Originally published on the site of the Royal African Society, Richard Dowden pens a letter to BBC broadcaster John Humphreys, on Humphreys’s recent reporting trip to Liberia.
I listened to your reports from Liberia on the Today programme on April 11 with growing fury. I am not angry because your reporting is bad. It is extremely good. My complaint is this: you say you have been reporting Africa for more than 45 years but why, only now, are you reporting these deeper reali
ties? “You can’t come here with European eyes,” you say. But that is precisely what you and the rest of the British media have been doing all this time.
European eyes, however, have always dictated the global image of Africa. Trying to get a news editor interested in the story behind Africa’s famines and wars was always difficult. It is always easier to show an aid worker saving an African child overlaid by a tragic-voiced reporter. That was why most journalists were sent there. I was. But I was also lucky. I worked for three news outlets, the Times of London, the Independent, and the Economist, which allowed me to stay a little longer than other journalists. And out of the corner of my eye, on the way back from the interview, the starvation camp, or the front line, I saw things that might explain why Africa is the way it is. I caught glimpses of the deference of educated young people towards their unschooled elders, or the aid agency that sent an expensive computer to a school without electricity, or a bright girl taken out of school to serve her brothers at home. If you talk to Africans, these are the things they tell you about.
But getting some of these deeper insights into a newspaper article or onto the radio or TV was extremely difficult. The British media’s news values did not include a mission to explain, to dig a little deeper. The editors are only interested in dramatic news from Africa: coups, wars, hunger, disease, and Robert Mugabe.
You describe the Liberian hospital with mammograms that no one knows how to operate, the potholes in the roads, the child who can barely speak English who wants to be a doctor. But, John, you report these with astonishment, as if you were seeing and hearing this for the first time. Is this true? Or is it merely a journalistic technique to catch the listener’s ear? I hope it is the latter. This untold story has been obvious to reporters who go there, but have rarely appeared in the mainstream media. The BBC chose not to broadcast it. And since it is a major creator, perhaps The Creator, of the world’s news agenda, this is a tragic omission. Until quite recently, the world has been served an unremitting picture of Africa as a place of war, famine, and disease.
In 2005, the BBC signed up, with little consideration, to Tony Blair’s Africa agenda. With praise singers like Bob Geldof and Bono (plus other celebrities), and backed by the aid industry, that agenda needs only pictures of helpless, hopeless Africa that western countries have to save. They simply were not interested in the causes.
At the time, I welcomed the Commission for Africa Report because it drew attention to the continent, but its treatment of the causes was superficial and purely external—what the rest of the world did to Africa, nothing about Africa itself. Now I realise it was another attempt to change Africa. There was no attempt to engage, no comprehension of another world out there, no respect for Africa. That aid-led solution is now trickling away into irrelevance.
For the past 10 years, many African countries have been growing at rates we in the West can only dream about, thanks largely to an emerging middle class, mobile phones, and China’s demand for its raw materials. Now our businesses are following the Chinese into Africa, looking for its fabled wealth. Africa is now a place for investment. Liberia may not be the best example of this, but wherever you go you will find “old” Africa and “new” Africa close by. As Mali heads into civil war, its neighbour Senegal holds a good election and changes its president. But our news editors cannot comprehend that complexity of Africa—that it can be both poor and disease-ridden and rich and dynamic at the same time, sometimes in the same village. To be a proper news story and fit into the outdated news agenda, it has to be one or the other.
If “new” Africa has become important and the BBC is sincere about its attempt to report Africa as it is, surely the best strategy is to have good reporters in each African country who have been there long enough to understand it. But, on the contrary, your organisation seems to be cutting back on correspondents as fast as it can. That may be the government’s fault as much as yours. Little do they understand that the BBC is the only connection to the rest of the planet for millions of Africans. Help our government—and your bosses—to understand that £1 spent on a good BBC World Service does more for development in Africa and than £100 spent on aid.
If you can get that message across, as well as re-forge the agenda for Africa coverage, I will back you to win Journalist of the Year.
Richard Dowden, Director, Royal African Society