To John Humphreys on his trip to Liberia – “You can’t come here with European eyes” – By Richard Dowden

Dear John,

I listened to your reports from Liberia on The Today programme this morning with growing fury. I am not angry because your reporting is bad. It is extremely good. My complaint is this: you say you have been reporting Africa for more than 45 years but why, only now, are you reporting these deeper realities? “You can’t come here with European eyes,” you say. But that is precisely what you and the rest of the British media have been doing all this time.

European eyes however have always dictated the global image of Africa. Trying to get a news editor interested in the story behind Africa’s famines and wars was always difficult. It is always easier to show an aid worker saving an African child overlaid by a tragic-voiced reporter. That was why most journalists were sent there. I was. But I was also lucky. I worked for three news outlets, The Times, The Independent and The Economist which allowed me to stay a little longer than other journalists. And out of the corner of my eye on the way back from the interview, the starvation camp or the front line, I saw things that might explain why Africa is the way it is. I caught glimpses of the deference of educated young people towards their unschooled elders. Or the aid agency that sent an expensive computer to a school without electricity. Or a bright girl taken out of school to serve her brothers at home. If you talk to Africans, these are the things they tell you about.

But getting some of these deeper insights into a newspaper article or onto the radio or TV was extremely difficult. The British media’s news values did not include a mission to explain, to dig a little deeper. The editors are only interested in dramatic news from Africa: coups, wars, hunger, disease and Robert Mugabe.

You describe the Liberian hospital with mammograms that no one knows how to operate, the potholes in the roads, the child who can barely speak English who wants to be a doctor. But John, you report these with astonishment, as if you were seeing and hearing this for the first time. Is this true? Or is it merely a journalistic technique to catch the listener’s ear? I hope it is the latter. This untold story has been obvious to reporters who go there, but have rarely appeared in the mainstream media. The BBC chose not to broadcast it. And since it is a major creator, perhaps The Creator, of the world’s news agenda, this is a tragic omission. Until quite recently, the world has been served an unremitting picture of Africa as a place of war, famine and disease.

In 2005 the BBC signed up, with little consideration, to Tony Blair’s Africa agenda. With praise singers like Bob Geldof and Bono (plus other celebrities), and backed by the aid industry, that agenda needs only pictures of helpless, hopeless Africa that western countries have to save. They simply were not interested in the causes.

At the time, I welcomed the Commission for Africa Report because it drew attention to the continent, but its treatment of the causes was superficial and purely external – what the rest of the world did to Africa, nothing about Africa itself. Now I realise it was another attempt to change Africa. There was no attempt to engage, no comprehension of another world out there, no respect for Africa. That aid-led solution is now trickling away into irrelevance.

For the past ten years many African countries have been growing at rates we in the West can only dream about – thanks largely to an emerging middle class, mobile phones and China’s demand for its raw materials. Now our businesses are following the Chinese into Africa looking for its fabled wealth. Africa is now a place for investment. Liberia may not be the best example of this, but wherever you go you will find “old” Africa and “new” Africa close by. As Mali heads into civil war, its neighbour Senegal holds a good election and changes its president. But our news editors cannot comprehend that complexity of Africa – that it can be both poor and disease-ridden and rich and dynamic at the same time, sometimes in the same village. To be a proper news story and fit into the outdated news agenda, it has to be one or the other.

If “new” Africa has become important and the BBC is sincere about its attempt to report Africa as it is, surely the best strategy is to have good reporters in each African country who have been there long enough to understand it. But, on the contrary, your organisation seems to be cutting back on correspondents as fast as it can. That may be the government’s fault as much as yours. Little do they understand that the BBC is the only connection to the rest of the planet for millions of Africans. Help our government – and your bosses – to understand that £1 spent on a good BBC World Service does more for development in Africa and than £100 spent on aid.

If you can get that message across, as well as re-forge the agenda for Africa coverage, I will back you to win Journalist of the Year.

Grumpily yours,

Richard Dowden – Director, Royal African Society

For more of Richard’s Blogs click here

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25 thoughts on “To John Humphreys on his trip to Liberia – “You can’t come here with European eyes” – By Richard Dowden

  1. I so agree with Richard’s blog about John Humphreys. The BBC African Service has been transformed into The Africa Hub. It’s been shorn of its morning show (Network Africa), Sports programme (Fastrack), weekly documentary feature (African Perspective) and annual drama season (African Performance). These were the programmes which gave African countries and people dignity. They were the programmes with jokes, music, creativity. News is dedicated to stories about death, crisis, disaster and power. The further the way the country from industrialised world the less its necessary to dig deeper. Liberia maybe a bit of a mess, but the people have energy, wit and irony at their fingertips.

  2. Without wanting to denigrate the efforts or intentions of individuals and organisations who make massive contributions to improving people’s lives around the world. For me the most telling phrase in the letter is “aid industry”. As much as journalists can fail to tell a holistic story due to agendas from overarching entities greater and more powerful than themselves – aid is an industry. It has profits, stakeholders and a bottom line. This means market forces are shaping what is possible in, given to and bought by people throughout Africa. It is this, not just the human stories, but also the wider, global forces that shape them that need to be examined and covered in order to fully understand what is happening across the continent.

