee, and in general “a lot of MPs wanted you to support because you don’t have a party, they want you to support their causes.” Added to this, the late great Betty Boothroyd was speaker for most of his single term as MP. “Whenever I wanted to speak, she let me. On no single occasion she didn’t call me.” It seems, therefore, that Bell invested himself in his new life. It didn’t stop with the historic election win of 1997 but it continued throughout his term.

His humanitarian instincts continued after parliament, when “the week I left parliament, the phone rang. Would I be one of their ambassadors?” Of course, the answer was yes, and Bell has used his position to impact the world for the better. I sense that Bell now felt free from journalistic constraints. “I’ve done a dozen trips for them to places […] I did one to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I met a man their Denis Mukwege who runs a maternity hospital for the victims of rape.” Through such visits, “I was able to publicise forgotten wars […] that [the Democratic Republic of the Congo], South Sudan and Somalia.” During our discussion, Bell criticises the side-lining of conflicts, criticising how the media “now hardly at all” take Africa seriously. “I think we’ve gone miopic. We’ve become insular.” It is easy to understand that a man who has seen suffering, and formed an attachment to such suffering, in so many regions in so many countries, is frustrated by the lack of range of conflicts reported on by mainstream news.

Soon, our interview was over, and we sat down for a three-course pre-event dinner, building up to the main event, Bell’s address at the Durham Union. If there is one thing I took away from this address, and my time spent with Bell, it is that this man cannot stand by impartially when oppressors attack the oppressed. He stands out as someone who wants to do something about it. And he does.

Image: via the Durham Union Society

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