Recently I criticised the BBC for its coverage of Robert Mugabe’s birthday party– and I suggested that it was part of a trend. Others disagreed. My view is that very often the BBC acts as though they are a court of law- seeing their job to present the unfolding evidence of history fairly. The trouble is that that often means twisting material to fit arbitrary (though satisfying) lines of justice. It’s overreach. It also implies the introduction of the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ into journalism. Now (to simplify), historically in Britain and the West the idea has been that people in the ‘Third World’ just don’t do things in the right way- so the BBC stands aloof from all that, and redresses the balance by being suspicious of Western politicians instead (keep in mind: the purpose of this post is to praise the Beeb). The main impact of this is felt in the language the BBC uses in its reports. Moral equivalence means that Ken Livingstone’s London congestion charge and Robert Mugabe’s land confiscation have been scrutinised in similar terms as ‘policies’. There is no way this can be good reporting.
It’s true though that this ideological tendency is not the only force at work. The Beeb has a craftsman’s commitment to journalism, and its own ethos of humanism. Hence this article from the award-winning Hilary Andersson includes much that rings true. The video accompanying the article contains the magic words
“For almost a quarter of a century Robert Mugabe has been prepared to use violence to hold on to power”
Here’s responsibility placed where it genuinely rests, and the whole article revolves around demonstrating that Mugabe is at the epicentre of Zimbabwe’s ordeal, actively fomenting trouble with brutal youth training camps:
The Zimbabwean government says the camps are job training centres, but those who have escaped say they are part of a brutal plan to keep Mugabe in power.
The only trouble I have is that this is from a Panorama programme (Panorama: Secrets of the Camps will be broadcast on BBC One on Sunday, 29 February 2004 at 2215 GMT ) and therefore a major blip in their coverage. This qualm is intensified by the sense that it is being billed as revelatory, when common sense combined with observation could tell us that Mugabe was relying on gangs of primed thugs to maintain himself in power- not exactly the point of the documentary, but not inconsistent with it. Will we be back to ‘cabinet reshuffles’, ‘corruption crackdowns’, ‘policies’ and ‘land reform programmes’, and farm invasion violence that just may have a relationship to Mugabe’s regime, when the dust dies down? Will we be hearing about more ‘vintage’ Mugabe from the BBC? I’m not suggesting they like him, but that there is a complacency in the reporting of an extraordinary situation. If journalism can’t be interested enough in Zimbabwe to describe it with detailed, scrutinising care and a bit of anger at what others suffer, then no part of Africa will benefit from the interest of the Western media.