Even Band Aid is not above criticism: So is the BBC

A response to  Rageh Omaar

I have taken the liberty of responding to Rageh Omaar’s article on Band Aid. I find the author’s argument disingenuous because in his attempt to criticize Band Aid he wittingly put the BBC on a pedestal that is above criticism. The article is particularly interesting because it shows the pain that the author goes through in appeasing Band Aid and defending the BBC. In doing so he inadvertently transformed himself is some sort of an authority that we have to trust without question his intuitions and propositions.  

But it also made Band Aid and the entire humanitarian response to the famine in Tigray almost holy; only the shameless or mendacious would subject it to critical review in the way that Martin Plaut of the BBC has done this past week when, after nine months of research, he found what he and the BBC World Service believe is credible evidence that aid money from famine relief efforts was used by the rebel group fighting Ethiopia's military dictatorship under Mengistu to buy arms.

If we agree with this logic, the same goes to BBC. Is it not true that BBC has ostensibly gained an aura of infallibility in the annals of Ethiopian Famine going back to Jonathan Dimbleby’s coverage? Is it not also a fact that Dimbleby’s report precipitated the overthrow of the Emperor? It is not also true that the entire episode somehow made Dimbleby a crusader of journalistic objectivity and the BBC the holy-grail of respectable journalism? However, confusing the story of Martin Plaut with that of Dimbleby, and the corresponding editorial decisions by the BBC is not only wrong but disreputable. The main difference is not necessarily in what is being reported, but when. Dimbleby’s story was at the time of the famine; Plaut’s is at least three decades after the fact. And this difference in time necessarily brings the crucial question of why. By definition an event is news worthy not to set historical records straight, but rather to have an impact on the present. If that is the case, why Plaut wrote the piece and why the BBC decided to sanction it? Hence the so-called nine month research is not so much to uncover what took place thirty years ago, but what type of story can be effective to present state of affairs. Apparently, the whole thing reminds me of the British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Many of the humanitarian relief agencies involved in Tigray Province and Ethiopia in 1985 have understandably reacted with horror. They have swiftly and universally condemned the BBC for the report, saying that their scrupulous oversight of the aid could not have let this happen, and nothing of the sort happened.

But why the strong and blanket reaction without a hint of wanting to know more?

The humanitarian agencies are angry at the BBC because their good names are soiled. Are they consulted during the nine month research? If not, how can Plaut get the facts straight without including one of the principal actors in its investigation? The humanitarian organizations responded with strong and blanket reaction not because they are unwilling to face the truth, but because they are unwilling to be pawns in the underhanded politicking of the BBC. It has been quite some time that BBC has abandoned responsible journalism and opted for disingenuous misinformation; a case in point is the uncorroborated capture of seven towns in the Ogaden by the ONLF.   

Let's get some things straight: humanitarian operations in the midst of large-scale civil wars where territory is held by rival powers are almost always politicised and misused. The idea that this never happens and that NGOs are never put in situations where, in order to get the aid delivered, they have to work with and often through the powers that control the territory where the suffering is taking place is a ridiculous fantasy. It's happening now, in Congo; in my own country, Somalia, where al-Qaida-affiliated groups have dictated how the World Food Programme delivers emergency food; and also in Zimbabwe, where I have just spent two weeks talking to aid workers having to work through government bodies in delivering aid to prisoners of Mugabe.

One aid worker told me: "There is a really bad outbreak of measles in townships with huge HIV infection rates, but we can't mention or talk about it if we want to remain here." Those are just three examples; there are many more.

Here we are told to accept some “universal facts” without question. Accordingly, if humanitarian operations in the midst of war are always politicized and misused, why Plaut’s story becomes newsworthy? Unless of course, newsworthiness has nothing to do with what had happened then but what impact does it have at present? If indeed Band Aid is not above criticism the same applies to BBC.   

Plaut is a first-class journalist. He hasn't just come to this. He was actually there on the frontlines in Tigray, with his wife, a nurse, in 1984, as the famine was brewing. One of his main sources, ridiculously dismissed by Sir Bob Geldof on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday as an exiled malcontent and "not a credible voice whatsoever" on this story, was actually a founding member of the rebel group, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and one of the main military commanders in the Ethiopian civil war in 1985.

