Self-serving, Sensationalist or Lazy Journalism? Hilary Andersson, Panorama and Darfur

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Preface

On 14 November 2004, the BBC screened a report by Panorama, its flagship investigative programme. Entitled "The New Killing Fields", and made by Hilary Andersson, the report purported to be an examination of allegations of genocide in Darfur. Far from demonstrating any investigative journalism, Ms Andersson’s report had more in common with British Tabloid journalism, relying on sensationalism, inaccurate stereotypes and unproven claims. In so doing this Panorama programme deviated significantly from the journalistic standards normally associated with the Panorama series and violated the BBC’s own ‘Producers’ Guidelines’. The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council has made the following formal complaint to the BBC about the programme. ***

THE EUROPEAN-SUDANESE PUBLIC AFFAIRS COUNCIL

Our Reference: D/MC/121/04

16 December 2004

BBC Complaints

BBC Information

PO Box 1922

GLASGOW
G2 3WT

Dear Sir or Madam

PANORAMA, "THE NEW KILLING FIELDS", 14 NOVEMBER 2004

We wish to formally complain about the above Panorama programme, "The New Killing Fields", reported on by Hilary Andersson and screened on 14 November 2004. We feel that the programme deviated significantly from the journalistic standards normally associated with the Panorama series and violated the BBC’s own ‘Producers’ Guidelines’. The BBC is publicly committed to values and standards. These are outlined in the BBC’s ‘Producers’ Guidelines’, and we have referred to these guidelines in order to frame our particular complaints about the programme in question. In the section entitled "Our Journalistic Values", these guidelines declare that "Accurate, robust, independent, and impartial, journalism is the DNA of the BBC." They also call for people to be able to rely on the BBC for "unbiased and impartial reporting and analysis to help them make sense of events; and where a debate can take place in which relevant and significant voices are heard…"

Ms Andersson’s reporting of a very grave issue, allegations of genocide in Darfur, was both flawed and deeply questionable. It goes without question that any journalistic investigation of allegations of genocide must be thoroughly professional and objective. Anything less is simply unacceptable. "The New Killing Fields" fell considerably short in both respects. The thrust of Ms Andersson’s programme was clear. Her reporting presented a case for genocide in Darfur. The title of the programme made that clear from the start and she presented an incomplete and questionable picture of events to support her case. In so doing this Panorama programme also fell short of the standards outlined in the BBC’s ‘Producers’ Guidelines’.

That there has been a humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur is self- evident. Ms Andersson’s report essentially cut and pasted footage in an attempt to put her case for genocide in Darfur. This undermined the report’s chronological integrity from the very beginning of the programme. It is a simple fact that the bulk of the actions that framed the tragedy of Darfur happened up to April 2004. The April ceasefire and the deployment of thousands of policemen in Darfur essentially stabilised the situation in Darfur. Ms Andersson reported from Darfur during this earlier period and did not then assert that genocide had taken place. It is hard to see how not having seen or reported "genocide" then, that a subsequent visit to Darfur during a period of comparative stability during which the UN and other aid agencies were able to reach most if not all of those Darfurian communities in need of humanitarian assistance, Ms Andersson is then able to insinuate that genocide has/is taking place in Darfur. Ms Andersson’s attempt to update her coverage of Darfur from earlier in 2004 did not produce anything remotely supportive of her assertions of genocide in Darfur. By way of evidence Ms Andersson produced interviews and a Sudan Liberation Army rebel videotape which – even if taken at face value – point to the sorts of appalling human rights abuses that are tragically a hall-mark of many African and European civil wars. However much Ms Andersson and Panorama may have sought to package the suffering of those she interviewed, it was simply not evidence of "genocide".

While there were several examples of questionable and lacklustre journalism in Ms Andersson’s report, we would like to draw particular attention to two issues.

A Failure to Reflect "all significant strands of opinion"

In making our complaint we would first wish to review the journalistic standards we believe should have been applicable to Ms Andersson’s programme. (We would be grateful you are able to point to any other relevant BBC guidelines and criteria against which we can assess Ms Andersson’s report). We note that with regard to "impartiality" the BBC’s ‘Producers’ Guidelines’ state: "Openness and independence of mind is at the heart of practising accuracy and impartiality. ***We will strive to be fair and open minded by reflecting all significant strands of opinion, and by exploring the range and conflict of views. Testing a wide range of views with the evidence is essential if we are to give our audiences the greatest possible opportunity to decide for themselves on the issues of the day.***" [emphasis added]

With regard to "accuracy" and "achieving accuracy", the Guidelines state that "The BBC must be accurate. Research for all programmes must be thorough. We must be prepared to check, cross-check and seek advice, to ensure this. ***Wherever possible we should gather information first- hand by being there ourselves or, where that is not possible, by talking to those who were***.[emphasis added] Accuracy can be difficult to achieve. It is important to distinguish between first and second-hand sources."

