The Week in Radio

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The Independent Culture
"I CAN'T remember when the BBC last pulled out of a country, if it has ever happened before," a senior BBC foreign correspondent confided to me this week. "We were thrown out of Kosovo but we stayed on in Beirut, in Sarajevo and in Grozny." The correspondent, a veteran of countless conflicts, was sizzling with exasperation at the evacuation from Dili, East Timor, of Matt Frei and Jonathan Head. Frei and Head are no cowardy- custards. Their CVs read like a guide to the world's hell-holes. But at the end of last week, they were airlifted out of of the Timor cauldron on a BBC-chartered plane.

Since their departure, BBC radio news programmes (and those on TV, in these days of "bi-media") have relied on interviews with newspaper journalists, a couple of dozen of them, remaining in the beseiged UN compound - notably Richard Lloyd Parry, who has reported with distinction for this newspaper (he has now pulled out to Darwin).

Meanwhile, Radio 4 has been airing, endlessly, a fatuous trail for its foreign coverage. ("The BBC has the world's largest network of correspondents. Our correspondents can give you a more complete picture to help you make sense of what's going on.") Listeners must wonder, then, just what exactly is going on: the BBC has apparently run away, UN-style, from the biggest foreign-news story of the moment.

Undeniably, Matt Frei and Jonathan Head's experience on the streets of Dili was horrifying. Head was beaten up on television by the pro-Jakarta militias. And in a despatch to From Our Own Correspondent (BBC Radio 4, Thursdays 11am, Saturdays 11.30am) Frei captured that sense of knee- collapsing terror: "The man was probably in his thirties. His eyes were bloodshot and glazed. He was drunk or drugged or both. I wasn't going to ask him. We had been caught in the middle of a terrifying battle. It was time to run for it. The man ran after me, machete flying. Now the black T-shirts [militia members] were everywhere..."

Close by the UN compound, he saw a living person being chopped to pieces. "It took only 30 seconds... The attack was so ferocious that bits of him were literally flying off. The sound reminded me of a butcher's shop, the thud of cleaved meat. I'll never forget it." Frei's analysis of the de facto reoccupation of East Timor - the military's humiliation of President Habibie and the UN's betrayal of the promises it made to courageous voters in the UN-organised election - really did make sense of what's going on. That he is now "monitoring the situation from Jakarta", along with colleagues from most other news organisations, may be explained by recent trends in the conduct of war and the way it is no longer reported.

"Radio and television are now regarded by those involved in conflict as propaganda and counter-propaganda. They are now part of it all," says the senior BBC correspondent. A BBC news producer laments the loss of conventional journalistic immunity: "In the past, reporters were never specifically targeted. In East Timor, they are. And they have nowhere to go." But that was also true, says the correspondent, of other wars. "In Bosnia, we couldn't retreat to safety behind the lines because there were no lines. And a lot of the killing took place in UN areas. The problem is that we are moving away from a well-established principle that the journalists on the ground make the final decision on risk and safety. It would now appear that a nervous, insecure and inexperienced BBC middle- management has a very definite determination not to get involved with anything nasty. Their decisions are driven by Health & Safety obsessions and insurance paranoia. Then they cover it up with a lot of rubbish about "caring for our journalists". No one wants to be responsible anymore. We live in a culture where accidents are not supposed to happen. And this weak-kneed response all stems from the mess of John Schofield's death."

John Schofield was killed in 1995 while reporting for Radio 4 in Croatia. He was one of eight BBC reporters in the region competing for the same story. Four of them had no experience of a war zone. Following his death, says the senior correspondent, "there has been a feeling among us that the decision is no longer ours. I have had hysterical BBC managers on the phone to me in Sarajevo asking: 'Is there shooting?'

"We are being interfered with by people who have no experience of these situations." And - it almost goes without saying - BBC suits now hire consultants to give "risk-assessment" on volatile countries rather than relying on the judgement of the Corporation's experienced journalists on the ground.

How times have changed. As recently as 1994, when I reported for the Today programme from the war and genocide in Rwanda, the editor sent me off to central Africa in a manner that now seems like a scene from a Sunday afternoon black-and-white war film (in which the editor would have been played by Wilfrid Hyde White).

He handed over the plane ticket and gave me a manly handshake. "Good luck, old chap," he said. "Do take care. And don't forget your mosquito net..."

We were ambushed, of course, trusty mosquito net notwithstanding, on the very first day. After which I made a sharpish risk-assessment of my own - and legged it into Uganda.