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Decline and Fall of the BBC? (Commentary Magazine April 2013)

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Admired around the world, and nowhere more than in the upper reaches of the American media, the British Broadcasting Corporation has long enjoyed the unstinting support of Britain’s metropolitan media elite, whose views it both forms and reflects. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher considered it institutionally hostile to her person as well as to her agenda. Two decades later, Tony Blair went from being one of its favorites to its number-one target, largely though not exclusively because of the Iraq war, which the BBC opposed from the very first suggestion of military action against Saddam Hussein. By the time Blair came out in favor of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008, to the barely contained fury of the BBC’s news reporters and analysts, he had already become the despised outcast he is today in British metropolitan circles, spoken of by the BBC only in terms of opprobrium and bitter mockery.

In the last few months, however, the reputation of the BBC has been battered by a twin scandal involving pedophilia, cover-ups, and journalistic shoddiness. The scandal has, in turn, provoked widespread questions about the role and internal culture of the government-subsidized broadcasting behemoth as no previous controversies have done.

It began with the revelation that one of its biggest stars, Sir Jimmy Savile, for more than 30 years had exploited his youth-oriented programs to molest and, in some instances, rape children, often on BBC property. Savile, a peculiarly unattractive and charmless personality whose success was mysterious to foreigners and many Britons, was the longtime host of Top of the Pops, the UK’s equivalent of America’s Top 40, and of a program called Jim’ll Fix It in which children, often disadvantaged, would write and ask for a wish to be granted, such as meeting a famous person. Between the early 1960s and his death in 2011, Savile’s long white hair, chunky jewelry, and trademark Cuban cigars were inescapable on British TV, and his Northern-accented staccato voice was a staple in advertisements and public-service announcements.

The onetime miner, professional wrestler, and dance-hall disc-jockey had a face for radio and a voice for mime. He was not witty or smooth or charming. But in the mid-1960s, he had the advantage of being obviously working class at a time when the BBC establishment was painfully upper-middle-class and Oxbridge, and desperate to connect with youth culture and “the street.” It may well be that this background, and the BBC’s instinctive veneration for it, were among the things that made him so strangely untouchable even as rumors of his sexual predation accumulated. That he did so much charity work—in a country where charities and NGOs are nearly worshipped by the BBC and other media—also made him untouchable, while providing him with extraordinary opportunities for wrongdoing.

Savile raised at least $60 million for charity over the years. He was such a frequent visitor at children’s hospitals, care homes, and young offenders’ institutions that officials often provided him with places to stay or his own keys to their facilities.

There were persistent rumors about his sexual proclivities at these places and in the BBC. This was partly because he was an overtly creepy figure who lived with his mother until her death (he was a lifelong bachelor) and sported the mirthless grin of a horror-movie clown. But also he had been investigated by various UK police forces on several occasions as late as 2007 and inspired sporadic allegations of child abuse that never received much attention in the news media.

It seems, however, that he used a lupine cunning to intimidate officials who might have raised a flag. Not only was he a famous public man who skillfully exploited British worship of the nonprofit sector to foster his Teflon image of benevolence, he also had a sinister ability to get hold of confidential information about the staff in the hospitals and prisons he visited. A skillful bully, he apparently liked to remind anyone who seemed likely to ask awkward questions what good friends he was with senior police officers or members of the cabinet.

Shortly before Savile’s death in 2011, officials in the BBC’s senior management were alerted two times about new allegations of pedophilia against him. The BBC nevertheless went ahead with two celebratory programs about his career.

Later, the flagship current-events show Newsnight decided not to proceed with an investigative program about Savile and his alleged sex crimes, possibly because corporation executives feared they might spoil the tributes to him scheduled for Christmas 2011. Jeremy Paxman, the formidable lead presenter on Newsnight (who described Savile’s predation as “common gossip” and the BBC management’s handling of the affair as “pathetic” and “contemptible”), apparently pressed his bosses to run the show, but to no avail.

The then director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson—now chief executive of the New York Times—denies that he ever heard rumors of Savile’s activities, or that he had any role in the cancellation of the Newsnight program. His denial has been contradicted by one of the organization’s top reporters.

Nine months after the BBC canceled the Newsnight investigation of Savile, a program on the competing private network ITV supplied a devastating account of the star’s pedophilia, which led to a police investigation by 14 forces across the country. So far, almost 500 alleged victims have contacted the authorities, and police have recorded 31 convincing allegations of rape and 199 other serious crimes, many of them committed on BBC property. As more and more people broke their silence and recounted the experiences at his hands, it came to light that Savile had even molested children at a hospice.

It is worth noting that at the beginning of the scandal, Savile’s apologists pointed out that when he began his career as the host of a pop-music show in the 1960s it was “normal” for rock musicians and people in the industry to sleep with underage groupies. Well, perhaps, but Savile continued to pursue underage girls and, occasionally, boys for decades, and the victims he chose at places like juvenile detention centers or the Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric facility, were particularly unlikely to be believed when they complained.

