Decline & Crash of the BBC Africa Service

In case you haven’t heard about it already, there has been a right old rumpus going down at Bush House, as a result of a chat show hosted by the BBC Africa Service of the World Service. The programme – Africa Have Your Saywas attempting to open a debate on an anti-homosexuality bill being debated in Uganda’s parliament this week. The programme-makers decided, apparently after much thought (something often lacking at the BBC in general, but anyway), to title this edition of the programme: Should homosexuals face execution?

Of course there is nothing wrong with hosting a debate about homosexuality and it should be welcomed that the BBC is giving airtime to African gays and lesbians to speak on the airwaves. (So don’t waste your time reading articles like this one by Barbara Ellen who obviously didn’t do her research properly.) The problem with this programme was the title (Barbara), which is, I believe, an incitement to violence.

Looking closer to home, it would be like holding a debate in the UK entitled ‘Should all non-white people be kicked out of the UK today?’ simply because a few lunatics who are members of the BNP say so? Or, looking to Ireland, ‘Should the Irish violently assault the Roma?’

For responses from the editor of the programme, David Stead, you can read up here. However, I can also tell you that one of the arguments put forward by a very senior editor in the World Service (in favour of the execution headline) was that the same question-headline might well be used if a ‘respectable’ government like Uganda’s (eh? does this person actually follow Uganda?) proposed executing Muslims or Jews. Really? Somehow, I don’t actually believe that. Should Jews face execution? Nope. I simply can’t see the BBC running that as a discussion programme title.

However the point I wish to make is to expose a much larger and more fundamental problem within the BBC, particularly within the World Service and, in this case, the Africa service, where a conservative and reactionary approach to programming has become the norm and was one of the reasons I resigned from the department nearly four years ago. The reason for this is largely – I believe – due to a very liberal form of racism among many BBC managers who seem to assume that (a) they can apply different editorial standards to programmes to Africa than other parts of the world and (b) any black African can make a decent journalist as opposed to seeking out the best journalists from the continent. So, for example, they have been known to hire former DJs to host political programmes simply because the individual is African and therefore, they seem to think, “must know” all about Africa. That is the logic. It would be a bit like hiring Chris Evans to host Radio 4’s Today programme. Lunacy.

Because many BBC managers are ignorant about the world beyond their north and south London pads, they tend to make crude generalisations about their African staff and the programmes that they and their British counterparts make. Don’t get me wrong: there are many very brilliant African journalists working on the continent (and elsewhere) right now. In Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Congo Brazzaville, Angola, Egypt etc etc etc there are exceptionally good investigative journalists hard at work. Some have gone to the USA, some have come here  – but many remain in their home countries. Very few of them work for the BBC. Some of them used to but – and here is the catch – due to appalling pay, exploitation, a growing lack of respect from Bush (House) and increased ignorance among London-based staff, many of the best Africa service African reporters have left the BBC. Instead, they are trying to eke out a living doing other work with different employers. Some are doing extremely well, others are struggling (and I mean really struggling) to make ends meet. (And on that: forget the notion that living in Africa is cheap. This is also a fantasy that BBC eds hold to: once again, showing how little time they devote to understanding the regions they, er, edit).

Not that the Africa service and its departmental chiefs seem to give two hoots about how their stringers survive, or don’t survive. In the period that I have known the department, some of the best reporters have been dumped by the wayside and some producers in the section barely even notice. Such is the lack of interest in quality in-depth reporting of the continent, that I have been told by former colleagues that they were not even aware of long-term stringers who had lost their jobs. I found out before they did! The only reason I know is because I have kept in touch with the stringers themselves. Former reporters from Nigeria, Ghana, the Gambia, Senegal and Angola – to name but a few – have all been lost due to budget cuts, a lack of communication and a complete lack of respect for the incredible work these people do.

