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A BBC news story that could cost lives

2010 March 12
by Paul Vallely

The chasm between perception and reality, which has long been one of the great problem-causers in politics, is growing ever wider in the internet age. The current stand-off between Bob Geldof and the BBC is a case-in-point. The aid campaigner is furious over a programme which claimed that 95 per cent of the $100m aid donated, by Live Aid and others, to fight famine in rebel-held Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, in 1985, was diverted to be spent on weapons.

As the story has zipped around world it has become ever more dramatic – and incorrect – with each iteration. Many, like ABC News in Australia, proclaimed: “An investigation by the BBC has found just 5 per cent of the money raised by Live Aid and Band Aid actually made it to the victims of famine in Ethiopia”.

But this is not what our story said, the BBC has protested. We were just talking about Tigray. It’s not our fault if people have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Not everyone agrees. Sir Brian Barder, the British ambassador in Ethiopia in 1985, has criticised the BBC saying its programme – and the hyped-up advance publicity and news bulletin summaries of what it said – created an erroneous and misleading impression. He has a strong case.

The “95 per cent was diverted” claim is not new. It was made by a disaffected senior ex- rebel – the same man the BBC have now quoted – to the Sunday Times last year. It went largely unremarked, perhaps because it was clearly such a wild and partisan claim. The stir has been caused by the BBC’s presentation.

The World Service reported it – not as a mere claim from a man who had an axe to grind against the leader of the rebels, who is now the prime minister of Ethiopia – but by saying “the BBC has evidence” which were the “findings” of  a “nine-month investigation”.

And it hyped-up the story with constant references to Live Aid, clips from Geldof in 1985 and bursts of the Band Aid music, followed by comments like: “But now, evidence has emerged that the aid agencies charged with distributing that money, were hoodwinked…”

Yet the allegations rest on problematic sources. One rebel claimed to have duped Christian Aid out of $2m in 1984 even though the aid worker he dealt with is on record as having only a quarter of that amount to buy grain. But even if that was true – and Christian Aid vehemently rejects it – that happened a year before any Band Aid money was spent in the region.

Indeed Band Aid made only one grant to the rebels aid agency, Rest, in 1985, and not for “millions” but for just $307,000. The BBC’s other key witness, a former rebel commander, wasn’t even in the area then. A CIA report the BBC said backed the claims was written three months before the Live Aid concert even happened.

The BBC report is riddled with confusions and inconsistencies. All the key allegations centre on a time before Live Aid was involved. So why was Live Aid in all the headlines? Yet instead of back-tracking one of its editors leapt to its defence with talk of “key figures”, “compelling evidence”, “systematic diversion” and “credible voices”.

It is quite possible that there was some diversion of aid money into arms in the chaos of famine and war in Tigray in 1984. Indeed it is possible that the CIA deliberately diverted US aid as a way of supporting the rebels against the Marxist regime in Addis Ababa.

But the attempt to sex-up the story by roping in Live Aid was poor journalism. Band Aid are to take legal action in response. But even if they win the damage is irreversible. Two comments on the ABC News website show why. “I am very sceptical about such events anyway and this just confirms it,” said one. “I am devastated by this news,” said another. “Where I was living I knew of people that sold most of what they had to give money”.

Such views are bound to have an impact on the public’s willingness to give to those in need in the future. Had I been that World Service editor I should have wanted far better “evidence” before running a story which could literally cost lives.

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