Writers and their books are not always to be discovered one within the other. A writer may hide behind the art of the book; a book may emerge with a bigger character than its author's. This is Martin Bell's third and, as with its predecessors, man and book cannot be told apart. In declaring his imperial theme to be war, politics and journalism, Bell sets about these dread familiars with all the earnest garrulity, determined candour, simple courage and complex sanctimony for which he became famous on the BBC and notorious in the Commons.
WB Yeats, in one of his greatest poems, quoted the terrible Irish prayer, "Send war in our time , O Lord". It has been Bell's enormous good fortune to follow a dozen hideous wars in 30-odd years of broadcasting, before joining the corpseless class war of Parliament for a single term. He deserved all his honours for unfolding a truthful tale in simple sentences, gradually filling his narrative with his special, lapel-grasping rhetoric, a compound of grim detail, honesty-at-all-costs, and a suppressed but unmistakeable contempt for all politicians.
These same qualities fill these pages, but not to the brim. The roominess of this not-very-long book permits too much of Bell's less endearing attributes. There are, for a man whose father wrote that excellent book on folk-language, Corduroy, inexcusable clichés: "wake-up call" (twice), and another dozen clankers. Just as plonking are his large dicta: "Man is an aggressive animal".
Almost fatal to the book, however, is his dire garrulity. He permits himself repetitiously to sing some very old songs, particularly on the decline of broadcast journalism. Much may doubtless be made of the amputation of ITN, and the shameful mendacity and chauvinism of CNN and Fox, but, on the BBC, a service with Newsnight as flagship, The Daily Politics four hours per week, and Orla Guerin, Matt Frei and Stephen Sackur routinely silhouetted against the explosions is not exactly failing its public.
The best of Bell is his assault on the canons of robotic objectivity. He was not the first to make such a break. Walter Cronkite did it from Vietnam in 1968 and caused Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the Presidential nomination. But Bell has insisted on the presence of morals in journalistic method with passionate intensity, and it shows to great advantage here.
Indeed, the stories that stick are those that flash out from reminiscence. There is one well-merited gleam of malice at Max Hastings's expense; his vigorous expression of distaste at the treatment of Elizabeth Filkin, Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards, and the way she was prevented from investigating charges of corruption against John Reid; and the heartbreaking, life-affirming anecdote of Mrs Theurkauf, the law professor who argued for the rights of Guantanamo prisoners, having just been widowed by the twin towers apocalypse.
Bell is one of those, as Keats put it, "To whom the miseries of the world/ Are misery, and will not let them rest". This makes him, well, a bit of a misery. But he is a misery combining such bags of talkative energy, waves of unstoppable passion, ardour for good causes and splendid bloody-mindedness that journalism and politics would be even more dismal without him.
Fred Inglis's 'People's Witness: the journalist in modern politics' is published by YaleReuse content