There are African ‘local’ BBC staff working in cities like Abuja in Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya, who are earning between a seventh and a quarter of what the staffers in London take home each month. Some of these BBC staff live in shanty towns, with no clean water and the minimal living conditions. And yet, when the Beeb sends out a London-based staffer ‘to cover’ for a few weeks or months, they remain on their 25k to 45k job (or a hell of a lot more), with pension rights, with holiday rights, etc etc etc. It is very sad that even the African staff who land a job in London seem all too quick to forget their African ‘brothers and sisters’ in order that they can take advantage of the unfair and unequal system of the Beeb. So you will hear more noise made about the ‘right of staff to get an all-paid-for late night black cab back home’ than you will for the stringers on the continent to get their phone bills (used to carry out their work) paid for or to have any kind of health insurance. The lack of health insurance and healthcare might explain why some former stringers actually died of preventable diseases like malaria. Can you imagine the noise that we’d never hear the end of if John Simpson got malaria – and, God forbid, dropped dead? No. Nor can I. So spare a thought for the stringers who went that way and no one so much as blinked.

In its feeble bid to show that it is open to African views (as if we would ever talk about Europe like that), the BBC ends up running programmes such as the dreaded Africa Have Your Say (AHYS) – which has been loathed by many insiders for years – in some sort of skewed attempt to pander to cultural relativism: i.e. if enough Ugandans hate gays, we must reflect that in our programming. What about another great programme idea: if enough South Africans hate immigrants from neighbouring African countries so much that they slaughter them we must reflect that too. Should African immigrants to South Africa be burned alive?

Many of the staff (or former staff – loads of us have left) at the Africa service know full well that the reason AHYS was promoted by BBC managers is because it is cheap, quick, low budget programming (you don’t need to pay callers who want to have a rant) that covers a multitude of topics each week. Often the shows are thrown together with an increasingly inexperienced staff base and smaller and smaller teams. It was only ever a matter of time before big mistakes would be made. The same has happened in the BBC Africa service coverage of the entire African continent, as excellent stringers are lost due to cut backs and efficiency savings. The Africa service makes do with growing numbers of inexperienced reporters who neither receive the right training nor the carrot of a proper salary that would enable them to do their difficult jobs properly. Even the very experienced reporters struggle to sell their work because of the ever diminishing budget. The tragedy of this is that it makes a fool of people who want to work hard and want to learn – but are not given the right training or support, and often have not had the advantage of spending time in London at Bush House to understand how the system works. This has sometimes served to encourage backward BBC staff to allege that Africans are somehow less able than, say, British staff. Which is obviously utter crap.

This recent hulabaloo is just the tip of the iceberg in slipping editorial standards and massive financial cuts. It will get worse. And how very, very sad. The Africa service has let some of the very best journalists slip through its hands: not the best of Africa, but the best on a much grander scale. We had journos in Sudan, Nigeria and Ghana – to name a few – who could cut the mustard anywhere in the world.

What a shame the department has been reduced to the sham it is today. And not just a sham, but full of hypocrisy. The idea that the BBC gives a damn about the way the African continent is covered is utterly naive. AHYS is a false kind of doffing of the hat to some bizarre notion of democracy and free speech. And yet, how many of you have heard of the BBC stringer in the Gambia who had to run for his life in order to escape the dictatorship of President Jammeh, a man who has no interest on free speech whatsoever? This stringer, still alive thank goodness, was forgotten by the BBC and by the BBC Africa service. They hoped he’d be happy with his life, and not require any sort of financial support from the BBC after he lost his way to earn a living because he had to run from his country. There are plenty more similar examples if you’re interested.

So when the Africa service departmental heads talk about free speech, just remember that what they actually mean is ‘voices that say anything for no fee’.

P.S. Those who have argued that free speech should extend to any old homophobic fool who leaves comments on the BBC AHYS facebook page or BBC site, ought to consider that it has been recognised since Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech that racist attacks (or in this case homophobic attacks) tend to increase when publicity is given to hate speech. Trevor Phillips, whatever his faults, is quite right to raise the questions he has. It isn’t naive, Barbara, it is reality.

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