The fact that Plaut was in Tigray with his wife does not give him carte blanche to tell the truth but nothing but the truth. Moreover, just because his main informant was formerly in a position of authority does not, in and of itself, make the story credible.   

The BBC's assertions and evidence need to be seriously and open-mindedly followed. Their assertion is that aid agencies in the mid-80s had to work through an organisation called the Relief Society of Tigray (Rest) in order to get to the starving people. The Ethiopian dictatorship did not control the province. But Rest was undeniably the humanitarian wing of the rebel movement. Of that, there is no doubt.

I agree the BBC’s assertions and evidence need to be followed seriously. That includes that the BBC itself should not be above scrutiny. Absolving the BBC from investigation does not make us open-minded; it actually distorts our imagination and aborts our search for the truth.

So, effectively, the relief agencies were working and channelling their efforts via the rebel group, the TPLF. I am absolutely sure that all the NGOs were extremely diligent about how their money was spent in getting relief to the people who needed it. But they did not have oversight and control of Rest. In fact, they had no way of knowing whether the official buying sorghum for them from Rest was an independent local aid worker, or a member of the rebel group posing as one.

If the NGOs have no way of knowing what’s going on under their nose, what makes the author absolutely sure about their diligence? Unless of course he has some extra-senses that allow him to know what the NGOs really think and what they are actually capable of doing. Basically they are godly but under the circumstance they are forced to work with the devil. Unless one has a predetermined political perspective this logic does not withstand the slightest scrutiny.

I know the TPLF very well. I was based as a reporter in Addis Ababa immediately after the rebel group came to power in 1991. The TPLF is the most ruthlessly organised and efficient guerrilla group I have ever encountered. The fact that this peasant army, with thousands of women among its ranks, overthrew the might of the Mengistu regime proves that. These rebels were drawn from the very families and communities that the Ethiopian regime was trying to starve. I have no doubt in my mind that, faced with a government that was using famine as a tool of war against them, the TPLF would seek to use the ocean of money coming from around the world, in response to efforts like Band Aid, to buy the weapons that would rid them and the rest of Ethiopia of what was a horrendous regime.

Again the author claims to have unquestioned authority of knowledge of the TPLF just because he was based in Addis.  He uses the adverb ruthlessly without any explanation; only to rationalize it by the TPLF army’s composition of peasants and women. Would things could have been better off if the army was composed of Ph. D holding male chauvinists?

The politicising of aid is a fact of life everywhere. The challenge is to stop it getting in the way of saving lives. As Plaut says, in Tigray this politicising did not get in the way of saving lives, and perhaps that is why many didn't ask questions. As a Somali, looking at what happened in my country during the US-led humanitarian intervention in 1992 and what is happening today, what I find unacceptable is that a humanitarian operation can be elevated to the status of being above criticism.

From its inception and by its very disposition aid is a political tool. Going back to the days of the white man’s burden, helping and rescuing the unfortunate had always been the hegemonic cry of the West. Accordingly, if aid agencies should not be immune from criticism, so should news organization such as the BBC should be subject to the same standard. 

In all intent and purpose, the BBC did not foresee the outcry from its own backyard. Apparently, the whole idea behind the so-called news was conceived and concocted without much thought to the reactions back in England. The BBC was solely obsessed with the Ethiopian political dynamics and hard-pressed to print the article. Unfortunately, one important factor, Band Aid to be precise, was missing from its calculation. And this prove that the whole thing is not primarily designed to be news; if it was any responsible journalist would go and ask the people who were directly involved in the Band Aid. Why the BBC has not taken this elementary task? Is it a genuine oversight on its part or is it an intentional misstep? Unless one is overly naďve the answer is simple. When it comes to Africa, the BBC like any other Western news outlets is engaged in influencing political processes than mere reporting. But this time the stratagem has backfired and put it at a loggerhead with the most unlikely foe; Band Aid. The violent response has tremendously exposed the ostensible objectivity of the BBC; which has joined the rank of yellow journalism long before it is forced to acknowledge through this saga.

Mehretab Assefa