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  4. Good point – but, rather than send scores of BBC correspondents to countries in Africa, employ the skills and expertise of local journalists who have far more insight than any expat, however long-term, could have. Recent evidence regarding the reporting of the death of Bingu Wa Mutharika in Malawi highlights this perfectly.

  5. This aspect of media reporting is what has long angered the average African national… but it also saddens and amuses us too – when we interact with non-African nationals and realise the depth of their ignorance is fuelled by the some western media programming depicting Africans as either crazed, starving, conniving, fraudulent or irrational (or worse). It is mostly always fantasy.

    It’s gone beyond the stage when the corporate and political structures behind media corporations should be taken to task for permitting irresponsible and unethical journalism/news coverage.

    I truly hesitate to look beyond – at the probable motivation for the antics of the western media as I fear I would not like what I uncover.

    Thanks so much Mr Dowden, for an even-handed take on this issue.

  6. Pingback: “You can’t come here with European eyes”: A letter to John Humphreys on his trip to Liberia – By R ichard Dowden | African Arguments

  7. To say:

    At the time, I welcomed the Commission for Africa Report because it drew attention to the continent, but its treatment of the causes was superficial and purely external – what the rest of the world did to Africa, nothing about Africa itself. Now I realise it was another attempt to change Africa. There was no attempt to engage, no comprehension of another world out there, no respect for Africa. That aid-led solution is now trickling away into irrelevance.

    is a travesty of what the 2005 CfA report said.

    The report – which was written by a Commission which included a majority of Africans – had a dual focus throughout: on what the West should do, yes, but also on what Africa needed to do itself.
    That meant Africans:
    • improving governance, fighting corruption, creating greater transparency and accountability, better information systems and strengthening parliament, the media, the independent judiciary and civil society.
    • It called for the removal of trading barriers between African countries and greater regional economic synergies.
    • It demanded that African governments switch resources from defence to education and health, removing hospital and school fees, and improve resources for pan-African organisations to help women and children.
    • It said that African leaders must promote economic growth and poverty reduction as part of the same economic strategy so that poor people could participate in growth.
    • It demanded pan-African groups should monitor all this.

    the idea that the report’s “treatment of the causes was superficial and purely external” is nonsense. This was very far from an “aid-led solution”.

  8. Hear-hear, an excellent riposte to Humphrey’s Liberia report, and thank you Mr Dowden for providing some balance. It may interest you to know that work is well advanced for the launch of the first pan-African news channel later this year, from Nigeria, which will go a long way towards redressing the way the continent is reported. The channel’s tagline, interestingly enough, is ‘Through African Eyes.’

  9. Having lived in Nigeria I can say the western media almost always gets it wrong, at least concerning Nigeria. However, I disagree with the why. Our media gets it wrong because they view everything through the lens of liberalism rather than reality. The only views and ideas expressed are those acceptable to the western progressives. And western progressives will never understand Africa, never see the underlying problems because that would require them to see evil and admit that not all cultures and religions are equal.

  10. I spent 37 years in Afric development process. Hands on first in the field and later in major financial ability position (EU). You quickly learned that nobody in Europe and I mean NOBODY was really interested in Africa and its problems and the daily life. The pleasures (and sometimes frustrations) of dealing with Africans from the village to the President him/herself. The attitude is to a very high degree due to the Press – whether BBC or the Scandinavian press I have followed. It seems (as the letter says) that it is impossible for a journalist to penetrate with stories that depict and describe what it is to be African (or even European development worker). In the end the best sign that a country is on the way forward is when the Western press “forget” to write about it. Sad but true. I .e. all the press talks about the prevarications of Zanu/Mugabe in Zimbabwe – but despite this the country is still a remarkable place to visit and in its own way it is going forward economically. Another example is the recent death of the Malawian President Mutharika and the pressure of civil society on the ruling party to allow the Vice President Joyce Banda to take over as President. Democracy has many different expressions and we can NEVER use an European model (said by someone who has preached it for 25 years).

  11. With more crises around the World grabbing the limited attention span of audiences in the West, more increasingly reverting to tweets and sound bites how is one expected to provide a nuanced view to an “uncaptivated” audience. Africa’s problems largely stem from a lack of effective consistent leadership…. ala China! It is also up to African journalists and some do a very good job, to articulate the African story with all its warts and successes, but the fundamental change will come over time from within.