The second stage of the two-part scandal took place after the editor of Newsnight had already stepped down (after denying that he had been pressured to drop the Savile program) and as the police began to investigate other claims of rape and pedophilia by entertainers at the BBC. In what looked suspiciously like an effort to distract the public from the Savile debacle, Newsnight accused a senior, retired Conservative politician of similar crimes. The groundless accusation was based on flimsy evidence: the memory of a now middle-aged victim of care-home abuse, some of whose previous accusations had turned out to be false and had cost Private Eye magazine hefty libel damages.

This Newsnight investigation had been outsourced to a little-known journalist collective called the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, run by a former BBC producer. No one in charge at the BBC checked the integrity of the investigation or even confirmed that the journalists had shown a photo of the politician to his accuser. Newsnight staff seem to operate under the same reflexive assumption that apparently governs the BBC’s drama producers—that villainy is mainly to be found among white, wealthy members of the old establishment. The fact that the politician in question, Lord McAlpine, had been a close associate of Margaret Thatcher’s—the BBC had never forgiven her for winning elections and changing the face of British politics, still less for forcing the resignation of its director general Alasdair Milne in 1987—presumably made Newsnight’s producers all the more likely to believe in his alleged proclivities.

There have been other BBC scandals in the last few years, though none—not even the 2003 Gilligan–Kelly affair, involving the suicide of a government scientist named as the source of a report claiming the government “sexed up” WMD evidence in advance of the Iraq war—has provoked the current level of soul-searching and external criticism.

In 2008, Panorama, an investigative journalism show, claimed that Indian subcontractors for the Primark department-store chain were using child labor. Primark complained that Panorama’s footage of boys in Bangalore sweatshops was fraudulent. An inquiry by the BBC Trust determined that it was indeed “more than likely” that the sweatshop scenes had been staged.

A year earlier, the BBC had been forced to apologize to Queen Elizabeth II after broadcasting a trailer that was deceptively edited to suggest she had stormed out of a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz. That same year, an internal investigation discovered that a BBC6 radio show had repeatedly faked competitions featuring nonexistent prizes and in which callers were actually members or friends of the production team. This was only one of several instances of pretend call-in shows discovered during the last decade.

Last year Sir David Attenborough, the celebrated maker of nature series such as Life on Earth, was revealed to have faked footage for his Frozen Planet series: A sequence capturing two newborn polar bears had not been filmed “under the ice” in the Arctic with the rest of the documentary but in a carefully constructed phony den in a Dutch zoo with fake snow. The BBC’s PR machine responded to public outrage by saying that no deception had taken place because the true circumstances of the footage were admitted in an obscure corner of a BBC website. Much to the shock of those who had in the past marveled at the extraordinary footage in his films, Attenborough himself crossly responded that such measures were normal and justifiable; it subsequently came out that polar-bear footage in a previous program had also been shot in a zoo rather than in the wild. He recently got in more trouble for claiming in a new documentary that parts of Africa have become 3.5 degrees (Celsius) hotter in the last 20 years. When challenged, the BBC defended the assertion, citing reports by Oxfam and Christian Aid, but eventually admitted that it had no basis in fact.

Usually the BBC’s staff, PR unit, and supporters have successfully dismissed even the most deserved and well-founded criticism as politically motivated or threatening to the organization’s prized independence and objectivity. Accusations of endemic and consistent political bias have been particularly easy to bat away, largely because those making the accusations fail to understand that the organization’s very real biases—even those against Israel and America—are largely unconscious.

If the latest scandal carries so much more weight, it may be because of the cumulative effect of smaller scandals, some of which, like the contemptuous coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, have exposed the elitist attitudes of the corporation’s management. The BBC’s partisans—and it remains a much-beloved institution—fear that the Savile-McAlpine affair could end the system according to which the BBC draws much of its annual income from the UK’s television-license fee.

Everyone in the UK who owns a television set has to pay an annual license fee of £145.50 ($228). This adds up to some £3.5 billion ($5.5 billion). (Another £1.5 billion, or $2.4 billion, comes from BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s profitable commercial arm.) The leading conservative columnist Charles Moore has called this “the most regressive and ruthlessly collected of all government imposts.” It clearly weighs more heavily on the poor than on the rich. This seems all the more unfair given that the fee is generally justified by the BBC’s defenders as funding the production of critically lauded drama and current-events programs that are watched by the upper-middle class.

