BBC apology to Band Aid over Ethiopian famine aid is not enough

Throughout today (4 November) the BBC is broadcasting an apology to Sir Bob Geldof and Band Aid for wrongly implying in a BBC World Service broadcast back in March that its allegations regarding the supposed diversion for military purposes of up to 95% of the famine relief aid for Ethiopia in the 1980s referred to Band Aid relief supplies, whereas the allegations made no mention whatever of Band Aid.  The BBC’s apology is widely reported in the rest of the media too.  The Guardian’s report quotes me as reacting ‘positively’ to the apology.

In fact the Guardian’s report omits the second half of my comment on the BBC apology, which was not positive at all.  I welcomed the comprehensive apology to Band Aid, but went on to say:

But I am sorry that the BBC has not taken the opportunity to put it beyond doubt that contrary to the false impression gained by thousands of people hearing the programme or reporting it elsewhere in the media, the allegations of diversion reported in the programme applied only to a small amount of aid given to a limited area of Tigray then under rebel control, not to the international relief effort in the whole of the rest of Ethiopia.    Although it was not the main question in the Band Aid complaint, this would have been a welcome opportunity for the BBC to put the record straight on that important issue too.

I have recorded my criticisms of the World Service programme elsewhere on this website and need not repeat them now (see for example

For a more up-to-date assessment of the adequacy, or lack of it, of the BBC’s response to Band Aid’s complaint, you won’t do any better than read Owen Barder’s blog post today (Thursday 4 November) at (“The BBC sexed up a report about aid to Ethiopia”). [Full disclosure: as Owen admits in his post, he is my son.]

The central charge against the programme, apart from its utterly baseless implied slur on Bob Geldof and Band Aid, is that it gave almost everyone who heard it or who heard the BBC’s publicity for it the firm impression that it was reporting credible allegations that up to 95% of all the huge amounts of famine relief aid given from all over the world to Ethiopia in the 1980s had been diverted to buy guns and ammunition.  In fact the allegations reported in the programme (with the BBC’s implied endorsement) applied only to a small and completely separate relief operation in a limited area of one Ethiopian province then controlled by rebel forces – an operation which amounted to at most 3 to 4 percent of the total Ethiopian relief effort.  No allegations of that kind have ever been made against the quite separate, huge main relief programme in Ethiopia proper, i.e. the rest of the country under the then government’s control.

Yet the BBC, having belatedly and reluctantly yielded to Band Aid’s determined demand for an apology for the slurs on itself, still claims that apart from the implied accusations against Band Aid, the programme as a whole was ‘valid’.   Well: please read Owen’s blog post and decide for yourself.

My interest in this derives from my own extensive if modest involvement in the Ethiopian famine relief effort as the then British ambassador in Ethiopia (1982-86).  I am in no doubt at all that this effort, by a score of governments, NGOs, and Ethiopian and other relief workers, supported by the generosity of private individuals all over the world, was outstandingly successful in saving some 6 to 7 million Ethiopians from death by starvation.  It was one of the most effective and uncorrupt operations in the annals of disaster relief.  It grieves me to see the BBC, presumably unintentionally, giving world-wide currency to the ludicrous suggestion that almost all of the relief supplies given for distribution to famine victims throughout Ethiopia were actually diverted and sold to buy arms and ammunition for rebel soldiers.  And it angers me to see the BBC doggedly refusing to acknowledge that this has been the amply documented result of a single misguided and heavily publicised radio programme on the much respected World Service.  The BBC is a great institution of which all Britons should be proud (and some are).  But it has made a much bigger and more damaging error here than it’s prepared to admit, even now.  Out of mere amour propre, the BBC is now compounding its responsibility for a single act of folly by still refusing to acknowledge the extent of its error.  At a time when its independence from government is threatened, this is a monumentally stupid moment for such obstinacy.


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