With the above guidelines in place, in reviewing and asserting grave allegations of genocide in Darfur, one would have expected a far more professional, systematic and all-encompassing approach by Ms Andersson and Panorama. With regard to "impartiality in general", the BBC’s ‘Producers’ Guidelines’ clearly states that: ***"No significant strand of thought should go unreflected or under represented on the BBC."*** [emphasis added] Ms Andersson’s reporting clearly did not reflect "all significant strands of opinion" on allegations of genocide in Darfur. She also did not talk to "those who were [there]". Her programme pointedly ignored the views of the most respected, independent, vocal and accessible authority on the issue of genocide in general and allegations of genocide in Darfur in particular – the views of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). MSF is also the biggest humanitarian aid agency present in Darfur.

In an unprecedented intervention on the issue of allegations of genocide in Darfur MSF President Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol publicly stated that the use of the term genocide in Darfur was inappropriate: "Our teams have not seen evidence of the deliberate intention to kill people of a specific group. We have received reports of massacres, but not of attempts to specifically eliminate all the members of a group". (1) MSF’s deputy emergency director Dr Mercedes Taty, who worked with 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals throughout Darfur at the height of the emergency, also publicly warned: "I don’t think that we should be using the word ‘genocide’ to describe this conflict. Not at all. This can be a semantic discussion, but nevertheless, there is no systematic target – targeting one ethnic group or another one. It doesn’t mean either that the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself." (2)

Even a cub reporter reporting on Darfur would agree that Médecins Sans Frontières is an exceptionally credible observer with regard to allegations of genocide for at least three reasons.

Firstly, MSF was amongst the first humanitarian groups to establish a presence in Darfur as the conflict unfolded. MSF is very heavily involved in the provision of medical and emergency services in all three of the states that make up Darfur, deploying two thousand staff. It has been actively assisting hundreds of thousands of people displaced by fighting throughout the region. [See, for example, MSF’s own briefing: "Médecins Sans Frontières has been working in Darfur since December 2003. Today, 90 international volunteers and nearly 2,000 Sudanese staff provide medical and nutritional care in areas with more than 400,000 displaced people. Medical teams conduct medical consultations and hospitalisation, treat victims of violence, care for severely and moderately malnourished children, and provide water, blankets, feeding and other essential items in Mornay, Zalingei, Nyertiti, Kerenik, El Genina, Garsila, Deleig, Mukjar, Bindisi, and Um Kher in West Darfur State; Kalma Camp near Nyala and Kass in South Darfur State; and Kebkabiya in North Darfur State. MSF also continues to assess areas throughout Darfur. Additional teams provide assistance to Sudanese who have sought refuge in Chad in Adre, Birak and Tine, Iriba and Guereda." (3)] Médecins Sans Frontières is also present and engaged in Chad. MSF, therefore, have a unique institutional awareness of events in Darfur. Unlike Ms Andersson, whose presence in Darfur can best be described as occasional, Médecins Sans Frontières have been in Darfur for almost a year.

Secondly, MSF’s reputation and integrity is quite simply beyond reproach. Médecins Sans Frontières was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. It has also received numerous other awards recognising its outstanding humanitarian work throughout the world. MSF’s record with regard to genocide is also unambiguous. Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, cited above, headed MSF’s programs in Rwanda in 1994, and spent several weeks assisting the surgical team that struggled to remain in Kigali during the genocide. Dr Bradol and MSF called for armed intervention in Rwanda stating "doctors can’t stop genocide". Dr Bradol has stated that "Genocide is that exceptional situation in which, contrary to the rule prohibiting participation in hostilities, the humanitarian movement declares support for military intervention. Unfortunately, an international military intervention against the genocide never came to pass and the Rwandan Patriotic Front did not win its military victory until after the vast majority of victims were killed." Given the clear position with regard to genuine genocide taken by Dr Bradol and MSF, their unambiguous position in pointedly criticising allegations of genocide in Darfur is all the more powerful.

Thirdly, Médecins Sans Frontières has been the only aid agency active in Darfur to have publicly gone on the record with regard to allegations of genocide.

