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Fergal Keane: At heart, a reporter

In 1996, the BBC's foreign correspondent Fergal Keane broadcast a letter to his newborn son, Daniel. He constructed his heart-wrenching dispatch so skilfully that listeners neither knew nor cared that he was playing with their emotions. I am not suggesting he conned them. Although I recoiled at the weeping and wailing about the death of Princess Diana and the bovine adulation of Tony Blair, I accepted then and accept now that the "emotional literacy" the Nineties promoted was not always a charlatan's oxymoron.

With undoubted sincerity, Keane described cradling his baby boy with one hand as he typed with the other. "Insecurity and ambition and ego," had driven him to conflict zones as a foreign correspondent. "Now," he said to the baby, "looking at your sleeping face, inches away from me, listening to your occasional sigh and gurgle, I wonder how I could have ever thought glory and prizes and praise were sweeter than life."

He thought of other children he had seen: "Ten-year-old Andi Mikail, dying from napalm burns on a hillside in Eritrea, how his voice cried out, growing ever more faint when the wind blew dust on to his wounds. The two brothers, Domingo and Juste, in Menongue, southern Angola. Juste, two years old and blind, dying from malnutrition, being carried on seven-year-old Domingo's back. And Domingo's words to me: ‘He was nice before, but now he has the hunger.'" 

Note how he deployed the telling detail that can say more than a page: "the wind blew dust on to his wounds"; "now he has the hunger". If that was stirring, his finale was better. He finished his meditations on the dangers of the world by using personal confession to show that the lives of Western children were not always privileged. Keane's father, the boy's grandfather, was an alcoholic, he revealed, who had abandoned his family for a life of "living on his own in a one-roomed flat, living and dying for the bottle". The child crying on his lap offered the ghost of the dead man "the sound of hope and new beginnings that you and all your innocence and freshness have brought to the world".

Keane's talk was a sensation. For the first time in years, BBC radio had supplanted BBC television and produced a broadcast that lodged itself the national consciousness. It was a brilliant moment, and for BBC journalism a profoundly dangerous one as well. Editors were tempted to let news reporters off the leash. The public liked to see them parading their emotions, no doubt about it. Keane's "Letter to Daniel" is still read and listened to on the internet. I have even seen an academic paper examining his use of pathos and imagery. By contrast, no one remembers the dry, factual news reports of the time. Martin Bell, the BBC star war correspondent, had anticipated Keane's broadcast when he declared that it was not enough to report the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s. The BBC needed to develop a "journalism of attachment", he said, which in the case of Bosnia would allow him to stir the conscience of viewers to support Western intervention against the Serbs.

Many others at the time were asking why journalists should waste time seeking objective truth. Learned philosophers in leading universities declared that it did not exist and in any case, if right-thinking people agreed that the West must take on Milosevic, what need was there for impartial reporting?

It was a seductive argument. As the success of Fox News and the tabloids shows, politically-attached journalism is as popular as "emotionally literate" journalism. Conservative readers of the Daily Mail do not care that its news pages are unbalanced any more than liberal listeners to Andrew Marr care about his subtle biasing of programmes. People want to have their prejudices confirmed, not challenged. To the emotional and the partisan, straight news reporters can seem desiccated, almost inhuman, beings. They present the facts without taking sides, behaving as neutral civil servants rather than committed activists. By necessity, they are, or should be, passionless.

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November 29th, 2010
8:11 PM
Good article Nick (and I am surprised to find myself writing this). Do you not think that it was exactly this type of heart-on-sleeve reporting-as-polemic coverage of contemporary conflicts that has so distorted any serious discussion of the merits of humanitarian intervention in recent years?

Steffan John
November 28th, 2010
11:11 PM
Good article Nick. I'd agree with your underlying analysis of the media, but I think it's not just a problem of assuming passion and emotion are synonymous. The assumption that objective, even-handed, and balanced are interchangeable is equally corrosive. They never have meant the same thing, and never will. It's just as easy for journalists to regard even-handedness as objective, just as it is to regard emotion and passion as interchangeble. They may be short hops from one to the other, but short hops over a very deep cavern nevertheless. Frustratingly, I suspect it usually pays more - in every sense - to be on the wrong side.

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