Radio: St Martin's passion
Sunday 18 May 1997
Bell has spent 35 years working in the most powerful news medium yet invented. He was trained, he told us in urgent, I'm-under-fire-here tones, in the great BBC tradition of objective and dispassionate journalism. But now that he's hung up his flak jacket, some flak can be fired at his previous employer. "Objective? I use my eyes and ears and mind and store of experience, which is surely the very essence of the subjective." His point is that journalism is "a business of truth and consequences", and the reporting of an event on TV necessarily becomes a factor in what happens next - "It even decides the rise and fall of governments" - and that journalists cannot but help becoming involved.
What Bell wants is a "journalism of attachment" which does not flinch from showing bloodshed, violence and grief - or that the person reporting these things might be moved by them. Detachment is impossible. " How were we meant to report on genocide?" he asks. "Were we meant to declare that it was none of our business? It was all of our business!"
Bell describes himself as "battle-softened", but this was strong, indignant stuff. In this first programme of four, he did little more than set out his stall, with a line of argument that was underpinned only by anecdotal evidence and which drew some precariously subtle distinctions (he was for impartiality but against objectivity; for balance but also for subjectivity). Never mind: when it comes to the truth, you don't need to be a voter in Tatton to know where Martin Bell stands.
Good and evil and the power of forgiveness configured in Your Place or Mine? (R4). In Camloops, British Columbia, "Lynne", a single grandmother, was raped in her mobile home. Two months later, her attacker returned to her doorstep - this time with red roses, by way of An Apology. She was terrified. For the next five years, she did not open her windows, "not even a crack on the hottest afternoons in summer". She felt dirty, ashamed, and wondered, quite unreasonably, if she had somehow been "promiscuous". Even worse, no one really seemed to believe her - the flowers were pretty far-fetched. Not only in the most literal sense had the rape violated her virtue.
Four years after he raped Lynne, "Dan" was sentenced to 18 years in a maximum-security jail for his attacks on her and four other women. His psychiatrists asked his victims to take part in his rehabilitation. Only Lynne agreed, out of an almost pathetic gratitude that at last someone accepted that she was telling the truth (the rapist, of all people, knew what he'd done to her that night).
There were things she wanted to know too. Like, why me? Dan explained with disturbing candour. He'd sought out mother-figures as his victims. "You could trust me with your children or wife, but older women ..." Lynne reminded him of the mother of a friend who had abused him when he was four. But, "I knew I'd picked the wrong person. She wasn't this bitch."
Hugely compassionate and utterly self-deprecating, Lynne was more like a latter-day saint. When they met - for the third time - she told Dan how being raped had affected her. "I was able to take those feelings of fear and put them on to him. So that I could feel free again." Her catharsis enabled his. "I didn't have the right to forgive myself until she gave me permission," said the disconcertingly self-possessed Dan, convinced now that he has become a different person. By the end of that meeting, Lynne said, "There was so much love in the room. We all hugged. Which isn't meant to happen in a rape case."
In this impressive, compelling CBC production, Lynne and Dan largely told their own extraordinary story. The reporter, Tricia Naylor, joined the dots between their accounts, but never hijacked their course, The testimonies were deftly juxtaposed. When Dan forced himself on Lynne, she believed she was going to die, while he thought she was "just a tasty little snack". Perhaps that's what Martin Bell means by balanced and subjective.
The Today programme (R4) has often been accused of being unbalanced and subjective, but not benign - which is how it has sounded since the election. Last week you could almost see a Cheshire cat smile spreading across the face of John Humphrys as he interviewed the Deputy Prime Minister and found himself haranguing (or rather, chatting up) not Michael Heseltine but John Prescott.
That sense of novelty and astonishment lingered in the air in Radio 5's coverage of The Queen's Speech. The script hadn't changed - the Palace of Westminster had been searched for gunpowder, Black Rod was sent to summon the rabble, men in frock coats with Alice-in-Wonderland titles walked backwards, the Queen told us what "My gevenment" would do - but the characters had. There were the members of the Cabinet - "It is an effort to remember to call them that" sighed Peter Allen, contentedly - but there wasn't room in the House of Lords for all the other Labour MPs. Quite a few of them remained in the Commoms during the Queen's Speech: Dennis Skinner, Tony Banks ... and, on the back benches, a new Labour member, doing her make-up. Now that's a sign of balance.
Sue Gaisford returns next week.
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