BBC retracts Band Aid ‘Money for Arms’ story

On Thursday morning 4 November the BBC news channels (radio, TV, web) broadcast an apology (‘BBC apologises over Band Aid money reports’) to the charity Band Aid, retracting as “misleading and unfair” a story broadcast in March this year that money raised by the charity had been diverted to buy arms in Ethiopia. The apology had disappeared from the BBC News home page headlines by mid-day, and wasn’t mentioned on the 10 o’clock news that evening.

The story started with a BBC World Service Assignment broadcast on 3 March (‘Ethiopia famine aid “spent on weapons”‘) which claimed that “Millions of dollars in Western aid for victims of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85 was siphoned off by rebels to buy weapons” and “The CIA, in a 1985 assessment entitled Ethiopia: Political and Security Impact of the Drought, also alleged aid money was being misused”. This and related web pages now carry a note saying “Correction 4 November 2010: This page has been amended following a complaint by the Band Aid Trust, which was upheld by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit”.

Interestingly the original story didn’t explicitly mention Band Aid. That aspect developed over the next day or two in follow-up reports on other BBC programmes. In a separate report on the first day (‘BBC’s Ethiopia weapons report denied’) Christian Aid are quoted as saying “our initial investigations do not correspond to the BBC’s version of events.” The false accusation that Band Aid money was involved seems to have been added to the story by BBC journalists who either didn’t know or didn’t care that there was no basis for their allegations.

On 7 March a furious Bob Geldof challenged the story (‘Bob Geldof demands proof of BBC Ethiopia aid report’). The BBC stuck to its claims, saying “The news and current affairs editor at the World Service, Andrew Whitehead, said the BBC stood by its report. Taking part in a discussion with Mr Geldof, Mr Whitehead said the BBC had ‘quite a lot of evidence’ to support the report.’ He referred to the CIA’s 1985 report: when it was pointed out that the report was written before Band Aid became involved in Ethiopia “He accepted the 1985 report from the crime agency was written before Band Aid had gone into Ethiopia, but said it established ‘a pattern’ that international aid was being used for military purposes.”

Eight months later and after a lengthy investigation the BBC issued its apology. They quote former BBC chairman Michael Grade, a trustee of the Band Aid Trust, who said “Assignment had ‘sexed up’ its story by trying to smear Live Aid”.

So what lies behind this smear campaign? Why did some (unidentified) journalist(s) ‘sex up’ the story? I don’t know, but I wonder if this lengthy Spinwatch article by Stuart Hodkinson from 2005 carries the germs of an explanation (‘Inside the murky world of the UKs Make Poverty History Campaign‘). It analyses the internal politics and troubles within the Make Poverty History campaign, of which Band Aid is part together with a huge cast list of other front-line charities. The article proposes that the radical intentions of the founders have been compromised by the pro-government politics of major players such as Oxfam who rely heavily on UK aid money, and Richard Curtis the film director, comedy writer (Vicar of Dibley, Blackadder, Mr Bean) and later major charity fundraiser – he is the man behind Comic Relief. The article says he is “a close friend of Gordon Brown”. There’s much more about Curtis but the article is too long and detailed to summarise here. For anyone interested in such things as why the Band Aid ‘money for arms’ story was invented it makes good reading.