Magazine article Geographical

Living on the Front Line: Former BBC War Correspondent Martin Bell Talks to Chloe Scott-Moncrieff about Declining Democracy, Embedded Journalism and Why He Believes the War in the Balkans Led to the Attacks on the World Trade Centre

Magazine article Geographical

Living on the Front Line: Former BBC War Correspondent Martin Bell Talks to Chloe Scott-Moncrieff about Declining Democracy, Embedded Journalism and Why He Believes the War in the Balkans Led to the Attacks on the World Trade Centre

Article excerpt

Sitting in a ramshackle three-bedroom house in Hampstead, with his tufty old cat Noushka on his lap, it's hard to imagine Martin Bell in an adrenaline-fuelled combat zone. Yet, to the portly 65-year-old, dodging shrapnel is old hat. During his career as war correspondent for the BBC, he reported on 11 wars, including those in the Balkans and Vietnam and, as a foreign correspondent, he worked in a staggering 80 countries.

But for Bell, journalism is now a thing of the past. Looking around his cluttered front room, the only reminder of his doughty TV persona is his famous white suit, which he invariably (and superstitiously) wore while on assignment in order to protect himself from harm.

Despite 'retiring', in 1997, on the grounds of 'old age', Bell has maintained a busy life. Within days of leaving the BBC, he made a dramatic entrance into politics as an 'anti-sleaze' independent MP and went on to win the seat of Tatton from the sitting Tory MP Neil Hamilton. He then honourably stuck to his pledge to stand down after one term. However, the 'accidental MP' was subsequently persuaded to run another anti-sleaze campaign for Brentwood and Ongar in Essex. This time he was unsuccessful and gave up.

Recently, Bell has been dividing his time between schmoozing and writing. As well as being patron and president of numerous universities and charities, he's acted as UNICEF special representative for humanitarian emergencies, a role that's taken him to Tajikistan, Malawi, Bosnia and Iraq. In his self-deprecating manner, he explains it's all low-key stuff. "I'm just the expendable chap," he says. "I speak at their balls and concerts and to their volunteers. They can't really send Robbie Williams out to a war zone, can they?"

Behind his amiable, bumbling persona, Bell oozes energy. As we talk, his hands quiver incessantly. His energy is currently consumed by promotional duties for his third book, Through Gates of Fire. The frank 230-page polemic tackles his principal bugbears--24-hour news, the government, the decline of our democracy and embedded journalism--as well as discussing international terrorism. He calls it his "last will and testament". "This really will be my last book and I want this one to have impact," he says.

Bosnia is Bell's beloved subject. It was while reporting from Sarajevo in 1992 that he acquired the sense of injustice that has shaped his subsequent career. His most recent overseas trip for UNICEF took him back to the country, so it isn't long before we're discussing his astonishing Balkans war--September 11 theory, to which he dedicates a whole chapter in the book. "Every action has consequences, and there are no freestanding events," he says. "If the West had responded effectively and early and impartially to the Bosnian challenge, instead of leaving the three sides to fight it out when the Serbs were obviously stronger than the other two, the Twin Towers would be standing."

The link seems tenuous at first--Bell tends to skip hastily over subjects--so I ask him to explain further. "The attack on the World Trade Centre two years ago was inspired by a man [Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh] who stayed in Croatia when he was 19. He wanted to sign up and fight with the Moslem army, the Mujaheddin, which was loosely aligned to the Bosnian Army."

But during his visit, the British-born Sheikh, who's now in prison facing the death penalty for his involvement in the death of journalist Daniel Pearl, saw Bosnian Moslems being killed and the experience criminalised him. "It was at that point that he dedicated himself to the Jihad," says Bell. "He went on to join Al-Qaeda."

"These are the most dangerous times since 1945," he says. "I don't have any nostalgia for the Cold War, but the Cold War was safer than this." During his career, he has made uncovering the truth his raison d'etre. (His inspirations include former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel and journalist James Cameron. …

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