Life sometimes feels like tortured repetition. A bit like going to the gym. But at least at the gym you get fitter. When it comes to politics, life feels like a running machine which keeps you running but makes you fatter, more depressed and more miserable until the rolls are seeping out from under your lycra trouser leg, over the circulating rubber, down the stabilising side and out onto the manmade fibre carpet. I’m thinking about the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the Gaza appeal for humanitarian agencies, which has had me yawning and yelling in equal measure. As a former employee and correspondent of the BBC World Service, the one thing that strikes me about all of this is quite the extent of the hypocrisy. It’s so alarmingly vast.
During the seven odd years I worked for the BBC – both as a correspondent in the, er, ‘field’ and as a producer and sometime editor on the desk – I was always infuriated and intrigued by the amount of pressure we all were under to rely on information provided by foreign aid agencies (all Western, mostly British, American and French or Belgian or Dutch etc). The moment one of the big agencies – CARE, Save the Children, Oxfam, and any UN department – produced a report or issued a press release about yet another ‘worst humanitarian situation’ (they are, believe me, always the worst), the team would always want to run the story. Various reasons were and still are behind this: it’s easy to get an aid worker on the phone (even an ISDN line), they usually speak English, they will be concise, and free, and more often than not they are always willing to speak. Much easier to chat to pressperson X from the WFP in the middle of Darfur, than track down a local Sudanese who has intermittent access to a wobbly mobile phone and doesn’t speak a word of English. Such are the time pressures of modern day broadacsting, most producers and editors (culled to the minimum on each show) will go for the easy and reliable and cheap option. Aidworkers fit this description perfectly. Nevermind if their information is inevitably partisan. (No one knows everything: remember!) Even in the Africa service, for which I worked, and even among African staff, the accepted opinion was it was better to get information and an interview from a foreign NGO or the UN than a local NGO or civil society association.
Such is the overlap between the BBC and aid agencies, many BBC staff end up going to work for them. I could provide a long list of former colleagues who now work for the WFP as spokesmen and spokeswomen, as press writers and publicty experts. I know people who’ve gone to Cafod, all branches of the UN, Oxfam, and countless others. The attractions – particularly to the UN – can be summed up in one word: money. The UN pay ever so nice and you get a nice house in a sunny country with free education for the kids, plus extras for moving and extras for all sorts of other stuff. You might get a driver, you’ll definitely get a car. Etc etc etc. Even after all the horrible things I wrote about the UN and aid agencies, I was offered a job twice by the UN as a spokesperson.
Because of this link – between ex BBC staff and aid agencies – the BBC is even more inclined to interview its ex-reporters who now work for agency Y or Z. I used to chuckle so loudly when I heard former BBC reporters suddenly being ‘grilled’ by their former colleagues: they sounded exactly the same as they always had. Peas in a pod. This says a great deal about the BBC and the agencies, about the language used by all these organisations/corporations and their view of the world. The overlap grows and grows and grows. And another thing to watch and listen out for are the number of BBC reports which are courtesy of correspondent Z being taken care of and escorted by a particular aid agnecy: so the slant of the report favours the NGO in question, giving it international publicity and the BBC reporters gets cheaper travel and infromation… and everyone’s happy.
Except, perhaps, the ‘needy victims’… But anyway…
But what has also intrigued me about the explosion of debates on the BBC’s decision not to air the appeal is the anger, particularly from some on the Left. The sudden support for these aid organisations and their appeals raises, for me anyway, a series of questions: when does a western aid agency stop being a representative of the West and its hypocritical policies to help people it helped kill or injure in the first place? When should that aid end? At what point will the aid to Gaza cease to be emergency or disaster relief, and start to be some sort of controlling arm of paternalism? When does western aid start to blind us from the politics at the heart of, in this case, Gaza and the regional politics? When do we cross the line too far, to pity the Palestinians as opposed to assisting them in self-determination? I sense, in some cases, that there are some who are so loathing of the BBC (and believe me, I sympathise) that they forget other factors at play in all of this, other larger issues that deserve consideration.