“As the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the 20th century.” That was how Michael Buerk began his groundbreaking item on the Ethiopian famine in 1984 – a landmark episode in news reporting. It elicited an unprecedented response to the plight of those dying of starvation, and charitable giving changed for ever.
Millions of pounds were raised, rock stars and celebrities became involved, charities were almost overnight transformed into big businesses. And at first glance, the money raised, the changed attitudes and the scale of the humanitarian relief effort seem like an unquestionable good. But Suzanne Franks offers an alternative interpretation – even suggesting that the massive response and its aftermath may have done more harm than good.
There were several reasons why this event had such an explosive impact. One was what has come to be known as the “CNN effect” – referring to the repercussions of live, televised reporting of the first Gulf War. It was the heart-wrenching pictures in Buerk’s report that prompted such widespread outrage, even though the scale of the disaster was far smaller than barely reported, unseen crises in Congo and Uganda and, worst of all, the famine in China.
The media dislike complex stories. They like drama. Even Buerk admitted that he played down the war
Another factor was, of course, the intervention of Bob Geldof and the creation of Band Aid and its US counterpart. Suddenly, with the involvement of music and later sporting and comedy personalities, charitable giving became cool. Donations increased spectacularly. As a result, governments were forced to act.
But, Franks argues, the media coverage and the response from Western governments, aid agencies and the Ethiopian regime itself were fatally flawed by one disastrous assumption: that the emergency was a natural disaster rather than the result of history and politics; a drought rather than a famine. And this assumption was convenient for so many interested parties.
The Ethiopian government, for example, carefully described a previous disaster, under the rule of Haile Selassie, as a famine – indicating that the emperor was to blame. This one was merely an unfortunate result of a poor harvest. Such characterisation suited the British government, too. Margaret Thatcher had until this episode been indifferent to foreign aid, regarding it as just another form of welfare. And she was particularly hostile to Marxist Ethiopia, seen as a client of the Soviet Union. So when public outcry at the plight of those dying in Africa forced her government to intervene, the British position was to emphasise its generosity in the face of human suffering, in contrast with Soviet militarism.
Funding was provided for immediate relief, but not for the development programmes that – less immediate, less newsworthy – were needed to solve the real problems. Newspaper and media reports also presented the crisis as one of drought, rather than analysing the deep-rooted political causes of the disaster: civil war, a draconian government, lack of coordinated policies. For the media dislike complex stories. They like drama. Even Buerk himself admitted that he played down the war, and the oppression of rebels in areas most afflicted by famine. He didn’t want to over-complicate the main issue: thousands of dying people in desperate need of relief.
Similarly, the leading aid agencies, who had been warning for several years of the forthcoming crisis, now conspired in the presentation of the simpler version because that, they felt, would be the best strategy for getting people to donate.
So they faced painful compromises. They needed to cooperate with the hostile Ethiopian government in order to get food and relief to the starving population. At the same time, though, that government was appropriating most of the supplies, and it could even be argued that the war and the subsequent suffering were prolonged by the very interventions intended to end them.
Incorporating internal government and BBC documents with a wealth of interviews with key players, Franks highlights the changing relationship between aid charities and the media, the internal wrangles between broadcasters, and the effect of famine reporting on government policy. The result is a meticulously researched and grippingly written corrective to a widely accepted fallacy. Her conclusion is that, despite the many good outcomes of this momentous event, there were two major casualties. One was those who starved needlessly, as well as the millions who suffered in countless disasters that were never reported. The other was the truth itself.
Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media
By Suzanne Franks
Hurst, 248pp, £20.00
Published 26 September 2013