Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Everyone over a certain age (let's say 30) can recall the harrowing impact of Michael Buerk's first reports of a famine in Ethiopia in 1984.
The sheer biblical images of starving black children - their hollow eyes pleading for food to placate their empty, distended bellies, their ribs stretching their thin skins, their limbs shrivelled to mere bones and skin - shocked the West in our relative affluence.
What followed was Band Aid, Live Aid, and the growth of global consciousness in relation to the appalling poverty suffered on the African continent.
Since then, charities have reported 'donation fatigue' and the diminishing returns of shock footage of African carnage or disaster. Mass rape and child slavery in Darfur barely stirs us now. Burma is flooded, and we can barely bother to put a hand in our pockets.
But surely it is a new low in the quest for ratings to actually invent a famine where none exists?
This is the allegation a Norwegian TV documentary team have levelled at the BBC.
After the documentary aired in Norway, it won awards and raised serious questions about the BBC's role in reporting a famine in Niger in 2005. It accused the BBC and the United Nations of acting in tandem to create a climate of intervention where none was required.
That suited the UN, who apparently wanted into Niger, and suited the BBC who wanted a good exclusive story, as journalists are wont to do.
Niger is a desert land in the Southern Sahara. But it is rich with uranium and other resources, and its population are predominantly nomadic, like the Touaregs (see above). They are used to moving around to obtain food. It's not like the pasture lands of Ethiopia failing at all.
But after the documentary aired in Norway, the BBC pulled the rights to their own footage, meaning that the documentary had to air in Sweden in a shorter, much less impactful form. It hasn't been seen elsewhere yet.
Auntie Beeb pleads innocence, and claims all the Norwegians need to do is ask politely for the rights to the footage and they can have it.
So perhaps we might yet get to see this interesting Norwegian film, controversially titled 'The Famine Scam.'
I fervently hope that the buyers in RTE will make a point of picking up this documentary and showing it during prime time viewing.
Then we will be able to decide for ourselves if the BBC and UN were right and there was a famine in Niger.
Or we might find that 'Niger's prime minister, local residents, doctors working in the region, a US aid organisation spokesman and other journalists' are more plausible when they say that no famine ever occurred.