Some news is fit for word-painting

RADIO; Front Lines / R4 Tim Page / R1
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The truism that war is hell often seems, as far as this country is concerned, to carry the unspoken postscript, "...except for the Second World War, which was actually quite good". There are some understandable reasons for this, with a strong moral case and relatively low casualties heading the list. Listening to Front Lines (Radio 4, Saturday), you wonder, too, whether the quality of reporting ought to go in there, because it must have cheered people up immensely.

Mark Laity, the BBC's present defence correspondent, paid a mildly sceptical tribute to the great war correspondents of 1939 to 1945. On the one hand, he admired them for their courage, their honesty, their eloquence and simply for being pioneers; on the other, he had no scruples about pointing out their amateurism and their willingness to co-operate with the army, something that in theory is anathema to the modern war hack (although looking back at some of the coverage we were treated to during the Gulf War, you feel that Laity shouldn't have been quite as complacent about this as he sounded).

His reservations were mostly well-founded - on the matter of censorship, for instance, Frank Gillard admitted to loathing his own report of the botched raid on Dieppe of 1942: he simply wasn't permitted to mention the carnage on the ground, and concentrated instead on the RAF's mastery of the skies (which was a lie, he added). It was a great relief, as well, that this wasn't simply a 30-minute plug for the BBC's heroic wartime service. But you felt, too, that Laity was allowing himself more hindsight than was strictly fair.

Granted, some of the reporting dug out of the archives was fairly bizarre. In the early years of the war, recording equipment was too clumsy and fragile to get near the front line (usually it involved cutting a disc, a process which could be ruined by a loud bang: this is a handicap during, say, a large-scale tank battle). The consequence was that reporters had to rely on "word-painting", producing some moments of incongruent elegance - Richard Dimbleby, for instance, with the British Expedition Force in France during the early days of the war, discussing how soldiers' uniforms "blend with the dripping green grass of the roadside and the brown of the haystack", and Godfrey Talbot at Alamein, comparing the rush of the shells through the air with "the whispering of a woman's silk dress as she walks with a swish of taffeta across the room". It sounds lovely.

But this is the point: what made this reporting extraordinary was that it was so unvarnished, so devoid of journalistic technique. Laity spoke admiringly of Dimbleby's sober reporting of the liberation of Belsen, and how it had set the standard for the future. He's right, of course; but the kind of reporting that follows the Dimbleby line (the later Dimbleby, that is) - self-consciously objective, turning lack of artifice into a style - isn't necessarily more truthful than the more excitable stuff that was once the norm. And if you're always going to be strictly downbeat and understated, you deprive yourself of a huge emotional range. The word- painting may seem a little outr these days; but maybe that's our loss.

The idea of war being hell also got heavily qualified in Tim Page (Radio 1, Sunday), in which the Vietnam War photographer returned there to conjure up a few old ghosts. There was lots of stuff about drugs and cheap cognac hangovers and good times here, though Page also talked about the stress of being in the middle of the fighting ("You pee"). This was close to being riveting stuff; but it was frustratingly disjointed (joint being the operative word, you gathered), and things weren't helped by the vast quantities of rock music that boomed around Page's voice, most of it of limited illustrative value (when he mentioned Saigon's Hotel Continental we got a blast of "Hotel California" - wrong period, wrong continent). By the end, you'd have given anything for a quiet shot of Vera Lynn.

Robert Hanks

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