In fact, the costume dramas so often bought by PBS and the current-events programs that were widely believed to be such fine examples of professional “objective” journalism account for a very small amount of the BBC’s product and budget. It actually spends much more public money trying to compete for audience share with lowest-common-denominator dreck like Hotter Than My Daughter, My Man Boobs and Me, and Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents—a reality show in which teenagers were taken to the Mediterranean and encouraged to behave badly without knowing that the BBC had secretly brought their parents to watch. It was the BBC, not one of its commercial rivals, that first imported the original junk-reality TV series Big Brother to the UK. It goes almost without saying that the free market has a proven ability to fund such programs.

There are institutional problems within the BBC almost as troubling as its failure to spot a pedophile in its midst, its ruthless cover-up of his activities, and its unjustified targeting of a Tory to distract the public from its shabby behavior.

The BBC’s broadcasts reach 97 percent of the British population and at least 224 million people abroad. It has extraordinary power over British political and cultural discourse, an influence even greater than that enjoyed by the New York Times in the United States. (It also exerts remarkable influence over elite American journalists, especially those who specialize in foreign affairs.) Those whom it anoints as important intellectual or cultural figures invariably become famous and influential; those whom it ignores have a hard time getting attention or traction.

Despite being notoriously poorly managed by an enormous, slow-moving, jargon-addicted bureaucracy, the corporation ruthlessly and successfully uses its political influence and its domination of TV, radio, and the Internet (the license fee allows it to put vast amounts of material on the Web) to prevent any potential competitor from developing a similar “cross-platform” media power. When the Murdoch media empire was bidding for full control of BSkyB (the country’s biggest satellite TV operator and the main challenger to BBC TV’s “freeview” service), the BBC joined the concerted, ultimately successful PR effort by the Guardian, the New York Times, and other organizations to influence the Ofcom regulator against News International. Before and after the hacking scandal, the BBC’s coverage of Murdoch and his papers was overtly disapproving or even hostile, contradicting the BBC’s statutory obligation to strive for objectivity and eschew bias.

Indeed, the BBC is such a power in the land that it could almost be another branch of government, albeit one without democratic legitimacy. It certainly can behave like a kind of permanent opposition to the country’s elected leaders. That could theoretically be a good thing, an additional check and balance on overweening state power, but there is an argument that in practice it has a subversive effect on British democracy and legitimacy. One of the striking aspects about its current-events coverage from a foreigner’s perspective is the overtly cynical, disrespectful attitude its interviewers display to politicians. And this is an attitude mirrored in the corporation’s dramas and comedies, which tend to portray politicians, almost uniformly, as liars and crooks every bit as evil as large corporations and business executives.

When one of the BBC’s grand inquisitors, such as the intimidating Jeremy Paxman, interviews a politician, his tone usually makes it clear that the latter is a liar who deserves to be caught out. The presenters on the morning show Today—listened to by everyone within Britain’s equivalent of the Beltway—behave the same way: Politicians are down in the gutter with Americans, generals, Catholic priests, bankers, and, of course, Israeli spokespersons, as presumptive liars and scumbags. When challenged, people in the BBC justify this aggressive stance as a courageous speaking of truth to power, but it is more often an exercise of power without responsibility: After all, the interviewees are the elected representatives of the people; the interviewers are self-appointed, publicly funded tribunes representing the assumptions and prejudices of the new ruling class.

It only takes a few days of listening to BBC talk radio or watching the news to get a sense of its institutional biases. You will never, ever hear an interviewer suggest that maybe the state should play a smaller role in some aspect of national life, that unrestricted mass immigration might have adverse effects, or that Britain’s welfare benefits might have undesirable social consequences or be prone to exploitation. You will certainly never encounter any skepticism about the UN, foreign aid, and the European project. Anyone who is unconvinced by the attractions of a European superstate is treated as a bigot or dinosaur or deemed mysteriously blind to the obvious appeal of “Europe” as envisioned by the modern and the cultured.

In terms of domestic politics, the BBC has exhibited, at least since the days of Thatcher, an institutional contempt for the Tory Party: Just as you are unlikely to meet a New York Times editor who openly votes Republican, there are simply no open Tories at the BBC. This is not surprising in that as a matter of course the corporation places its job advertisements in the left-of-center Guardian.

Much airtime is taken up by campaign-like bulletins that presume the existence and dangers of anthropogenic global warming, and impartiality goes out of the window whenever subjects like solar power and green taxes come up. Multiculturalism, though increasingly discredited in the UK as a whole, is still official BBC policy internally (diversity workshops are a grim fact of BBC working life), and BBC reporters and interviewers remain among its most resolute proponents. Ironically, although one BBC director general, lifetime Labour Party activist Greg Dyke, accused the corporation of being “hideously white,” its staff already includes a higher number of ethnic minorities than the nation as a whole, and its newsreaders an almost comically high proportion of the same. (The latter are often popular because anchors of South Asian, African, or Caribbean background are not discriminated against for speaking in the traditional Oxbridge or “received pronunciation” BBC accent. Yet white hires must have strong regional or working-class accents that can be hard to understand.)

