On April 27, a BBC Africa debate was broadcast live from the Ugandan capital Kampala. Over the last few months, BBC Africa has hosted debates asking whether the Democratic Republic of Congo is a failed state, delved into the possibilities of a sub-Saharan African Spring, discussed land-grabbing, and, with the International Criminal Court’s indictments all focussed on Africa, asked whether the continent is on trial.
The Kampala debate was titled Africa’s Global Image: Justified or Prejudiced?
This comes at a timely moment, given the recent controversy around that very issue triggered by the BBC’s decision to broadcast The Today programme live from Liberia earlier in April and their commitment to report regularly from the country for the rest of the year.
Africa through European eyes
Reacting to The Today programme’s decision, Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, took serious issue with presenter John Humphreys, writing: “‘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.”
Dowden’s concern is that, despite the fact that John Humphreys claims to have reported on African issues “for more than 45 years”, it is only now the BBC is beginning to report the “deeper realities” of Africa.
“European eyes...have always dictated the global image of Africa” says Dowden. “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.”
As Dowden rightly puts it, Western media news values do not seem to include “a mission to explain...why Africa is the way it is. Editors are only interested in coups, wars, hunger, disease, and Robert Mugabe”. In the end, what others may consider to be a simple function of ignorance and “lazy journalism” ends up shaping the agenda and image of the entire continent and its billion-plus population.
One particularly vivid example of this emerged in last year’s BBC documentary The World’s Worst Place to Gayin which gay British DJ Scott Mills interviewed a number of homosexual individuals living in one of Uganda’s many slums. His ignorance then came rushing forth when, after the interview, he asserted as fact that his interviewees had been forced to live in those slums because they were gay.
Even for a London DJ, it is hard to believe that Scott was completely oblivious to the socio-economic factors that force millions into African slums. But that did not stop him from presenting the issue with the sort of sensationalist astonishment that inevitably leaves an inaccurate image of Uganda engrained in the minds of millions of the BBC’s viewers worldwide.
As one commentator under Dowden’s article ably put it, “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 [that] the depth of their ignorance is fuelled by some western media programming depicting Africans as either crazed, starving, conniving, fraudulent or irrational.”
Or as Basil Davidson put it in The Black Man’s Burden, it will take great effort to “defy a sceptical, mocking, or contemptuous outside world taught by decades of imperialist ideology that Africans were really, if truth be told, primitive beings incapable of knowing what was best for themselves, let alone anyone else.”
Indeed, Africa’s relative success stories provide Western editors with a dilemma. In their eyes, Africa cannot be both poor, disease-ridden, and also be the site of stability and growing democratic maturity. Within this context, no news is generally good news for Africa’s image.
The role of reform
Western ignorance, lazy journalism, and toxic imperialist ideology aside, however, Africa is itself of course not innocent in the construction of its negative image.
The conflict, disease and poverty for which Africa hits the headlines have not been heaven-sent, but are often the results of – in the words of Nelson Mandela talking about Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe – a “tragic failure of leadership”.
The most constructive thing Africans could do to improve their image worldwide then is also perhaps the most positive thing they could do for themselves – embark upon radical socio-economic and democratic reforms.
And if evidence of what that might entail were needed, Africa has already provided itself with the answer. No PR firm on the planet could have delivered the positive coverage that the Arab Spring delivered for Tunisian and Egyptian pro-reform activists. Furthermore, as any PR professional will attest, PR is not about defending the indefensible at all costs; often the best PR strategies suggested to rogue regimes are nothing more than a measured process of reform.
The African perspective
Another crucial part of improving Africa’s global image will also inevitably have to come from an increased inclusion of African voices in telling African stories. Al Jazeera, for example, has effectively deployed the expertise of African journalists who, by virtue of their local upbringing, experiences and cultural values, have a deeper insight into Africa’s intricate issues than foreign “experts” can.
That, more than anything else, makes a strong case for the establishment of a Pan-African media house that could in time succeed in telling the African story truthfully through African eyes.