Instant judgments and distant editors, the problems of reporting Africa

Martin Plaut

When I was first employed by the BBC, back in 1984, there was an expectation that you should get to ‘know your patch.’ So every year you were sent off – in my case to Africa – to an area you knew nothing, or very little about. It was all a bit ‘pith-helmet’ like, but it had its role.

The aim was to familiarise yourself, to get contacts and find out what life was really like on the ground. And it generally stood you in good stead. When a crisis erupted you had a ‘feel’ for the area and people you could ring up and confirm what was going on. If you came back with a story, so much the better. But it was not vital.

At the time every major British newspaper had at least 3 correspondents in Africa: Nairobi, Johannesburg and Lagos. And Cairo, of course, but that was mostly to cover the Middle East. How times have changed!

Today one is fortunate for any paper to have a single correspondent; frequently they rely on ‘stringers’ paid by the piece. Africa is off the radar, which means that every story one tries to ‘sell’ to an editor or commissioner is almost certain to be new to them. And – in the back of the mind – they ask whether you are not perhaps exaggerating the issue to get their support.

By the time I left the BBC in 2013 I had risen to Africa Editor, BBC World Service News. I would visit Africa 3 or 4 times a year, but was based in London.

By then all stories and trips had to be “pre-sold.” It was necessary to make the rounds inside the BBC to collect commissions from a range of programmes, each of whom had small budgets that they could hand out. Radio, TV, Online – each could (and did) extract their own promise in return for their cash. They would specify which angle on each story they were interested and how they wanted it to be treated.

Fair enough, but what happened if, when you arrived, you came across the unexpected? What did you do if you discovered that the story, as you understood it from London, was wrong?

Of course you had to explain to the same editor (often over a terrible satellite phone) that your ‘pre-sold’ story was not what you had thought. They would accept this – after all, you were already in the field, and there was little they could do. But next time you went to see them to ask for money…

Feeding the beast

The pressure to file once you have arrived in Africa is relentless. Of course this is exactly what you want – who wants an indifferent editor back home?

But every programme and outlet wants its ‘pound of flesh’. As a result a correspondent can have his or her first live broadcast at 0500 in the morning and continue filing and editing material until well after midnight. Exhaustion sets in and it is difficult to keep up.


Niangara massacre – Congo, January 2008

Christmas 2007 the Lord’s Resistance Army – a particularly brutal rebel movement that had originated in Uganda – massacred 358 people. Many were killed in a church, which they were herded into and the structure set on fire.

I flew into Niangara on a small plane, we had hired for the purpose. It left, the pilot promising to return in a week, weather permitting.We were left with a pile of equipment, and nothing more, at a landing strip. Luckily, a charity with a truck arrived and took us into Niangara.

We soon discovered there was nowhere to stay, no café or shop at which to buy food. Luckily for us, the Church took pity on us, and gave us a room and gradually we established a base from which to operate. Even then we had no electricity, until we bought diesel for the generator: to the delight of the priests!

A day later we hired five motorbikes and set off to the site of the killings. It was a 3-hour journey, over forest trails. My heart was in my mouth – were the LRA behind the next tree, with a machete in hand, to lop off my head? Luckily they were not.

We collected the story, did the interviews and photographs, and set off for Niangara before night fell. Back at the Church we could assemble what we had and have a bite to eat. Then start filing.

The response from London was enthusiastic. No one had reported from the area – we were breaking the story. But over a few hours this gradually changed.

Editors have clear ideas of what they want, at times whether it reflects reality or not.

So one programme editor will listen to the package you have crafted for the earlier one and then get back to you. Could you please change the slant? How about clarifying this point? Can you get another interview to replace this informant?

All these are entirely legitimate requests, but how to balance these demands with the demands of others – Online, TV, News etc.? And few editors give a damn about other outlets.

But there was no way we could go back to the scene of the massacre and getting another interviewee was impossible, we explained, to silence and scepticism in London.

Not surprising, then, that most journalists working in the field will tell you: “the enemy is always in London.”


Editorial standards

‘BBC Editorial Guidelines are the BBC’s values and standards. They apply to all our content, wherever and however it is received.’ This is what the BBC says and it is something I strongly support. The BBC’s reputation rests on its ability to be fair, accurate and balanced.

But sometimes its requirements are simply impractical, when it comes to reporting from the field.

Editorial Standards are captured in a book, which is nearly an inch thick. There is chapter after chapter of regulations, advice and requirements. So – if I recall correctly – one is not to interview children without the permission of their parents and teachers. Even then one has to ensure that the children themselves have given ‘informed consent’ and understand how the interview will be used and the context in which it will be broadcast.

Think, for a moment, of the situation I have described in Niangara. I had interviewed some children who had been captured by the LRA. Some had been forced to kill their own parents before being marched into the bush. Boys were brutalised and turned into soldiers, girls were raped.

This was the reality that I had come to explain to Britain and the world. That was why I was there. But how to get the permission of parents who had been murdered by their own children? Which teacher should I contact, when there was none to be found?