Commentary readers may well have some sense that the BBC’s news division—the largest news organization in the world—has an Israel problem, as it was widely reported in the United States that the BBC’s then Jerusalem correspondent Barbara Plett actually wept in 2004 while covering the final illness of Yasir Arafat. (A BBC investigation responded to listener complaints by saying that her reporting met required standards of “fairness, accuracy, and balance.”) Plett, a Canadian, is now the BBC’s UN correspondent and remains obsessed with Israel. Another BBC correspondent in Israel, Irish journalist Orla Guerin, once produced a story about a curfew in Bethlehem titled “How the Israelis Stole Christmas.” But neither is as anti-Israel as some of the local BBC correspondents in Gaza, who in some cases are pro-Hamas activists in their spare time; their “balance” is nevertheless asserted by the organization.

Sometimes the corporation’s simplistic anti-Zionism gets its staff into trouble: It was almost certainly a factor in the kidnapping of its Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston in 2007 by gangsters with close connections to Hamas. Johnston, like many BBC reporters, was so close to Fatah that he was seen by some Gazans as essentially a Fatah agent. Palestinian Information Minister Mustafe Barghouti described him as “someone who has done a lot for our cause.”

Of all the reflexive political attitudes of BBC management and staff, the animus against Israel stands out for its obsessive and visceral qualities. The organization makes more documentaries about Israel and the Palestinians than about any other foreign subject. Again and again events in Israel and the Palestinian territories are the lead story on the BBC news website, even when world-shaking events are taking place in parts of the globe you might expect progressives to care about. The BBC’s Middle East “experts” were almost all taken by surprise by the Arab Spring, so focused were they on Israel, and so convinced were they that all the problems of the Middle East derive from the Zionist presence. An official internal report on anti-Israel bias by Malcolm Balen in 2004 has been suppressed by the BBC, presumably because it confirms the existence of the same; the corporation has spent almost $400,000 in legal fees defending the report against Freedom of Information Act requests seeking its release.

The institutional prejudices apparent in some of the BBC’s news and current-events coverage are often mirrored or even exaggerated in its entertainment output, a classic example being the successful spy series Spooks—which represents a world in which there is no Islamist terrorism and Islamist threats invariably turn out to be ruses created by evil Mossad agents and domestic right-wingers. The BBC’s serious dramas are often even worse. Every year the corporation funds heavy-handed agitprop TV films and series that are almost comical in their clunky earnestness, such as the recent consciousness-raising effort by Richard Curtis, The Girl in the Café, which starred Bill Nighy as a senior political adviser converted by Kelly Macdonald’s ingenue to the struggle against African poverty and Third World debt. Indeed, the corporation has fostered the careers of an entire cadre of hack dramatists such as Stephen Poliakoff, whose lifeless works do little but tick politically correct boxes.

The most important thing to understand about BBC bias is that, like its institutional obsessions with youth and celebrity, it is neither conscious nor in any way officially mandated. There are no orders from the top reminding journalists that Israel should be considered the greatest threat to peace, freedom, and justice, or that businessmen should generally be treated as crooks until proven innocent. That is just what everyone in the corporation believes in the same way that they know the world is round. Moreover, it is what they believe that everyone else—by which I mean everyone who is intelligent, educated, and of decent moral character—believes.

Given this perspective, it certainly should not have been a surprise to anyone that the Beeb fixed on a Tory grandee to blunt the impact of a pedophilia accusation against it. After all, for the great majority of the BBC’s journalists, producers, and managers, conservatives with a big or small c are the “other”: freakish almost by definition, and presumptively motivated by unfathomable and unattractive urges. Some BBC spokespeople seemed genuinely stunned when Lord Alistair McAlpine (whose name was revealed on Twitter) turned out to be the victim of mistaken identity.

For anyone who knows people who work at the BBC, this makes perfect sense. Many of my university contemporaries joined the BBC; they were pretty much all of a type, as if they had belonged to the same clique in high school. They were middle-class, middle-ability kids with predictably “right-on” (i.e., conventionally left-liberal) views. They shared mildly bohemian ideas about culture as a progressive, transgressive enterprise and were prone to conform to mainstream intellectual fashion. (There were a couple of exceptions: a girl whose spectacular sex appeal and wild clothes masked skeptical views about Third World virtues, and a hard-line Communist of working-class background whose eccentric career trajectory eventually took him to the Washington Times.) Those with whom I am still in contact decades later tend to have the same assumptions and attitudes that they had back in the Thatcher years. Conservatives are heartless, greedy, socially snobbish, and probably sexually deviant in repressed and dangerous ways. The UN is good, aid organizations are good, peace activists are good, unions are good, and the EU is good.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that a certain self-regard and the smug sense of belonging to an organization of uniquely intelligent, educated, and cultured people is what lies at the root of the BBC’s institutional problems. Now the BBC has revealed itself as capable of the worst kind of bureaucratic malfeasance for such a trusted and exalted organization—trying to hide its role as an abettor of an evil man by slandering a good one. Some part of its reputation may never recover.

