Where Fools Rush In (The Death Of News)
                        Sebastian Rich

               Introduction by Martin Bell   


His words have all the force and subtlety of a rocket propelled grenade. Sebastian Rich knows about RPGs. He was hit by one in the Shouf Mountains of Lebanon. And by Serbian sniper fire in Sarajevo. And kidnapped and mock-executed. And knocked about and battered in various hell holes from Somalia to San Salvador. He has been in the wars and has bits of the wars in him, in the mind as well as the body. Having come through so much, he can describe a fire fight like no one else alive except perhaps Anthony Loyd of The Times. (Kurt Schork of Reuters could do it too, but was killed in a tinpot ambush in Sierra Leone.) The two survivors have much in common. Like Anthony, Sebastian has scores to settle, some of them with himself.

The result is no ordinary stroll down snipers' alley, or one of those regular autobiographies that we TV journalists write in a usually vain attempt to justify the misspent years. Sebastian Rich wrote one of those himself. Being a cameraman, he called it People I Have Shot. It was a better book than he thought it was, and a better title too; but it required compromises, as all such books do, including John's and Kate's and Jeremy's and mine and all the rest of the scribblers of our tribe. That is the inevitable way with war zone memoirs.

There are people to be thanked and lawyers to be placated whom in our heart of hearts we would not wish to thank or to placate. Because Sebastian was in regular employment at the time with ITN of London, he had to pull some of the punches that he would like to have thrown at his editors, his colleagues, his rivals and the whole skewed and demented business of TV news. He pulls no punches here.

I first came across him in the civil war in El Salvador in 1982. He was special even then and I was wary of him. The ghost of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop still lingered in those days. Reporters were driven by the hope of the big story or the fear of being beaten to it - and the fear was usually stronger than the hope. Failure is remembered and embellished for years, while success is forgotten by tomorrow. I didn't like competing with Sebastian because I would have to work harder than if I had been up against a run-of-the-mill cameraman less dedicated to what he was doing. He was a better journalist than all the correspondents he worked with except Jon Snow.

Jon is one of the few he respects. Kate Adie is another. His views on most of the rest are barely printable. But in these pages he has found a way....

We war zone thugs tend to watch each other closely for many reasons, including signs of weakness or battlefield stress. A mile off on a dark night we can spot those colleagues whom the soldiers call 'Walts', the Walter Mitty types who dream of carrying the gun and wearing the uniform. We are familiar with the coward who pretends to have nerves of steel. Until Sebastian Rich came along, we had never met the brave man who, in unique and most peculiar circumstances, pretended to be a coward. He did that in Baghdad in 1991. His reputation suffered as a result. He tells there whole extraordinary story here. Even by his own account - perhaps especially by his own account - Sebastian is an odd bird of passage. But he is a bird with a good heart and a sharp eye. He is at home in war zones. He finds peace of mind under fire.

He is a natural rebel who bonds easily with the toughest of the tough, the 2nd Battalion of the 8th United States Marines. He has seen more combat than they have and they know it. He gets so deeply embedded with them that he becomes a Marine in all but name and even calls in an air strike. He lives on the edge. He has in the past absorbed all sorts of substances to help him confront the demons that he finds there.

After the incident in the Shouf Mountains, when the RAF rescued him and flew him to their hospital in Cyprus, they found that he was not only badly wounded but completely drunk as well. Someone so unsparing of himself can equally be trusted to tell the truth about others. Which is what he does. Most journalists are honest even in television just as most politicians are honest even in Parliament. But it is the guilty secret of both professions - and I have been in both - that they attract a high quota of deeply unpleasant people, who believe that they can only succeed at each others' expense, and will break all the rules to do so.

Sebastian explores and exposes this phenomenon because he knows it at first hand. He reveals the fictions and falsehoods of TV news - not the inevitable mistakes in the heat of the moment but the deliberate and calculated distortions.

He writes sympathetically of James Forlong, the Sky News correspondent who hanged himself after he was known to have falsified a report from the submarine HMS Splendid during the Iraq War. He is less forgiving of more fraudulent acts of so-called journalism which are well enough known to all of us but have so far gone unpunished. He sets down what he knows and should be heeded. The culprits know who they are. Here is another example of the corruptions of news.

A TV correspondent, reporting a civil war in a distant city, quite reasonably stayed on the safer side of it while his network hired an intrepid freelance to film the bombing and shooting in the city centre. Our hero had his camera crew shoot pictures of him rushing back and forth across a perfectly safe road as if under fire. He then had his tape editor splice this into the combat footage. He appeared to be in the thick of things, but might as well have been in Bagshot for all the risks he took. He was not only not punished for this fraud, but subsequently promoted.

Add to all this certain other trends: the flight from foreign news, the retreat onto rooftops in fortified compounds, the censoring out of real world violence, the cult of celebrity, the strange phenomenon of narcojournalism obsessed by the murder and abduction of children, especially girls.... Among all the other deaths he saw, I believe that Sebastian was a witness to the death of news itself. It is not quite complete. As a serious and trustworthy commodity, independently gathered and broadcast, real news remains under siege in a handful of outposts: Channel 4, the BBC's Newsnight, BBC World and Al Jazeera English. Most of the rest is a wasteland.

Where Fools Rush In is not one of those journalist-as-hero books in which the man in the safari suit, with affecting mock modesty, relives his battlefield exploits to his greater glory and as a story which loses nothing in the telling. This is no fable. This is the real thing.

Martin Bell