The April 4th edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme included an item concerning the new film about the Nigerian civil war ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ . The film’s director Biyi Bandele was interviewed by presenter John Humphrys, along with the author Frederick Forsyth who, as assistant diplomatic correspondent at the time, covered the conflict for the BBC. The item can be heard here for a limited period of time from 2:46:58.
Parts of the conversation with Frederick Forsyth include some thought-provoking background on BBC reporting of events at the time.
John Humphrys: “You were sent by the BBC to cover that and you ended up resigning. Well, whether you were sacked or resigned, you left the BBC and that’s because effectively, you did something reporters are never meant to do; you took sides.”
Frederick Forsyth: “Well that’s the great smear and it’s not true.”
JH: “I didn’t mean it as a smear but – it was a very honourable thing that you did…”
FF: “No, no; hold on. In the early days, before the children started dying, it was a non-war and I was sent down there as assistant diplomatic correspondent of the BBC with a briefing and the briefing came from the British High Commissioner in Lagos. It broadly said this is what has led to the secession of eastern Nigeria and therefore the civil war. This is what you’ll find when you get there and this is what’s going to happen in short order: this is a non-war; this is going to be wrapped up in about fourteen days.”
JH: “That’s a load of rubbish.”
FF: “A load of rubbish. I got there and I found absolute garbage from start to finish. But being young and naïve and not knowing anything about internal BBC politics…”
JH: “As they were then.”
FF: “As they were then – and please don’t imperil your mortal soul by suggesting there’s no such thing. Having discovered that what I’d been briefed was complete garbage, I said so, and it didn’t go down well. So I was told virtually to endorse, to authenticate, what I knew to be a tissue of lies and I said I can’t do that.”
JH: “Because millions of children were dying.”
FF: “Well no – this was long before.”
JH: “Or rather they hadn’t started to die at that point.”
FF: “There was nothing emotional about it at that time – it was a straight evaluation of a situation. The Nigerian army was not conquering all before it. It was stuck on the border. Nobody virtually was dying but I was told that I had to report sweeping victories by the Nigerian Federal Army.”
JH: “Told by?”
FF: “By Broadcasting House. This was what you might call the policy. It was being said out of Lagos, you see. Chief Anthony Enahoro’s propaganda ministry was publishing all this […] but Angus McDermott who was the West Africa correspondent was filing these claims from the propaganda ministry and they were appearing with attribution at paragraph three or four, so it sounded like flat statements of fact with the authority of the BBC behind it. So why wouldn’t I confirm? And that was where it was at. Therefore if I couldn’t confirm what must be true because the British High Commissioner was saying it was true, even though he was 400 miles from the fighting – the non-fighting – and I was in the middle of it, then I must be biased.” [….]
JH: “But the story that was put out was that you’d gone native.”
FF: “Yes I know. That was – they had to smear a reporter who’d done the unthinkable.” […]
JH: “I have to say that ehm…and I’m sure you’d accept… well I don’t know whether you’d accept this or not – but ehm…the idea of being told these days to write something, to report something that you knew not to be true is simply – in this organisation – is unthinkable. I mean I’d say that without fear or favour, as it were.”
FF: “OK – well it wasn’t unthinkable then because that was my brief. My brief was simply…”
JH: “It was a long time ago.”
FF: “..my brief was this is what is happening, why are you saying the opposite? You must be biased.”
Quaint as it may be to see John Humphrys’ confidence in his claim that it is “unthinkable” that a BBC journalist would, over four decades on, be told “to write something…that you knew not to be true”, one has to conclude that he has not joined the dots between the BBC’s amplification of Nigerian propaganda in 1967 and its contemporary repetition of Hamas and Hizballah propaganda.
Humphrys also appears to prefer to avoid the fact that Broadcasting House “policy” from above clearly still shapes BBC reporting on a variety of topics. Its manifestation may, in the modern era, often be just as much about not writing something a reporter knows to be true, but it certainly still exists and it is facilitated by assorted style guides and editorial guidelines which, for instance, steer reporters towards coy avoidance of use of the word terrorism in certain parts of the world or continue to cause the BBC to embarrass itself with its ridiculous refusal to locate and recognise Israel’s capital city.