Birrell on Aid

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Ian Birrell has been on something of a tear with two important pieces on Foreign Aid in the Guardian. “Overseas Aid – An Indefensible Ring Fence” and “Red Nose Day: Media Short-changes the Poor with its Soft Soap Aid Coverage“.  The latter mainly refers to the BBC which continues to give the equivalent of free advertising space to NGOs and charity campaigns (like this DEC Syria Appeal) as if they were not only politically neutral but uncontroversial in any way and a good thing that must not be examined or questioned in any way.


From Kuwait into Iraq: Ten Years Ago this week....

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On Facebook I have posted a couple of photo albums (here and here) from my time as an embedded reporter before and during the invasion of Iraq ten years this week. The first one begins at Camp Virginia where all of us in the Press Corps were taken from Kuwait City before being assigned to our respective unit and mostly features shots of camp life in the flat, featureless Kuwaiti desert where I was a guest of a combat engineer battalion (54 EN BN) normally based in Germany with V Corps but task-assigned to support the Third Infantry Division (3 ID). The second album includes photos from March 19-22 2003 when the unit moved up towards the border, heard and saw first artillery barrages and then crossed the border on the night of the 20th.

I will post a third in the next day or two with shots from the drive up country past Nasiriya and on,, the great sandstorm, the pause in the desert while logistics caught up with the 3ID’s three brigade combat teams (which was when a lot of idiot commentators in the US started going on about a “quagmire”), the bridge at Al Kifl etc.

"That's Your Cash Being Tossed Away..." (The Sunday Times, March 3 2013)

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That’s your cash tossed away with those aid leaflets

The Urdu sign above the door of the one-room concrete building proclaimed it to be a government medical dispensary. Inside, it was an empty shell. When I asked my guides to this village in the Kalash valleys of northwest Pakistan where the medicines were and when the government health worker was coming back, they laughed.

The health worker had never come, they said. The government had paid for the building and that was that. It was the same story at the village school, where no teacher had turned up. This particular village was near the border with Afghanistan, had been increasingly targeted by Taliban recruiters and was exactly the sort of place where a small amount of effective aid could have made a big difference.

Pakistan is one of the biggest recipients of British foreign aid, and, as a country with acute problems of conflict and what aid experts euphemistically call “poor governance”, it may get even more as the aid budget swells and the UK shifts its efforts away from wealthier countries such as Brazil and India.

Sometimes national or local authorities make genuine, effective efforts to ensure aid is reaching the needy. Mostly, though, they don’t. And Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) and other aid agencies often do not have sufficient trustworthy staff or the inclination to check for themselves, either. The average DfID staff member in Kenya spends only a day out in the field in any given year, preferring the villas, swimming pools and gap-year social life of Nairobi.

In any case, many agencies and their NGO (non- governmental organisation) contractors keep quiet about realities on the ground while making grandiose claims for the success of their efforts. But as the former dean of education at Delhi University replied to a DfID claim of having reduced the number of out-of-school children in India by 5m, “enrolment is not equal to attendance”.

Aid reality can differ remarkably from the official metrics or the glossy brochures and websites. It is extremely difficult to ensure aid reaches its intended beneficiaries and does genuine good. Talk to aid workers off the record in bars from Cape Town to Kabul and you will hear different stories.

Aid reality can differ remarkably from the official metrics or the glossy brochures and websites

The leader of one small NGO recalled how he had been working on a project in an Afghan village when a fleet of white Land Cruisers roared down the main street. The passengers were from an international agency engaged in “awareness-raising” for microfinance, then seen as a panacea with universal application rather than a methodology that works only in certain cultures. The aid workers set up a tent and tables. They gave a speech to villagers enticed by tea and biscuits, handed out leaflets and returned to the capital by nightfall. The leaflets were abandoned. No one in the village could read.

Even worse is the case of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where hundreds of aid agencies turned up after the Rwandan genocide to help the fleeing Hutu genocidaires and their families. The vast, lawless refugee camps where they handed out food, set up schools and provided medical treatment became bases for murderous raids across the border. The presence of foreign aid workers gave them a human shield against Rwandan counterattack for almost two years.

Most NGOs and government agencies fear that if they admit how much aid goes to waste or is stolen or diverted in the form of extorted bribes — or how much causes harm by undermining government, wrecking local economies, enabling corruption or subsidising conflict — raising funds from the public might become harder.