In the light of the above, we must ask several questions of Ms Andersson and Panorama. Was she aware of Médecins Sans Frontières’ stance with regard to allegations of genocide in Darfur? Why were the clearly relevant views of Médecins Sans Frontières ignored in her report? Why did Ms Andersson not interview Médecins Sans Frontières about allegations of genocide in Darfur? Did she really believe that MSF’s view on the issue of genocide was irrelevant or not significant? If she was not aware of MSF’s position would that not indicate inadequate background research on this grave issue? It is all the more surprising that Ms Andersson did not approach Médecins Sans Frontières given that she filmed MSF facilities in Darfur. Why did Panorama choose to use MSF as a prop and not a commentator? Could this have been because Ms Andersson knew they may well have contradicted the core of her report?

Similarly, it is strange that while interviewing African Union officials in Darfur, she pointedly chose not to ask their position with regard to allegations of genocide in Darfur. Like Médecins Sans Frontières, the African Union has a presence in Darfur, albeit subsequent to that of MSF, and its position is a clear one. It has been outlined by the current Chairman of the African Union, Nigerian President Obasanjo. Speaking at a press conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on 23 September 2004 the AU Chairman stated: "Before you can say that this is genocide or ethnic cleansing, we will have to have a definite decision and plan and program of a government to wipe out a particular group of people, then we will be talking about genocide, ethnic cleansing. What we know is not that. What we know is that there was an uprising, rebellion, and the government armed another group of people to stop that rebellion. That’s what we know. That does not amount to genocide from our own reckoning. It amounts to of course conflict. It amounts to violence." This echoed previous African Union statements in July 2004 that: "Even though the crisis in Darfur is grave, with unacceptable levels of death, human suffering and destruction of homes and infrastructure, the situation cannot be defined as a genocide". (4) Given that Ms Andersson self-servingly interviewed African Union officials about allegations of human rights abuses, why did she not interview the African Union about allegations of genocide in Darfur? Was she aware of the African Union’s stance with regard to allegations of genocide in Darfur? If she was not aware of the African Union’s position would that not indicate inadequate background research on this serious issue?

The Questionable Use of Language

The BBC’s ‘Producers’ Guidelines’ note the importance of using "accurate language", stating that "it is not sufficient that we get our facts right. We must use language fairly. That means avoiding exaggeration. We must not use language inadvertently so as to suggest value judgements, commitment or lack of objectivity." The title "The New Killing Fields" was simply unacceptable. They are words that directly refer to the genocide in Kampuchea in the 1970s – and was the title of a well-known film about the Kampuchean genocide. The absence of a question mark in the title was even more insidious. The use of this title implied precisely the sort of value judgement and lack of objectivity warned against in the ‘Producers’ Guidelines’.

The Use of Inaccurate Stereotypes

The ‘Producers’ Guidelines’ refer to "hurtful or inaccurate stereotypes" and under a section headed "misleading images" states that "Programmes must not allow offensive assumptions or generalisations in scripted material, and interviewees who express them need to be challenged wherever possible."

Hilary Andersson’s programme resorted to inaccurate stereotyping regarding Darfur, repeatedly referring either to "black Africans" or "Arabs". She referred, for example, to "black African rebels", "black Africans", "black African civilians", "African families", "black African population", "black African civilian areas" etc. She also referred to "Arab militias", "Arab-looking" and "the Arabs". In so doing Ms Andersson wittingly or unwittingly perpetuated the patently inaccurate stereotype that the conflict in Darfur has been a racial one in which light-skinned "Arab" tribes have been engaged in the "genocide" of black "African" tribes. These sorts of claims are particularly inflammatory and very questionable. We realise that Ms Andersson spent a short time in Darfur but it cannot have escaped her notice that "Arab" and "African" communities in Darfur are both black. This reality has been confirmed by prominent critics of the Khartoum government, amongst them people such as Alex de Waal and John Ryle. Alex de Waal has stated that "Characterizing the Darfur war as ‘Arabs’ versus ‘Africans’ obscures the reality. ***Darfur’s Arabs are black, indigenous, African Muslims – just like Darfur’s non-Arabs." *** (5) [emphasis added] De Waal has also made the point that "the simplistic characterization…of "Arabs" killing "Africans" doesn’t fit". (6) [It should be noted that Alex de Waal is a director of the human rights group, Justice Africa and a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University. He is the author or editor or several books, including ‘Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984-1985’, ‘Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa’ and ‘Who Fights? Who Cares? War and Humanitarian Action in Africa’. De Waal was formerly a co-director of African Rights and has worked for the Inter- Africa Group.] John Ryle, Chair of the Rift Valley Institute and a Research Associate of the Centre of African Studies at the University of London, has also noted that Arabs and non-Arabs "are generally physically indistinguishable". (7)