  12. Why did Peter Christiansen spend 37 years in a futile enterprise and then blame the Western media for this futility while he did nothing but enjoy a privileged comfortable protected life paid for by Western taxpayers? Why does Richard Dowden write of Africa as a homogenous, single entity? – a Nigerian may be no better placed than a Brit to report on Angola. So I agree with Mark Dyar that the lens is the issue – liberalism for the West; the defensive blame-game by some African journalists is another problem. I would say agenda-driven subjectivity and the end of objectivity in reporting which affects all media today is the biggest problem. But I agree with Kit that the “aid industry” is the BIG issue here. Let the Western media blow open this industry, expose for Western taxpayers the privileged, comfortable, protected lives of all these donor/aid workers achieving nothing all in the interests of Western elites and big business who drive Western agendas. Then African eyes will get a look-in and African voices that are already shaping development here can begin to be heard in the development programmes of Western universities (or better still, scrap development studies and just do the work needed on the ground instead of spewing out meaningless jargon reports)

  13. The West cannot design a comprehensive (external-imposed) reform for a poor country that creates benevolent laws and good institutions to make the economic markets work. Experience demonstrates that the rules that make markets work reflect a complex bottom-up search for social norms, networks of relationships, and formal laws and institutions that have the most payoff. To make things worse, these norms, networks and institutions change in response to changed circumstances and their own past history. Political philosophers such as Burke, Popper and Hayek had the key insight that this social interplay was so complex that a top-down reform that tried to change all the rules at once could make things worse rather than better.

    Piecemeal reformers, foreign and domestic, can try to move toward better systems that are sensitive to local conditions and that unshackle the dynamism of individuals everywhere. The dynamism of the poor at the bottom has much more potential than planners at the top.

    Monte McMurchy

  14. So the Today programme tries to start a report on africa that goes beyond the usual cliches, and all they get is criticism? come on, give them a hand, don’t just stamp on the attempt.
    I also heard a BBC report on Syria (John Simpson) that pointed out that the current government does have its supporters, and might in fact still win. I see a definite change in BBC news policy here to report in a more balanced way, and watch with interest to see how long it will last.
    When I hear them compare and contrast the 100,000 plus civilian deaths caused by the invasion of Iraq, compared to the 7,000 plus deaths so far in Syria, I’ll think they are actually making progress. Not that 7,500 deaths are acceptable at all, but that we are hardly in a position to take the moral high ground.

  15. If only we as journalists were given the chance to write stories and make programmes about the real Africa, beyond the disaster headlines. But editors just aren’t interested; it doesn’t sell papers and their attitude is, who-ever has heard of Senegal or Mali or Guinea Bissau anyway. Frustrates me every day.

  16. Twenty years ago, I would be bothered about what people like Humphrey wrote about Africa. Today, I don’t care.

    Almost 30 percent of all Nigerians have access to the internet, so they can seek out facts for themselves. I grew up listening to BBC Africa, but the last time I listened to them was in the early nineties (from my dad’s old radio).

    Today, even my dad doesn’t listen to the BBC Africa service – he has a cable subscription and he says Al Jazeera presents a more balanced picture of Africa than any of the Western news channels.

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  19. We all know that death, disease and destruction are news. We all know that Europeans and Americans want to “save” we Africans. We can see it from the way their celebrities come over to Africa to adopt African children as part of their good deeds. They want to show that they are socially responsible and what better way to do it than to save Africa

  20. This is more like the debate that is needed! I believe Africa should be left to it’s own devices, to determine it’s own place in the world. If they need any sort of help I am sure they could ask for it and I am equally sure it would be given, hopefully, in the right spirit with good grace and free of the strings usually attached.

  21. I so agree with the European eyes comment. I have lived in Africa – Malawi- for over35 years, and have watched in increasing frustration the modernisation of a wonderful people. Yes, of course the 20th/21st century needs to be understood by Africans, but it is so often a case of ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ as an idea or change is grasped only for a cultural value, (which we in the West could do with learning about,) to be lost to the upcoming generation. African is a continent of extreme contrast and is peopled by some fantastic nations who have so much going for them if only their true needs could be realised and if only their leaders could stop kowtowing to ideologies which cannot be imported from one country to another on a whim.

  22. Excellent article and a much needed corrective. A shame, then, that some here pick up the very cake mould that Mr Dowden has just dashed to the ground and use it to form an equally potted, easy-on-the-palate argument against aid.

    Just as the there are plenty of parallel stories that belie the steady diet of famine, political instability, etc. that we are fed by mainstream news channels, there is another side to aid beyond the bloated, ineffectual industry that is so ripe for censure. The problem with these broad-brush arguments like “aid has achieved nothing” is that they tar ALL efforts termed aid as a waste of time. The cudgel that certain contributors here use to indiscriminately dispense justice to the fat cats ends up causing collateral damage to tens of thousands of village nurses, teachers of street children, and AIDS orphan workers.

    Much of bilateral international aid in its current form is no doubt worthy of this scorn. But the simplistic argument that “all aid is bad” is hardly any better than “all of Africa is a war zone.”

    There is an implicit agenda here that aid is unnecessary—that market forces will ensure progress. To a large degree it is undoubtedly true that we need to recognize the primacy of market forces for social progress, but it is equally valid to assert a place for better targeted aid in helping empower and safeguard people to better contribute to that process.

    The key message I take away from Dowden’s article is that what we desperately need in this debate is nuance, not more stereotypes.

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