In Britain an aura of sanctity surrounds the aid enterprise. If you question any aspect, you are tarred as heartless, yet few in the aid industry like to admit that not only did six decades and $3 trillion of development aid fail to bring about economic growth in Africa, but there also seems to be a correlation between development aid and state failure: just look at Haiti and Somalia.

As for humanitarian or emergency aid, its greatest triumphs have often been achieved by those outside the aid industry. It was a US aircraft carrier that saved tens of thousands of lives in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. This is just one reason why it makes sense to divert some of DfID’s bloated budget to the MoD and those parts of the military that engage in humanitarian action to buy “dual use” equipment such as heavy-lift aircraft.

There is no question that much aid does much good. I have seen many small projects that transform lives and help heal traumatised societies. Some could do with DfID cash to survive or to reproduce themselves on a larger scale; others are run by people who are all too aware that their formula for success is unique to that place and that time and whose aim is for their jobs not to be needed. They know that the fetishised 0.7% of GDP target is a mere marketing tool that bears no relation to the needs of the poor or the ability of aid organisations to cure poverty or any other social ill. Theirs is an example that DfID and its lobby should follow.

Sometimes They Do Listen

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I woke up this morning to hear that David Cameron has told reporters travelling with him in India that he is considering shifting money from Britain’s aid budget to defence, to pay for stability and peacekeeping operations, as suggested in Aiding and Abetting.

As well as the BBC, the story has been picked up by Reuters, ITV news, the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Guardian which has the best and most detailed account. In the Guardian story (filed by Nicholas Watt in Amritsar), the PM discusses aid delivery in far more realistic terms than he has ever done before, acknowledging the difficulties of helping failed or conflict-riven states, and the extent to which peace and stability are a precondition for development rather than the other way round.

This is a very healthy development as well as personally gratifying. One thing I do wish though is that some of the money that might be headed to the MOD could be diverted to long term care for soldiers who have suffered catastrophic crippling injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq — no government department has budgeted for decades of helping these men who have lost limbs and/or received terrible brain injuries, and the burden is likely to fall on their families.

"Head to Head" with the Aid Industry Marketing Machine

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I did the BBC1 Sunday politics show today, anchored by Andrew Neil and went “head to head” with Justin Forsyth of Save the Children. (The programme is available on BBC Iplayer for seven days). They did the segment because the Prime Minister is going to India tomorrow, and I wish there had been time to talk about the whole issue of aid to India, or the disingenuous IF anti-hunger campaign that ignores the real reasons for mass malnutrition in India and elsewhere. I think though that I was able to communicate the point that the aid industry always cites vaccination programmes as if that tiny percentage of foreign aid represents or justified the hundreds of millions, billions even, that are spent on much less worthy and even harmful projects.


Exchange of letters on Aid with Andrew Mitchell in the Spectator

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Andrew Mitchell the former Minister for International Development was among those who responded to my and Justin Shaw’s articles on DfID and the Aid Industry on the Spectator letters page in the 12th Jan issue. The key paragraph was this one:

The sceptics question the results. How about the 11 million children in school who wouldn’t be there but for Britain’s generosity? The clean water secured for as many people as live in the UK thanks to our taxpayers? A child was vaccinated every two seconds throughout this Parliament and a child’s life saved every two minutes from diseases that none of our children die from. Surely we should build on this and improve it, not sneer and belittle it?

I replied in the current issue:

Sir: In Andrew Mitchell’s response to my article ‘The Great Aid Mystery’ (5 January), he asks ‘what about the 11 million children in school who wouldn’t be there’ if it weren’t for DFID’s aid efforts. It would be hard to come up with a more representative example of the dishonest marketing rhetoric that is the standard aid industry response to outside questioning. Not only is there the inevitable reference to children, there’s also a classic bogus statistic. Yes, the British government may have paid for 11 million school places over the years, but even if DFID had proof that 11 million real children were genuinely enrolled in schools as a result of UK aid (itself a dubious claim), that does not mean that they actually attend those schools, or that the schools have teachers, or textbooks, or electricity, or are more than half-built wrecks. Mr Mitchell is either deliberately stretching the truth in this claim, or he knows startlingly, dismayingly little about the realities of aid delivery.

As for his boast about vaccinations ‘every two seconds throughout this parliament,’ Mr Mitchell must know that vaccination programmes form a minuscule proportion of the DFID annual spend and hardly justify an expansion of the department’s bloated budget. May I suggest a book that might help him? Aiding And Abetting: Foreign Aid Failures And The 0.7 Per Cent Deception, available from Civitas.
Jonathan Foreman

In the Spectator: 'The Aid Delusion'

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I have the cover story in the January 5th Spectator (“The Aid Delusion”) along with Justin Shaw whose piece The Greening Challenge is vital for UK aid watchers.

The Great Aid Mystery (The Spectator 5/Jan/2013)

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One of the more bizarre mysteries of contemporary British politics is the ironclad, almost fanatical intensity of the government’s commitment to foreign aid spending and the activities of DFID, the Department for International Development.