Numerous other journalists were able to note the dangers of stereotyping race and colour in Darfur. The London ‘Observer’ newspaper has reported, for example, that "[c]enturies of intermarriage has rendered the two groups physically indistinguishable". (8) Even ‘The New York Times’, a particularly vehement critic of the Sudanese government, has published articles with headlines such as "In Sudan, No Clear Difference Between Arab and African" pointing out facile stereotyping. (9)

Why was it that in the hour-long Panorama programme, Ms Andersson did not even address the fundamental issue of identities outlined above? While there could conceivably be a case for referring to "African" and "Arab" in the cultural context cited above. Ms Andersson’s repeated use of the term "black" within the Darfur context, however, in which both "Arab" and "African" are equally black-skinned is either deliberately self-serving and sensationalist or simply lazy journalism. Neither should have a place in BBC journalism. We are drawn to ask two questions of Ms Andersson on this issue. Could we ask if Ms Andersson was aware of the dangers of such stereotyping, and the views of people such as Alex de Waal on the subject? And if not, was her research not somewhat lacking?

We realise that this has been a lengthy complaint and that we have asked several questions of both the BBC and Ms Andersson. Given the grave nature of the allegations aired in the programme and the insinuations of genocide in Darfur made by Ms Andersson we feel that we are entitled to answers to our queries.

РWhy did Ms Andersson not interview or reflect the crucial perspective of M̩decins Sans Fronti̬res regarding allegations of genocide in Darfur? Were they not a "significant" or relevant "strand of opinion" on the issue in question?

– Why did Ms Andersson persist in using terms such as "black African" when she cannot have been unaware that – as clearly stated by experts such as Alex de Waal – Darfur’s "Arabs" are just as black as Darfur’s "Africans".

– Given that in her reporting Ms Andersson echoed claims made by the United States government, could we clarify whether or not Ms Andersson’s father is still a serving United States State Department official or attaché – and which department or agency he is serving or has served with?

MSF President Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol has described claims of genocide in Darfur as "obvious political opportunism". (10) Given Ms Andersson’s self-serving selectivity in sources and clear use of questionable stereotypes one cannot help feeling that Ms Andersson has engaged in some opportunism of her own with regard to Darfur. Perhaps she saw the Darfur issue as something with which to advance her career as a young woman in journalism. If so this attempt has been at the expense of her reputation, Panorama’s reputation and of the BBC in general.

We look forward to your reply to the issues we have raised in this complaint.

Should we not be satisfied with your response to our complaint about the above programme we would be grateful if you could outline any further complaints procedures open to us, including any bodies independent of the BBC. Y

Yours faithfully

Dr David Hoile
Director

References:

[1] "Thousands Die as World Defines Genocide", ‘The Financial Times’ (London), 6 July 2004. See also, Bradol’s views in "France Calls on Sudan to Forcibly Disarm Darfur Militias", News Article by Agence France Presse, 7 July 2004.

[2]. "Violence in the Sudan Displaces Nearly 1 Million. An Aid Worker Describes the Gravity of the Humanitarian Crisis", News Article by MSNBC, 16 April 2004.

[3]. See, for example, "We are looking at a second catastrophe", Darfur feature article on MSF Australia Website, http://www.msf.org.au/tw-feature/045twf.html

[4]. "Africans Press Sudan to Quell Violence", News Article by Associated Press, 6 July 2004.

[5]. Alex de Waal, "Darfur’s Deep Grievances Defy all Hopes for an Easy Solution", ‘The Observer’ (London), 25 July 2004.

[6]. Alex De Waal, "Tragedy in Darfur: On Understanding and Ending the Horror", Boston Review, October/November 2004.

[7]. John Ryle, "Disaster in Darfur", ‘The New York Review of Books’, Volume 51, Number 13, 12 August 2004.

[8]. "Empty Villages Mark Trail of Sudan’s Hidden War", ‘The Observer’ (London), 30 May 2004.

[9]. "In Sudan, No Clear Difference Between Arab and African", ‘The New York Times’, 3 October 2004.

[10]. "From One Genocide to Another", Article by Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, 28 September 2004, available at Médecins Sans Frontières (UAE) website, www.msfuae.ae

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