Writer Julia Berg has worked on assignments with Martin Bell OBE for more than 20 years. Now an ambassador for UNICEF, he covered 11 wars during his time as a BBC reporter and has won numerous awards, including an OBE in 1992. He had an unforgettable (and unplanned) career in UK politics, and is the author of eight books, his most recent being War and the Death of News: From Battlefield to Newsroom – my Fifty Years in Journalism.
Born in Suffolk and now living in London, he is a big fan of Sussex and chatted to Julia over coffee.
Firstly – what does Sussex mean to you?
I have the fondest memories of Chichester, where I abandoned my BBC duties in July 1996 and spoke in the cathedral on the first anniversary of the Srebrenica (Bosnia) massacre. I spoke from the pulpit formerly occupied by Bishop George Bell, one of my heroes, who had the courage to speak out against the carpet bombing by the Allies of German civilians towards the end of the Second World War. The whole county is beautiful, the coast, inland and the glorious Downs.
When you were at university what was your original career plan?
The plan has been the same since I was 12. My grandfather had been a journalist, the acting editor of the London Observer, and, having a low boredom threshold, I wished to follow him.
You write fondly about your time as a soldier. Which is the most distinct memory of that time?
Being a soldier on active service was the best education I ever had. The worst part was the boredom and the discipline – I had never been shouted at before. The best part was the adventure and witnessing the twilight of the British Empire.
Your career as a BBC Journalist is well documented. Which world events have been most important for you – and why?
The event with the greatest impact on me was the war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995. It was in Europe’s back yard and of profound importance to the continent and the United Nations. We saw it at first hand and, as journalists, dealt directly with the main players – warlords, politicians and UN commanders. We were close to it, too – our base at the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo was 200 yards from an active front line. Some of my friends were killed or wounded.
Which world leaders you have interviewed have left a strong impression and why?
Lech Walesa of Poland and Nelson Mandela of South Africa – both for their courage and resistance to the tyranny of the state. I was fortunate to meet Mandela while travelling to Cape Town with Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations.
What do you feel about the way that news reporting has changed?
Everything has changed in news reporting since I left it. Free-ranging coverage of armed conflict is no longer possible. Since 9/11, reporters have been at risk of being kidnapped, ransomed and executed. They therefore retreat to distant vantage points and speculate about what they do not know rather than say what they do know. Most of the wars of the world – from Yemen to South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo – are seldom reported at all. Their place is largely taken by showbusiness and celebrity gossip. I regret this.
Remainer or Brexiteer?
On Europe I am an unrepentant Remainer. I believe we lost because we were lied to. We would be stronger together than we are apart. Never again should our young men be killed in their hundreds of thousands in a war between the nation states of Europe. If I were PM I would promote another referendum to give the voters a chance of undoing what I see as the damage done in 2016.
How do you think Covid-19 will change things?
The plague of Covid will change everything. At best, it will reinvent us as a caring and sharing society, in which scientists and medical specialists will be more highly valued and the celebrity culture will be seen as the charade and sideshow that it actually is. At worst, it will tear us apart and accelerate the disintegration of the United Kingdom.
How do you spend your time these days?
Relaxing. I do it a lot – especially in the company of family, friends and former colleagues. I worked for years among Fleet Street veterans who drank at such watering holes as the Continental Palace in Saigon and the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
How would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as the last BBC correspondent who resisted the new technology, never used a computer, and crossed the line into politics without regret.