It is bizarre because the Prime Minister talks about foreign aid as if it’s all about famine relief and saving children’s lives. But he and his Cabinet are intelligent, worldly people and they know that the real world of aid rarely resembles the one celebrated in DFID pamphlets and Oxfam ads. They know that most aid is ‘development aid’ intended not to help in emergencies, but to foster prosperity.

They also know that this development aid is all too often useless or even counterproductive. A quarter of Britain’s foreign aid goes as ‘budget support’ into the treasuries of some of the world’s least competent, honest or responsible governments. Even more goes to multilateral institutions, like the World Bank or the EU aid body that Clare Short described as ‘an outrage’, ‘a disgrace’ and ‘the worst development agency in the world’.

After 60 years and $3 trillion of development aid, with one big push following another and wave after wave of theories and jargon, there is depressingly little evidence that official development aid has any significant benign effect on third-world poverty. The Tories know this. They’ve read William Easterly and Robert Calderisi, who argue that the cash we dole out has enriched privileged Westerners and kleptocratic third-world rulers more than its intended beneficiaries. Moreover, they’ve seen how South Korea and Taiwan have risen from poverty to prosperity and they know how small a role foreign aid played. So why do they still insist on this enormous, ‘ring-fenced’ aid budget?

Some suggest it’s about being nice (however ineffectually) to our less fortunate neighbours; showing them we’re not racist. But being admirably attuned to matters of race and prejudice, Cameron and his crew must have noticed that the fiercest defenders of aid are invariably white, and the most trenchant critics tend to be African intellectuals like Ghana’s George Ayittey and Uganda’s Andrew Mwenda. Some of them who have been in the field will have seen for themselves how aid activity of both kinds — development and emergency — all too often replicates much that was bad about 19th-century missionary activity and imperialism, and even with the best intentions tends to patronise its beneficiaries and undermine good government.

They must also be aware that DFID’s claims to be able to monitor corruption and waste are largely PR flimflam. After all, the House of Commons public accounts committee has told them so. Its chair, Margaret Hodge, has lamented DFID’s inadequate bookkeeping, and ‘poor understanding of levels of fraud and corruption’.

So what is it really about?

One explanation is of course self-interest. To be seen to ‘care’ about the world’s poor is, say some, a way of appealing to swing voters and ‘detoxifying the Tory brand’. This would arguably make the government’s insistence on increasing foreign aid (while cutting almost everything else) one of the most expensive PR exercises in history. But while there is bound to be some truth in the theory, it fails to explain why the Cameroons have stuck to the commitment even though polls show it is not popular. Today, given the UK’s financial travails, almost anyone who is not in the aid industry would forgive and understand a U-turn on foreign aid targets. But the Prime Minister has set his face like flint against any reduction.

Like so many things in Britain, the new Tory obsession with aid may come down to class and religion.

It is a matter of religion partly because so much aid is faith-based, by which I mean that those who fund it and carry it out have little or no real evidence that it works, but they take a leap of faith that it does. It is also faith-based in the sense that foreign aid has become one of those substitute religions so often adopted by middle-class, educated people who look down on organised religion of all kinds. Like other pseudo-religions, aid has its owns myths, iconography, priesthoods; its state and private elements; its conflicts between fundamentalists and moderates; its guardians of purity, its true believers and cynical hucksters, its genuine saints and its ruthless bureaucrats. And it offers believers an almost spiritual sense of their own goodness — which goes some way towards explaining their extreme reluctance to listen to the evidence against it.

As to class, foreign aid is a comparatively middle- and upper-class business and a middle- and upper-class enthusiasm. It starts with a gap year to exciting places like Nairobi or New Delhi, being driven around in Land Cruisers and lecturing adults on how to run their countries. To some, aid work is attractive because of the adventure and the thrill of danger. To others, the lure is endless gap-year exoticism and third-world partying (with the additional benefit of being one of the good guys). You can earn a decent, high-status living in the aid world, without soiling your hands in trade or industry.

Clare Lockhart, author of Fixing Failed States, likens the aid world to the Victorian church, which offered employment and status to the second sons of the landed gentry. And certainly, if you visit the bars and clubs frequented by aid workers in many parts of the third world, you could be forgiven for seeing the aid business as a sort of white-knuckle dating agency for middle-class Westerners. For the more academic, it’s also a ticket to the lucrative five-star conference circuit.

It is probably unfair to suggest that class solidarity is a conscious reason for the Cameron government’s attachment to aid. But class attitudes and sympathies have a subconscious effect. The Notting Hill elite is more likely to encounter or engage with poor Africans or Asians (on their holidays, or working trips abroad) than to encounter rock-bottom life at home. They’re more likely to have visited Kenya than Rochdale. And if the actions (rather than the words) of the Cameron government are anything to go by, they find it harder to empathise with a working-class squaddie in a wheelchair than with a hungry African family. Their gap years prepare them for philanthropy in foreign parts, but not to confront life in a British sink estate.

