Michael Duncan Buerk was born on 18 February 1946 in Solihull (YouGov.co.uk). He was educated at Solihull School before going on to University of Sussex and then Cardiff Metropolitan University.
His first choice of career was the Royal Air Force (RAF) but his hopes were dashed for this when he failed an eyesight test at the selection centre.
He began his journalism career at the Bromsgrove Messenger, South Wales Echo and the Daily Mail before joining Radio Bristol in 1970 (BBC On this day).
He became a BBC news reporter in 1973 and went on to become the corporations South Africa correspondent in 1983 until his uncompromising reports about the brutalities of the regime there during the dying years of Apartheid led to him being expelled by the government of the day in 1987.
He is best known for his reports of the “Biblical famine” from Korem in Ethiopia which was first broadcast on 23 October 1984 and ultimately led to the Band Aid record Feed the World and the Live Aid concerts at Wembley Stadium, and in the USA on 13 July 1985.
Watching that report from Ethiopia you can tell that he slightly lowers his voice to give off a sense of hopelessness because of what he’s reporting about, sometimes he just goes silent and let’s the pictures do the talking telling the viewer everything they need to know.
He is also known for being the first news reporter on the BBC at the start of the new millennium when he made the bulletin at 01.00 on 1 January 2000.
He has crossed swords with the BBC on occasion including expressing disappointment at their decision to move the Nine o’ Clock News to its current slot at 10 o’ Clock (BBC On this day).
He has also openly criticized the “Pressure to deliver” that is put on today’s news reporters.
He has also been known to court controversy and the BBC had to issue an apology when he criticized the victim in the Ched Evans rape case for being drunk at the time.
He had to be airlifted out of Addis Ababa in 1991 after a munitions dump exploded, killing his Kenyan sound recordist, John Mathai, and injuring Mohammed Amin, the cameraman who had accompanied him to Ethiopia in 1984 (BBC On this day).
By the time of that incident he was turning his hand to presenting, and had become one of the main anchors for the BBC Nine o’ Clock News. He also began presenting non-news programmes such as BBC 1’s 999 and, on BBC Radio 4, the ethical debating programme, The Moral Maze, and interview series The Choice.
Other reporting credits in his portfolio include North sea oil begins to flow (3 November 1975), Duchess opens massive Selby coalfield (29 October 1976), Violence erupts at Irish hunger strike protest (18 July 1981), Queen fends off bedroom intruder (9 July 1982), Parents can stop school beatings (25 February 1982) and Europe grants emergency aid for Ethiopia (25 October 1984).
He announced his retirement from News Presenting at the end of 2002 but continued presenting other programmes beyond then (BBC On this day) and also entered the jungle for I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here in 2014.
One of his famous quotes is, “It’s the little things that you notice in this cacophony of misery… The whole thing is emotionally overwhelming. “You take some sort of refuge in the mechanics of the job that you do… but there are limits, and it got very close to the limit of being able to function in the midst of all that, because you feel an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. “The only Europeans who were there were aid workers, and you weren’t, you were just a journalist, and at that particular moment I couldn’t think of a more useless occupation.”(BBC On this day)
Martin Bell OBE was born on 31 August 1938 in Redisham. He was educated at The Leys School in Cambridge and then went on to King’s College, Cambridge where he gained a First Class Honours degree in English and also served on the committee of the Cambridge University Liberal Club.
He didn’t gain a commission so served his two years of National Service as an acting corporal in the Suffolk Regiment, during which he was involved in active service in Cyprus during the emergency involving an Insurgent campaign by the Greek Cypriot militant group.
He joined the BBC as a reporter in Norwich as a 24 year old following his graduation in 1962. He was called to London three years later and over the next 30 years he reported from 80 countries and covered 11 conflicts (BBC On this day).
He made his name reporting from Vietnam in the 1960s and then went on to cover wars in the Middle East, Nigeria, Angola and Rwanda, he also had numerous assignments in Northern Ireland.
He won the Royal Television Society’s Reporter of the Year award in 1977 and again in 1993 and was awarded an OBE in 1992. He was let down by his “Lucky” white suit in 1997 when he was badly wounded by shrapnel whilst delivering a bulletin from Sarajevo (BBC On this day).
What he saw in Bosnia led to him making the surprise announcement that he was leaving the BBC and entering politics just 24 days before the 1997 General Election. 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 at the time. He won the seat with a majority of 11,077, overturning the tory majority of over 22,000 (BBC On this day).
Despite describing himself as an accidental MP he was persuaded to run for Parliament again in 2001 for the constituency of Brentwood and Ongar in Essex where the sitting Conservative MP Eric Pickles, much like Neil Hamilton in 1997, was embroiled in controversy, however this time he was unsuccessful and so ended his political career (BBC On this day).
He then made a brief return to TV journalism in 2003, providing analysis on the second invasion of Iraq for ITN’s Channel Five News, he compiled short stories from daily video coverage that gave a uniquely historical and humanitarian perspective that was in stark contrast to much of the mainstream media at the time.
He is now a Unicef Ambassador and describes himself as “Too old” for journalism and politics although he still comments now on the state of modern journalism (BBC On this day).
