Monday, 29 February 2016

Charles Moore is spot on - the BBC shouldn't employ local reporters abroad, except in extremis

In his weekly Daily Telegraph column this morning, Charles Moore tackled a subject that has been driving me mad for the past few years, namely the BBC trend of featuring news reports from foreign countries by journalists from that region. This practice is particularly questionable when that country happens to be a repressive police state riven by tribalism and ruled by a blood-soaked tyrant. Here's what Moore wrote about a BBC News report on fun-lovin' mass murderer Robert Mugabe's compulsory 92nd birthday celebrations:
On the BBC News channel, I watched an astounding dispatch from the festivities. The reporter, Nomsu Maseko, explained how thousands, their spirits undampened by rain, had turned out to cheer and “some couldn’t contain their excitement”. She noted that Mugabe was “in remarkably good shape” with “astounding presence of mind”. She admitted that his party was subject to some criticism, but quoted him to show that he was determined to “address tension and in-fighting”. She added that “many still praise his leadership skills”, finding one of his ministers ready to do just that on air.
Is Ms Maseko, I wonder, the victim of the often misguided BBC policy of using local reporters in far-flung countries on grounds of “diversity” (and saving money)? In nasty places like Zimbabwe, local reporters can be subjected to pressure by the regime in a way that British ones cannot. If that is so in this case, the BBC should protest to the authorities, not broadcast her pro-regime propaganda. If her preposterous report is how she truly sees the old monster, why is the BBC employing her?
Quite. I saw the report (you can watch it here), and it just wasn't good enough - it seemed, at best, naive, at worst, biased. What about an interview with a critic? What were these "tensions" within ZANU-PF? What about the malevolent old bastard's abysmal human rights record? The impression that we Brits were being fed a line wasn't helped by Ms Maseko's South African accent. When I'm watching a report from a country run by a vicious dictator, I want the reporter to have a British accent, because I want to have some sense that they're looking at this from a British perspective - they need to know what we, the viewers who pay their wages, need to know. What they look like doesn't matter - what they sound like does.

There are exceptions to this rule. I'm happy for British news organisations to use foreign journalists   - they're often very insightful  - but only in the right context, which is mainly as articulate commentators with specialist local knowledge. This only works if we also know the nature of the newspaper or television or radio station they work for - i.e. is it state-funded, is it liberal, does it support the opposition, etc.

Another exception is when a country or region is suddenly engulfed by a crisis - war with a neighbour, civil war or a military coup -  and the BBC (or Sky News or ITV News) can't get their people there quickly enough, or the very fact that they work for those organisations means they can't gain access to the places they should be reporting from: that's when locals come in handy. But, in those instances, if at all possible, I'd prefer that the local reporter be interviewed by the newsreader rather than file a video package. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with wheeling a heavily-accented BBC journalist from, say, BBC Arabic or BBC Persian into the studio to explain what the hell is happening in "their" region - I've seen some cracking interviews of this sort on the BBC News Channel over the last few years.

Obviously, this doesn't mean that we should trust all BBC foreign correspondents just because they have British accents. The hagiographic nature of most of the reporting on Obama's presidency has been quite shameful. Some of the reports from the Middle East during the last 15 years have been so anti-Israeli and so slavishly Pro-Palestinian, they might as well have been filed by a member of Hamas wearing a mask and firing a Kalshnikov into the air as part of their sign-off. Who, for instance, will ever forget BBC Correspondent Barbara Plett's 2004 report as the mortally ill Yasser Arafat was flown out of the West bank for the last time?
Though full of uncertainties, Mr Arafat's life has been one of sheer dedication and resilience...when the helicopter carrying the frail old man rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry... without warning...In quieter moments since I have asked myself, why the sudden surge of emotion?
I can think of a few reasons, love. Oddly, our unbiased observer left out the role terrorism, torture and corruption had played in Arafat's life - but, hey, it was all in a good cause, right? (Plett's appalling article is still available on the BBC News site.)

When we here in Blighty listen to or read a report by the likes of Barbara Plett - just as when we listen to Orla Guerin or Jeremy Bowen or most of the corporation's Middle East bods - we know where they're coming from and what their prejudices are: we recognise the type. However, when we listen to an African reporting from some lawless, Heart of Darkness-style hell-hole, or even an Indian reporting from some part of their country, we have no idea how far to trust the line we're being fed. That's largely because we don't know whether we share the same cultural background as - and therefore a roughly similar worldview to - the reporter, and we have no idea whether the report has had to be slanted in order not to upset the local authorities: after all, unlike, say, a Kate Adie or a John Simpson (or whoever their modern equivalents are) these local reporters have to go on living in the places they're reporting from, without a British passport to shield them from possible reprisals.

Moore wonders whether the BBC is using foreign (or local) journalists to save money or to be more "diverse". I suspect both play a part, but, ultimately, I bet the subconscious motive is the strange left-liberal conviction that no national culture is superior to any other (although in Britain's case, ours is probably inferior), and a suspicion that anyone who prefers to get their news from a journalist who looks and sounds like them is a rampantly racist xenophobic who supports UKIP and wants to leave the EU. Well, bugger that - give me some grizzled old cynic in a whisky-stained safari jacket any day.


  1. Charles Moore has been very impressive lately and I, too, am glad to see he has brought this one up. It's something I have banged on about often enough on Biased BBC. I simply have no way of knowing whether some local hack has an axe to grind in his or her reporting and, perhaps more to the point, I very much doubt if the BBC's commissioning editors have, either.

    But to extend Moore's point, why do we need so many foreign reporters, local or not? What on earth do the strangulated, whining tones of Plett or (my personal peeve) Lyse Doucete bring to us that someone from this country couldn't? And why do we need to import so much Irish bleeding heart conscience? Guerin, Keane, the pair of them could fill a swimming pool with their tears over the death of a flea.

    I also suspect the controlling fist of 'diversity' at work. Or perhaps the BBC holds secret 'talent' competitions to find the most culturally Marxist reporters in the world?

    Perhaps, if we can unshackle ourselves from the EU in June, in the reckoning that follows when we purge ourselves of faux Conservatives, we can find replacements with sufficient backbone to tackle the BBC once and for all.

  2. "I very much doubt if the BBC's commissioning editors have, either" hits the nail on the head - editors stuck in Portland Place can't know whether they're being fed a biased version of events (although, given that we all know what an evil scrote Mugabe is, I have no idea why any editor would have run Ms Maseko's report - there was some attempt to balance it in the newsreader introduction, but that's never satisfactory).

    Sorry to sound pessimistic, but I'm becoming more convinced that the inherent left-wing bias of the BBC will never be properly addressed, mainly because the chances of the Conservative Party ever again being led by a genuine right-winger - or of it being supplanted by a properly Thatcherite UKIP - are fast receding beyond my lifetime. I suspect the lefties who control the BBC, our state schools and our universities have successfully inoculated the younger generation against any danger of thinking for themselves. The EU referendum may very well be our last hope (and I'm not usually so apocalyptic).

    1. In my darker moments I tend to agree with your gloomy prognostication but now and again I get a flicker of hope. When Cameron decided to purge the local Conservative Associations this week I had a momentary vision of the blue hairs rising up and knifing the little bastard.

      Make it soon, blue hairs, make it soon...