Both of Martin Bell’s careers, as foreign affairs correspondent and more recently as politician, have been remarkably colourful.
As one of the most distinguished foreign affairs reporters of his generation, Martin Bell was among those who defined the term “war correspondent”. He later stole the show in the 2001 election campaign with his anti-sleaze battle against MP Neil Hamilton.
It all began in 1962, when Martin Bell joined the BBC in Norwich aged 24 with a first-class honours degree from King’s College, Cambridge, behind him. The call to London came three years later, and soon he was in Ghana on his first foreign assignment.
Over the next 30 years, he reported from 80 countries and covered 11 conflicts. He made his name in Vietnam in the 1960s, and also covered wars in the Middle East, Nigeria, Angola and Rwanda, as well as numerous assignments in Northern Ireland.
His sparse, uncompromising style of journalism won him the Royal Television Society’s Reporter of the Year award in 1977, and again in 1993. He was awarded an OBE in 1992.
It was his last assignment for the BBC, however, which had the greatest impact on him, both physically and mentally. He was badly wounded by shrapnel as he delivered a bulletin from Sarajevo, his “lucky” white suit letting him down for once as he fell to the ground in agony.
And what he saw while covering the war awoke a smouldering sense of injustice which was to define his future career. With just 24 days to go before the 1997 general election, he made the surprise announcement that he was leaving the BBC to enter politics.
His legendary fight for the safe Conservative seat at Tatton, on an independent, anti-corruption ticket, made him a symbol of the revolt against perceived sleaze in the governing Conservative Party. He won the seat with an 11,000 majority. Describing himself as an “accidental MP”, Martin Bell was persuaded to run again in the 2001 election, this time for Brentwood and Ongar, in Essex – another constituency where the sitting Conservative MP, Eric Pickles, was at the centre of controversy. He did not win the seat, and immediately announced his retirement from politics, saying, “I have won one seat and lost one – that’s not a bad record for an amateur.”
Martin now acts as an ambassador for UNICEF, as an outspoken critic of the state of journalism today and a highly sought after public speaker. He is married with two daughters.
Publications include : In Harms Way, An Accidental MP, Through Gates of Fire