His reporting credits include, Moscow calls for UN action against Israel (13 June 1967), De Gaulle: Back me or sack me (24 May 1968), Civil Rights protestors defiant (10 January 1969), IRA Bomb kills six at Aldershot barracks (22 February 1972), ‘Anti IRA Spies’ break out of jail (11 March 1974), Dozens Die as Israel retaliates for Ma’a lot (16 May 1974), Mercenaries trial begins in Angola (11 June 1976), Sadat in US for Middle East talks (3 February 1978), Carter wins Panama Canal battle (18 April 1978), Nuclear Leak causes alarm in America (28 March 1979), Skylab tumbles back to earth (11 July 1979), Sandinista rebels take Nicaraguan capital (17 July 1979), Reagan beats Carter in landslide (4 November 1980), US Guilty of backing contras (27 June 1986), Superpower treaty to scrap warheads (18 September 1987), Irangate colonel avoids prison (5 July 1989), Earthquake hits San Francisco (17 October 1989), Failed Bosnian ceasefire threatens peace (25 July 1993) and US Peacekeepers pour into Bosnia (2 January 1996).
One of his famous quotes is, “It was once said of ITN’s Sandy Gall and myself that we had faces like the relief maps of the countries we were covering. The country in his case was Afghanistan and in mine was Bosnia, neither of which is blessed with regular features. But film star good looks were not then in the job description.”(BBC On this day)
He is also a member of the prestigious Frontline Club which is a club exclusively for war journalists.
Comparing the work of Michael Buerk and Martin Bell is like reading two bestsellers, both clearly put people at the forefront of their stories and let the pictures they are showing do the talking at different times. The main difference between them is in their voices, while Michael Buerk has a quite deep, almost forbidding, voice, Martin Bell is higher pitched and he tends to talk that much faster as well, both though are very clear and intelligible and very descriptive at times.
You will also find that they have much of their impact by keeping their sentences short and they always report the most newsworthy aspects of their stories.
In his report from Ethiopia on 23 October 1984 Michael Buerk would at times just go silent for 10 to 20 seconds and allow the pictures to do the talking for him and the only time you saw him was when he was interviewing an aid worker from Medicins Sans Frontieres.
Martin Bell on the other hand, certainly in his time in Bosnia, would do a piece to camera with troops either around him or behind him.
The times when you see Michael Buerk reporting with armed people near him are in his reports from South Africa when he covered the violence caused by Apartheid.
In his report for Newsnight about the death of Nelson Mandela Michael Buerk took us back to the days of Apartheid before Mandela was released from prison and also struck us with a film that showed two completely different sides to 1980s South Africa.
In the film he showed Apartheid related violence with guns being fired and riots, then in one swift move he took us to the part of South Africa he lived in while there, just 12 miles away from the violence, where there was a banquet in an exclusive white suburb which was a different world altogether to the townships.
After showing the banquet in very plush surroundings he suddenly took us back to the townships where death and violence reigned. Looking through Michael Buerk’s autobiography The Road Taken (Hutchinson, 2004), there are pictures that hold particular fascination like a photo of him in Ethiopia, one of him interviewing Margaret Thatcher and one of him stood with Nelson Mandela.
Both of them do appear to absolutely immerse themselves in their surroundings and genuinely give a voice to the people they are reporting on like the starving, the terrorized, the dead and dying.
There is no holding back from extremely disturbing images in their reports as well. Both show extreme violence, dead bodies and genocide and will also show both sides of the story no matter what the story as shown by Martin Bell when he shows troops firing on civilians.
One very interesting interview with Martin Bell, which can be viewed on You Tube, is when he is interviewed at The Frontline Club in which he talks about his career covering different conflicts in front of a packed audience.
They are both massively influential and still very well respected in their own ways. You can see impressions of the work they did in modern journalism and both are still very well spoken about by their colleagues and have both very much earned their respective places in journalism history and their influence will clearly continue to have an effect in time to come.
Current journalist’s such as Rageh Omaar and BBC News special correspondent Caroline Hawley have since picked up the baton from their elder statesmen and continue to show a similar style of reporting due, no doubt, to the massive influence of Michael Buerk and Martin Bell.
The awards and personal accolades that both have been awarded are clearly very deserved, looking back on their remarkable careers you can only be inspired by them especially when seeing how their work has stood the test of time and is still very relevant to this day.
- 10 o' Clock News
- Addis Ababa
- Band Aid
- BBC Radio4
- Brentwood and Ongar
- Cardiff Metropolitan University
- Caroline Hawley
- Channel Five
- Ched Evans
- Daily Mail
- General Election
- I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here
- John Mathai
- King's College
- Live Aid
- Margaret Thatcher
- Martin Bell
- Michael Buerk
- Middle East
- Mohammed Amin
- National Service
- Nelson Mandela
- Nine o' Clock News
- North Sea
- Northern Ireland
- Panama Canal
- Rageh Omaar
- San Francisco
- Sandy Gall
- South Africa
- Suffolk Regiment
- The Frontline Club
- The Moral Maze
- The Road Taken
- University of Sussex