TV UK, 20 January

War reporters: wearing their hearts on their bullet-proof vests.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

On the Front Line (BBC1 last Sunday night) opened with footage of BBC foreign correspondent Jeremy Bowen calling the Israeli army ‘fuckers’. This was not so much an example of the ‘journalism of attachment’, however, as an expression of personal devastation and dismay. Bowen’s driver and friend Abed Takkoush had just been blown up in south Lebanon by a shell from an Israeli tank.

The programme was an exploration of the motivations of foreign correspondents and the effects of the job on their personal lives. Apart from the danger of losing friends, there is of course the danger of being killed or maimed oneself, but that seems to be part of the appeal. Bowen candidly discussed his own early fascination with war, and how he had become intoxicated by the excitement of his first assignment in El Salvador in the 1980s. Then we had all the usual tropes of the camaraderie in the foreign correspondents’ hotel, the alcoholism, the gallows humour, the unstable home lives and multiple marriages.

All this is fair enough, if a little self-indulgent (especially one cameraman’s line about his eyepiece filling up with tears; perhaps that would have been better kept to himself). War reporting is a genuinely interesting job, and the experiences of reporters are well worth describing and discussing. What was less edifying was Bowen’s attempt to put reporters at the centre of war itself. The war in Bosnia seems to have been a turning point. Following years of covering war in distant lands, Bowen said that a war in Europe had a special effect on him, and his colleagues. ‘This was our war’, he said.

A somewhat disputable assertion, you might think, but certainly journalism took on a new significance in that war, developing moral pretensions rather than simply reporting and analysing. Indeed, rather alarmingly, Bowen said that it was impossible for war correspondents to analyse events. Instead, all they could do was document the suffering of the people caught up in those events. For Bowen and many others, the journalism of attachment is not about taking sides in a political sense, but about forming a personal and emotional attachment to the victims of war. Actually, that attachment sounds like a good reason to retire, as Bowen has. It will be unfortunate if the next generation of war reporters starts off with such a narcissistic idea of the job.

Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution (BBC2, Tuesdays at 9pm) is a new documentary series about the most famous of the Nazi death camps, but it is more than just a commemorative programme to tie in with the European Holocaust Memorial Day next week. In fact, the producers have set out to explain how the Final Solution developed, and explore the motivations of those involved. Whether or not it is successful, the ambition is admirable.

The gravity of the subject matter means the dramatic reconstructions have to be handled carefully – hammy acting and that usual air of naffness would be more than usually unfortunate. In fact, these are done with seriousness and subtlety, but it is questionable whether dramatising events is the best approach to take at all. The idea is to provide insights into the Nazis’ motivations that could not be conveyed through interviews or archive footage, but this technique seems inevitably to generate an emotional involvement rather than the critical distance that is required.

Televisually, the most effective aspect of the programme is actually the interviews with surviving perpetrators who are largely unrepentant. Last week a former SS soldier described shooting civilians lined up in front of trenches, explaining that he would never forgive the Jews for what they had done during his childhood, while this week a former member of the pro-Nazi Hlinka Guard in Slovakia laughed as he told how he and his compatriots had benefited from the persecution of the Jews, and helped send them off to Auschwitz.

These interviews don’t explain what happened, but they do bring home the reality of what happened, and give a certain urgency to our desire to understand it. At a time when the Holocaust is in danger of becoming a quasi-religious event, to be ritually commemorated, it is useful to be reminded that it is actually a historical fact, to be analysed and understood.

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