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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 C. P. Scott's dictum that "comment is free, but facts are sacred" has been replaced by "comment is cheap, but facts are expensive" in many news organisations.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.

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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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