Keane Goes Back to Basics

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.

There is another reason for editors to prefer emotional literacy to journalistic objectivity. The dirty secret of the modern media is that “committed” writers who thunder out their opinions, and “confessional” columnists who wail about the beastliness of the men in their lives fill space more cheaply than reporters and photographers who spend days or weeks on the road in search of a story. C. P. Scott’s dictum that “comment is free, but facts are sacred” has been replaced by “comment is cheap, but facts are expensive” in many news organisations.

But not in all. There was nothing cheap about Fergal Keane’s latest documentary. Fifteen years on from his “Letter”, he fronted an example of the BBC at its best. The First World War from Above fulfilled the first function of journalism by telling the viewers something they did not know. The production team had found footage captured by Jacques Trolley de Prévaux. In the summer of 1919, he strapped a camera to the side of an airship and flew down the route of the Western Front, capturing the devastation. Keane used the new pictures to explain the war, but he did not beat his breast and wrench his hair but stood back while archaeologists and military historians described the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele. He allowed viewers to draw their own emotional conclusions. For me, the most telling image was of the woods and fields where battle had taken place almost a century ago. Farmers had reclaimed the land and until you saw a military cemetery or a lake that had filled a crater left by an exploding mine, you would never have guessed that thousands of men had fought and died over the neat fields.

De Prévaux was a brave man with a brave wife. When the Nazis invaded, he joined the resistance. In 1943, the Gestapo came and killed them both. His daughter had virtually no memories of the parents she had lost when she was a toddler. Keane concluded the documentary with another stunning finale: he presented her with a copy of the film from the airship showing her father as a handsome young man in 1919, smiling back at the camera, full of energy and life. It could have been a corny scene, but Keane carried it off without ostentatious emotion.

In recent years, he has talked of how he came out the other side of his own battle with the bottle, and had learned to be wary of the “heart-on-the-sleeve” journalism he practised in the 1990s. He deserves credit for his self-knowledge, as do all those in the BBC who fight against “the journalism of attachment”. Keane might have been broadcasting’s Princess Di or Bono. He might have been rich and famous, a UN “Goodwill Ambassador” and friend to the stars. Instead, he resolved the conflicts in his life by deciding to be a reporter. His son should be proud of him for that.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"