Media short-changes the poor with soft-soap aid coverage

Published in The Guardian (17th March, 2013)

For several weeks, BBC television seems to have been dominated by build-up to Friday’s Red Nose Day, with worthy dramas and special editions of baking and dance shows to promote the cause. Finally the big day dawned, with the usual breathless coverage of celebrities doing zany things and feel-good films about saving the world.

It is all seen as great fun for a good cause. But pause for a second. Why does the state broadcaster hand over huge chunks of its valuable schedules for fundraising marathons that promote so powerfully an increasingly controversial and outdated worldview?

It is not just the toe-curling coverage of celebrities abroad, seen at its exploitative worst two years ago when a quartet of stars spent a week in a Kenyan slum and discovered that, hey, life’s tough there. It is the underlying message that aid is an unalloyed good thing, something at odds with so much evidence and a swelling chorus of African and Asian voices questioning the west’s right to meddle in their countries.

This stance is evident across the BBC. News programmes, so admirable in their challenging approach to most issues, provide unquestioning platforms when covering the work of charities abroad. Feared inquisitors bowl bouncers at politicians, business leaders and even their own bosses, yet aim the softest of questions at aid workers as if they are secular saints.

Journalism’s job is to challenge. But there are no questions over soaring salaries at Comic Relief, let alone on more fundamental issues of whether the work they fund does more harm than good. For there is plenty of evidence that for all the undoubted good intentions, the outcomes often backfire on the very people they claim to help.

I visited that same Nairobi slum last year at the suggestion of Kenyan staff at British charities, horrified by the profligacy and patronising attitudes of an ever-growing aid industry. It is a world in which money is often frittered away, of ceaseless chat at endless conferences. Many success stories are not what they seem. Politicians love to boast of boosting free primary education – but one previously thriving school told me all it did was double class sizes, since there were no extra teachers or classrooms, devastating standards and exacerbating inequality since richer pupils left for private schools.

The BBC – which to its credit did run one searing indictment of emergency aid on BBC4 last year – is far from alone in its approach. Newspapers promote the same agencies and anachronistic global view with Christmas appeals. And increasingly, as budget cuts bite deeper, some allow charities to set their agenda and fund foreign coverage, running stories presented on a plate without even declaring who paid for trips. Inevitably, this distorts the picture.

One journalist, taken out to cover a famine, was horrified to find aid workers partying with crates of booze close to people dying of starvation, then wandering around hungover the next morning swigging from mineral water next to new arrivals desperate for drink. Another found charities exaggerating refugee figures. In neither case did they tell these stories, since they felt under pressure to file uncritical coverage to make people donate money.

Last year when I asked Christian Aid about spending £16,722 taking journalists to India and Nicaragua, the charity responded that the resulting coverage was equivalent to advertising worth £161,000. It was a gratifyingly honest response. But nothing illustrates better how such groups are manipulating the media.

Aid is a powerful force in today’s world and the major players are influential institutions. Some have positive impact, some negative; none should be sacred. Red Nose Day symbolises how much of the media is shackled into an unholy alliance that does not serve the supposed beneficiaries of aid, does not serve the charitable sector and, above all, most definitely does not serve its audiences.

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