So, of course, one goes ahead anyway, hoping for the best, but also aware that the BBC mandarins might – if they wanted to – take you to task for failing to observe chapter 6, subsection 9, paragraph 17. And the penalties are severe.


The Geldof complaint

Shortly before I retired I produced a programme looking back to the great famine of 1984 – 85 in Ethiopia. I had found a senior Ethiopian rebel commander who told me that most of the aid that went through rebel hands was used to buy arms and ammunition. For, although it is often ignored, the Ethiopian government were fight rebels from Tigray and Eritrea at the same time as they were fighting the famine.

Aragawi Berhe, the military commander of the rebel TPLF army and member central committee told me – on the record – that food aid had been used to purchase weapons. Others I found supported his assertion, with eyewitness accounts. These were contested by aid staff who had been there, but it soon became clear they were not in a position to know what had really taken place. And we had CIA documents and testimony from former Ethiopian government officials that pointed in the same direction.

What was striking was how many people involved in the aid effort were still, thirty years on, unwilling to speak to the BBC about these events. Bob Geldof, who memorably demanded on TV that the public ‘give your fucking money’ was among those who refused to talk to me.

Now he was not required to speak to any journalist, but it was a little odd. So I said so in the programme, also quoting his famous demand.

Geldof filed a formal complaint to the BBC – as he had ever right to do. He said that although we had not said that Band Aid funds had been diverted, it might have been inferred that this was the case. We had implied that his charity’s money had gone to buy arms. Now this was something we had not said – indeed, we had no idea which charity’s money had been used.

We defended ourselves vigorously, but the BBC’s ruling went against the programme and my journalism. I have great respect for Bob Geldof: his efforts saved thousands during the famine and his work since then has been extremely beneficial. But I think he was in the wrong in this instance.

Worse still, I was later told by the head of a major UK charity (that I cannot name) that they knew I was correct. Aid going through the rebels had, indeed, been diverted. There was, after all, a war going on.

I tell this story to make this point: it is vitally important that institutions like the BBC has clear editorial standards and that its journalists must live by them. But when the great and the good lodge a complaint, then the tables are stacked against the staff, who are sometimes hung out to dry. I was not sacked or disciplined and received generous support from my immediate management, but the BBC is a very political organisation and sometimes buckles under pressure.


West Side Boys

In August 2000 seven members of the Royal Irish Regiment were captured by a rebel group in Sierra Leone: the notorious ‘West Side Boys.’ The lives of the British troops were under threat and the UK clearly had to act.

Days past. Then the BBC received a phone call from the Foreign Office. ‘You might get a call from the West Side Boys,’ we were told.This was a surprise. The Foreign Office almost never calls the BBC, and in any case the African Service interviews rebel movements all the time. So why inform us?

A couple of days past and a call came – from the West Side Boys. And they were duly interviewed. No sooner was the interview over than almost every phone in the office rang. The Foreign Office, Scotland Yard, the intelligence services all called: we were politely instructed that we could not use the interview without their permission. There was shock and some disbelief. No one could recall a similar phone call.

Luckily the BBC has a system of referring upwards. It is seldom used: every editor is proud to make the call and use his or her judgement, but this was different. In the end a very senior member of the World Service told the callers that one of them (just one!) could come and listen to the tape; that we would hear their concerns, but that the interview had been legitimately obtained and the BBC (and not the spooks!) would decide whether it was broadcast.

They came, listened and said there was no problem. We said we knew this – and the interview was broadcast. A day or so later the SAS went into the West Side Boys camp. The Royal Irish Regiment troops were released, after a fire-fight, and their captors killed.

Gradually it became clear what had taken place. A single SAS soldier had gone, unarmed, to negotiate with the West Side Boys. It was an act of extraordinary bravery. They complained that no one understood their grievances. He said perhaps something could be done: how about an interview with the BBC? Yes, they said, that would do, but how? Well, a satellite phone could be provided, with the relevant telephone number.

And so a phone was supplied, and the warning came from the Foreign Office. All of which left us journalists rather uneasy. When the West Side Boys turned on satellite phone to call the BBC they had revealed their location- and the SAS had then gone in for the kill. The BBC had not known anything about this, but we had been the unwitting tools of the British government. And that is not a position any journalist wishes to be in.

I am telling this to underline how lucky the BBC really is.

In 27 years of broadcasting this is the only occasion on which I feel the government went beyond the bounds. In all my career I was never told what to say, or how to say it, despite having almost every penny of my salary paid by the Foreign Office. The government (of all political parties) left us alone to broadcast the truth, as best we could. Of course they complained about our coverage, but then so did almost every organisation we broadcast about. If there were mistake (as of course there were) they were our own, and not the result of government interference.

Fair, accurate and balanced: in the field and in London. That is what every journalist should aim at – and what the BBC demands.

Martin Plaut is senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. He worked as a journalist for the BBC from 1984 until 2013, by which time he had become Africa Editor, BBC World Service News.

Note from the author: This is the view of a journalist, not an academic. It is mostly anecdotal rather than analytical.