The BBC’s Newsnight – viewers call it ‘morally questionable’

[From: A Week in the Horn of Africa, the weekly press release of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 issue]

The BBC’s Newsnight – viewers call it “morally questionable

As a former UK Ambassador to Ethiopia during the major famine of the 1980s pointed out recently: “someone at the BBC seems to have it in for Ethiopia.” He was referring to the BBC’s Newsnight which has made a couple of attacks on Ethiopia in the last couple of months, most recently last week, as well the World Service gaffe last year which led to a groveling apology to Bob Geldof and BandAid, though not to the Government of Ethiopia which had equally been targeted by the libel. Newsnight’s original program was broadcast in early August, and as we noted at the time, its claims were made on the basis of accusations  drawn exclusively from opposition politicians who lost their parliamentary seats in last year’s election and from critics in exile including some members of groups openly committed to the violent overthrow of the current government. The government was accused of manipulating food aid for political advantage, of refusing to allow political opposition and of a catalogue of other activities, but a central thread of the program appeared to call for the suspension of all aid, humanitarian and developmental alike, to Ethiopia.

The program sparked some trenchant criticisms from highly respected commentators and observers including Peter Gill, the author of Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid, referred to as a “superb and vital piece of work,” by Bob Geldorf and praised by, inter alia, Jonathan Dimbleby and Michael Buerk. One highly respected UK commentator referred to “unbalanced, sub-standard, biliously anti-Ethiopian material being broadcast on respected BBC channels on three separate occasions in just a few months”. The program indeed amounted to ‘unsupported allegations’ claimed as ‘revelations’; ‘non-sequiturs extrapolated from shaky or unsubstantiated evidence’, and broadcast without discussion or any apparent recognition of any potential consequences. It might be added that the presenter, Jeremy Paxman, also used ‘his usual technique of aggressive interrogation to avoid letting his targets have any chance to state their case’.   In sum, Newsnight, in seventeen minutes, tried to cover six years worth of political development, ranging from the multi-party elections of 2005, through the intervention in Somalia at the request of the Somali government, the responses to the terrorist actions in the Somali Regional State and the present drought and its effects. Superficial is too mild a word to cover its breathless scurry through a period in Ethiopia’s development in which it did in fact carry out several multi-party elections, managed to achieve annual double digit growth rates, launch a five year Growth and Transformation Plan, and launch and operate Plans for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty, Productive Safety Net Programs, an Early Warning System and Drought Risk Management, successfully dealing with the current drought emergency and avoiding the onset of famine.

Newsnight saw fit to ignore all this. The result was “a program that contradicts all the BBC canons of fairness, balance and reliability.” The central intent was to try to link human rights abuse and aid provided by western agencies. No such connection were made: “as so often in this sort of program claims and allegations were reported as fact despite the political bias involved; no effort was made to scrutinize the allegations critically or question the claims made”.

Newsnight, as so often, totally ignored the criticisms. Indeed, in the second program, last week, apparently trying to save both time and money, it didn’t even bother to produce a new film, it merely lazily recycled elements from the previous one, ignoring all the detailed and accurate points made by informed commentators. The only new element in the program was an interview carried out by presenter, Jeremy Paxman, with the UK’s International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, in New York.  Mr.  Mitchell, who has actually been in Ethiopia on several occasions, (unlike Mr. Paxman), stressed the numbers of Ethiopian lives that British aid had saved and the numbers being assisted today and made the rather relevant point that British aid isn’t actually distributed by the  Ethiopian government in any case.  Mr. Mitchell also pointed out that allegations of UK food aid being politically manipulated had been investigated by British officials in Ethiopia and that “they had found no evidence whatever of systemic food aid manipulation”. Indeed, as has been noted in detail before, the Donors’ Assistance Group (DAG) investigated last year similar accusations from another organization with a similarly anti-Ethiopian slant, Human Rights Watch, and found no evidence of such activity.  Equally, despite Mr. Paxman’s claim that the British enquiry had not been carried out on the ground but only in Addis Ababa, there have in fact been a number of investigations of these and similar allegations  on the ground. In no case have any such allegations been found to have any substance. Mr. Mitchell pointed out, as might be expected, that any such allegations were carefully investigated; Prime Minister Meles has also made the point that any such claims are always scrupulously investigated, and usually by NGOs and donors as well as Ethiopian officials. 

The other organization associated with Newsnight in these programs was the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’, a group organized in the City of London University journalism department. This incidentally has now placed a ‘highly tendentious’ account of the Paxman/Mitchell interview on its internet site, an account described by one viewer as “lacking in all the characteristics that any journalistic degree course ought to be trying to instill in its students; indeed, fairness, balance, reliability and accuracy are equally lacking in the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism approach both to this story and to Ethiopia”.  The ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ underlines its approach on its website which carries a whole series of stories under such headings as ‘Ethiopia Aid Exposed.’; ‘Revealed: Aid to Ethiopia increases despite serious human rights abuses,’ ‘Aid as Weapon of political oppression in the Southern Regions’ and ‘Analysis: European taxpayers fund abuses in Ethiopia.’ All exhibit exactly the same problems as the Newsnight films; a lack of balance, of accuracy, indeed of knowledge, and in no case is there any evidence of sources other than exiles or opposition politicians who lost their seats in the multi-party national elections of 2005 or 2010, or the local elections in 2008.

The BBC and the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ crew travelled to Ethiopia as tourists, not journalists. They made no effort to interview any Ethiopian officials, nor did they approach any foreign aid officials in the country. The only people they talked to were opposition politicians and one foreign critic. They didn’t even bother to ask any UK ministers to explain why Britain assisted Ethiopia.  Their conclusion was to claim that the purpose of development aid was to help Ethiopia on to its feet, to establish democracy, justice and the rule of law and that the evidence they had gathered suggested it was failing. A more obvious and accurate interpretation of the evidence would be that it was succeeding. 

The really disgraceful part of this, however, is not the attack on the government of Ethiopia, but the attempt to prevent the provision and distribution of humanitarian aid just at a time when the Horn of Africa as a whole has up to 15 million people in need, hundreds of thousands of whom, including many children, face death from famine in Somalia. As we noted, Ethiopia has managed to avoid famine and largely deal with the drought emergency due to its early warning systems, and its safety net programs, structures for which, it must be underlined, British assistance has been a vital element. Whether or not the programs did deliberately intend to canvass for the suspension of emergency, humanitarian and development aid to Ethiopia (which it denied), this was certainly the idea many viewers were left with. 

Indeed, the program specifically appeared to suggest that as a matter of course that UK aid should be withheld from any country which it considers might be undemocratic or have an unsatisfactory human rights record. It is certainly not for us to suggest how the UK government should allocate its aid – aid to which millions of Ethiopians owe their lives and livelihoods, but by any standards this is morally questionable, implying, as it does, that such rights as freedom of expression and free trade unions or similar are actually more important than providing access to food, safe water, health and education, to survival.  Whatever questions there might be about human rights in Ethiopia (and Newsnight might take a look at what is actually being done by Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission, its Ombudsman and other organizations), to use unsupported allegations to try to discredit humanitarian and development aid to one of the poorest countries on earth is, indeed “inexcusable”. It is a disgraceful proposition to which any journalists, reputable or otherwise, should be ashamed to put their names. Using aid to reward and punish governments for their record on ‘governance’ rather than for helping the poor out of poverty, comes very close to the way the elements of aid to Africa were manipulated during the worst days of the Cold War. Newsnight appears to believe the rich world should be more interested in promoting government systems which resemble its own rather than in helping Africa’s poor and winning the battle against poverty. To that end it, like the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’, appears deliberately prepared to overlook significant achievements in the fight against poverty and extending health and education services, just in order to make points about UK aid. 

Of course, it is the job of journalists to raise tough questions without the need to provide any solutions. Their questions, however, need to be based on fact not fiction, on accuracy not inaccuracy. That is their responsibility. This is particularly the case today when so many tend to go along with accounts of war, abuse or famine provided by any sources, without bothering to carry out their prime job of questioning informants, investigating claims or trying to produce accurate summations which explain the complexities of situations. All too often journalists now appear to be prepared to limit themselves to a single eye-catching headline claim, irrespective of reality. Newsnight has produced two films that were frankly lazy, dishonest in their use of sources, and deeply one-sided; they bore no relation to the BBC’s traditional claims of balance, accuracy and objectivity.



1. Reflections on BBC and TBIJ Media Onslaught – (in this blog) a detailed analysis of all the stories posted by BBC’s partner ‘the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ on the issue at the time.

2. ‘s Investigative report – Video  (link))


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