This is not a new thing in our culture. Dickens mocked it brilliantly in the character of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House. But Mrs Jellyby didn’t run the country. In a modern democratic nation state we rightly expect our rulers to put the citizenry first, especially those in greatest need — not to prioritise humanity in general. This is particularly relevant if they know, and they do know, that the money they pour into foreign countries is all too often wasted or stolen. Even the most devoted Cameroonian must have blushed when the Prime Minister and his former development secretary Andrew Mitchell claimed that foreign aid had the ancillary benefits of preventing war and illegal immigration. Given what we know now about the ways in which both development and emergency aid have subsidised warlords and sponsored bloody conflicts in places like Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, it was something of a sick joke.

I don’t necessarily think that Britain should not engage in foreign aid at all, just that our leaders have a duty to the people who pay for it and the people in whose name they serve to spend the money well.

Here are some questions that I’d like the PM to ponder in this new year. Why, for example, are we so wedded to the idea of spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid? This much trumpeted target causes no end of trouble — it’s tricky to get rid of that much cash — and it’s not derived from any empirical analysis about what poor countries need or what development can achieve. It’s the product of rich-country grandstanding and activist marketing, just like the Millennium Development Goals. It has its origin in a 1950s suggestion by the World Council of Churches that rich countries tithe 1 per cent of GDP for foreign aid. The public on whom the government are imposing this burden give more to charity than the citizens of any other G8 country except the United States.

That same public has a right to expect that aid policy will keep our own interests in mind. For instance, it makes sense to suggest that DFID should favour British products and that aid should be supplied in ways that benefit British foreign policy. But this tends not to be the case, because the prevailing culture in the aid community is hostile to any consideration of material benefit to the donor country. To get anything in return is, they think, to be insufficiently altruistic. What a daft way to guide policy.

The waste and corruption that goes unseen or unchallenged by DFID is a kick in the teeth both for the people at home who pay the bill and for the people aid is supposed to be helping. A genuinely compassionate policy would be ruthless and rapid in its cutting of aid to wasteful and corrupt multilateral organisations like the EU’s aid programme and to cynical and corrupt central and local governments in places like Kenya and Ethiopia. It would have long ago made coherent choices about where Britain should focus the aid it can afford. Perhaps it would make sense to focus on former colonies and other countries with historic links, or perhaps the very poorest countries (though those often have the worst governance and the worst results), or the most strategically important ones. What makes no sense at all is to spend money (as DFID does) on countries which fit into none of those categories, like Brazil and Vietnam.

In the meantime, a decent aid programme might even invest in military emergency aid capacity that could genuinely make the UK an ‘aid superpower’, to use Andrew Mitchell’s cant phrase. We could invest in the transport aircraft, ships and heavylift helicopters that are, as the 2004 tsunami showed, the ultimate ‘dual-use’ emergency aid resources.

Perhaps the ultimate demonstration that the government takes aid seriously — that it understands the difficulties of aid delivery and the moral dilemmas it entails — would be if it held an inquiry or a royal commission into how best to give effective aid. But there’s little chance of that. There is probably no corner of the British establishment as unexamined or as deserving of sceptical scrutiny as the aid sector, but our deluded or cynical leaders just don’t seem to care.

Aiding and Abetting: Foreign Aid Follies and the 0.7% Deception is published by Civitas

Modern War; Modern Media #1

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Alastair Horne, author of “Savage War of Peace” has an interesting blog piece in today’s Spectator in praise of the late “Stormin Norman Schwarzkopf. In it he touches on a subject dear to my heart: the strategic challenges presented to military leaders by the modern 24 hour media:

I asked Schwarzkopf what had been his biggest headache in the war? He replied instantly: ‘The media.’ It was, he explained, ‘a management problem; in Vietnam, we had 80 press, and news came on TV 36 hours later; in the Gulf we had 2,060 – and instantaneous TV – how do you control such a huge number?’ In 1990 he had ‘switched off all TVs in my HQ,’ If there were heavy losses, ‘I didn’t want it to get into the brain cells of my staff – better to rely on their own instantaneous judgments than Stateside experts, often giving wrong assessments.’

I asked him what might have happened if there had been CNN on Omaha Beach, that first bloody day of June 6 1944? He replied simply: ‘There would have been no D-Day plus 2.’

 This reminded me of the spoof CNN D-day story that briefly became an internet meme in 2003 or 4.  Inspired by some of the more egregious Iraq war coverage, it was written by one William Mayer and titled: Tragic French Offensive Stalled on Beaches (Normandy, France June 6 1944). You can read it here or here.