A veteran BBC reporter, Martin Bell, who quit journalism after 33 years to become a one-term Member of Parliament, has written a book about his life. I have not read the book, but I have just watched a longish interview with him on RT, and he said something that resonated with me entirely.
Speaking of his coverage of war in Bosnia, which he covered, he said that he was able to write what he liked; but if he had been working in London closer to the centres of power, he would have had to be more careful about what he said. I had exactly the same experience. I worked for eight years in London as corespondent for The Montreal Star, and in those eight years I can remember being asked only a couple of times to write a story originating in the mind of one of my Montreal bosses. I understood the unstated boundaries of opinion beyond which I realized it would be dangerous to venture, but even so, much of what I wrote did not accord with what I knew the paper’s policy would embrace. Yet only once did I ever hear a word of criticism, and that came when, on one of the visits made from time to time by the publisher, John G.McConnell, he mentioned to me, more or less in passing, that I did seem to be a bit “on the leftist side.”
Of course, I found things completely different when I returned to home office and began to write about local affairs, The difference was, my bosses were meeting the guys I wrote about over lunch in their clubs. So careful there, boyo, you are getting too close to the line.
Although I had, and have, no time for conservatism, I always felt I was lucky to be working for a conservative newspaper. Because, in essence, they didn't really care what went into their newspaper about foreign places, so long as it arrived in time, regularly, did not offend the few simple rules laid down that were known to everyone --- such as, the Royal family is above reproach --- and thus didn’t unduly upset the smooth tenor of their working day.
Bell, in his book, apparently confesses that from time to time he knuckled under to these widely understood limits on his work. He said something else that rang a bell with me: in his experience as a BBC reporter he was free, within the afore-mentioned limits, to write what he wished, whereas Americans covering the same event for the powerful private networks, were under ludicrous demands to submit their scripts in advance to headquarters so that they could be vetted or suitability. In essence, they were hog-tied. In a similar fashion I can tell the story of being told by a reporter in London for The Toronto Star that if she didn’t receive four telegrams of instruction or suggestion from her head office every day, she began to get worried. In contrast, I received two telegrams in eight years, and one of them was an apology for underpaying my monthly expenses claim by $5 or so. (The second, incidentally, was a request for me to write a piece on British licensing laws. I wrote the piece, posted it off, and it never appeared. I eventually inquired what happened to it, and was told, sorry, it seems we lost it. Could you possibly send it again? I did so, and it duly appeared: a very good piece, too, if I may say so as shouldn’t.)
Bell has apparently written that it has never been tougher to be a journalist than in the present time. To cover Syria, or Afghanistan, for example, one must run the gauntlet of possible kidnap, arrest, or even death, something that no story is really worth. Myself, I have long since realized I could never have functioned effectively in modern conditions. For one thing, I always tried to keep my head office at arm’s length, if possible. For example, when I went to Cyprus to cover the arrival of Canadian troops representing the UN in the early sixties, I was a bit behind the journalistic crowd, so it wasn’t so easy to get a suitable hotel room: thus, I managed to keep my address away from my bosses for as long as possible. Eventually I hired a small car, and when all the hot-shot reporters were rushing around to cover one or other of the frequent outbreaks of hostilities, I drove around the island talking to people on both the Greek and Turkish sides in an effort to understand what the hell was going on. (I found that they were practically indistinguishable to the naked eye, and all seemed to be extremely amiable, except when one got on to the subject of Greeks with the Turks, or vice-versa.)
Nowadays, with the development of electronic gadgets, it is possible for the busybody at the desk back on the other side of the Atlantic to actually see his reporter standing out there in the field, and even to scan around him, spot a group of people standing thirty yards away in the corner of the frame, and order the reporter to go over and interview them. (This immoral desk man had obviously never read Robert Benchley’s immortal observation that if you looked at a shot of some world-changing event, whether the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo, or of Hitler with his generals in Berlin, there is always some idiot on the edge of the frame who is looking the other way, and missing it all.)
My method had always been that I wandered around, whether in a foreign field or in an impoverished native community in Canada, or wandering through a Swedish new town, clutching a notebook and a pen, and that was it, until I was ready to turn in my copy by hand to my immediate boss. That was a very different way of working that probably would no longer be considered adequate.
Over the years, from 1945 when I touched my first pay-check, until about 1994, when they stopped paying me, I worked for both privately- owned media like the eight newspapers for which I toiled, and publicly- owned outfits like the CBC and the National Film Board. And I have to confess I never felt the publicly-owned media weighed more heavily on me in terms of limiting my freedom of expression than did the privately-owned media. Thus I have never really subscribed to the idea that a privately-owned press is the cornerstone of democracy. That ranks along with my equally significant discovery that, however much influence the newspapers or aural or visual stations might wield in society, and it is considerable, the idea of one super-informed journalist who wields influence is more or less a myth. When I quit The Montreal Star after fourteen years, as a roving reporter, I was told by various readers that they would regret my loss. I never believed it, and in fact, they were damned glad to get rid of me.
Ah, well, as I keep repeating these days, Wot the hell, wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai.