SVT criticizes BBC Africa report

A documentary broadcast on Swedish public television on Tuesday called into question the reputation of Britain’s public broadcaster, the BBC, for filing misleading and inaccurate reports about the severity of a food shortage in Niger in 2005.

SVT criticizes BBC Africa report

The segment was part of an episode of the Sveriges Television (SVT) series on media and journalism, Korrespondenterna (‘The Correspondents’). The episode examined propaganda in modern times and used the BBC Niger reports as an example of how the media can shape people’s understanding of events.

The SVT report showcased efforts by a film crew from Norwegian public television to follow up on the 2005 Niger famine, a story first reported by the BBC’s Hilary Andersson in July 2005 following a statement by Doctors Without Borders warning about malnutrition in the country.

The BBC reports generated worldwide attention about the situation in Niger, resulting in widespread media coverage as well as a response from the UN and aid organizations.

Producer Mats Ektvedt from Norway’s TV2 tells SVT reporter Erika Bjerström that his team originally went to Niger to make a film about a failed aid programme.

“We asked about the food catastrophe and no one knew what we were talking about,” he said.

“There was no one who had heard of anyone dying from the famine of 2005.”

Ektvedt and his team then began investigating whether or not it was possible that the 2005 Niger food crisis was a fabrication.

In interviews with experts from the international development community, other journalists, Niger’s prime minister at the time, as well as local farmers from the village of Zinder in Niger where the first BBC reports originated, Ektvedt uncovered evidence to suggest that BBC had misrepresented the facts.

“I’ve never heard of anyone starving to death here,” said one woman from Zinder in the Norwegian documentary “Sultbløffen” (‘The Hunger Bluff’).

“It was tough, but I never saw anyone die of hunger.”

Yet the BBC stories from the time report that thousands of people were dying from starvation in Zinder.

Anneli Eriksson currently chairs the board of Doctors Without Borders’ Swedish chapter. She was working as a nurse in Niger in 2005 for what she said was characterized as a “very serious” situation and saw many children in Zinder die from hunger.

“2005 was an extremely hard year and there were lots of children suffering from malnutrition, and infant mortality was approaching catastrophic levels,” she told The Local.

But Eriksson stopped short of characterizing the situation as an all out famine.

“It wasn’t a famine of catastrophic proportions, but it was a very serious nutritional crisis,” she said.

But Eriksson did not have any outright criticism of the BBC’s reporting, saying she was thankful for the attention it generated.

If the BBC and other media outlets are guilty of anything, Eriksson believes it is a lack of nuanced reporting about the situation.

“The reporting seemed very one-dimensional. It’s either there are no problems or there is a major famine,” she said.

“Clearly, when there is a crisis, reporting can get a bit inflated.”

When confronted with the discrepancies between the Norwegian documentary and the original BBC reports, the British broadcaster has refused to answer questions or offer any explanation and demanded that Ektvedt cut out BBC footage from the documentary, despite the fact that Norway’s TV2 had purchased broadcast rights for the images.

“BBC claims [our investigation] lacks legitimacy. We claim to be posing totally legitimate questions,” said Ektvedt.

SVT also made attempts to arrange an interview with officials from BBC for its Korrespondenterna report, but received only an emailed statement in response.

“BBC News refuted the TV2 allegations unequivocally and we absolutely stand by the validity and professionalism of Hilary Andersson’s reports,” reads the BBC’s statement to SVT, which was also supplied to The Local.

“Reports of crisis in Niger were circulating in the British and international media weeks prior to Hilary’s arrival in the country, so it would have been plain wrong of us not to have examined the story.”

Alex de Waal, a visiting Africa expert from Harvard University, was also interviewed by Ektvedt for the documentary.

He too voiced his suspicions about the 2005 Niger crisis.

“The Niger crisis is an example of how a crisis in an African country is portrayed according to a particular script which doesn’t actually necessarily fit the reality of that crisis,” he said.

Ektvedt said the incident shows the power that respected media outlets and international organizations have in shaping public perception.

“When the BBC, the UN, and Doctors Without Borders are united, then it’s true. It’s by definition true,” he said.

To read the full text of the BBC’s statement to SVT click here.


ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned

How did a would-be "Swedish New York Times" rise and fall only months after its launch – and what lessons can the media world learn from the story of Bulletin, asks journalism professor Christian Christensen in this opinion piece.

ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned
Bulletin was marketed as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT

I imagine a Swedish newspaper inspired by the UK’s quality press or their American counterparts – such as the Times of London, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Which makes a distinction between news and views, between news and opinion, and which strives to make its readers more enlightened, rather than to pursue an agenda.

These words were published in late December 2020 by Paulina Neuding, editor-in-chief of the newly launched online newspaper, Bulletin. Four months later, Neuding and almost the entire editorial staff, had left Bulletin after a series of embarrassing mistakes, organisational shake-ups and a brutal public conflict with ownership. Taking over as the new editor? A former senior staffer from the New York Times who cannot read or speak Swedish, knows little about Sweden and who will edit the paper from his home in New Jersey.

How did we get here?

Marketing itself as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home, Bulletin was created, Neuding wrote last year, to provide “liberal conservative” opinion combined with “evidence-based and neutral” reporting. These comments were made within a very specific context: conservatives in Sweden consider mainstream Swedish media outlets to be predominantly leftist or centre-leftist in ideology. The national public service television (SVT) and radio (SR) channels are particular targets of the right, with steady accusations of leftist bias. Research, however, shows that claims of leftist bias in Swedish news media, including public service broadcasting, are without merit.

So, Bulletin was born. Investors put down around 8 million Swedish kronor (around €800,000); well-known media columnists and personalities signed on to give the site name recognition; and, Swedish media (mainstream and social) gave Bulletin a great deal of coverage and free advertising. If the hype was to be believed, Bulletin could be an interesting case of a new, “high quality” right-wing news outlet entering the Swedish media market.

Despite the PR and hype, however, Bulletin imploded in what can only be described as the most spectacular of fashions.

For all of the lofty talk of inspiration from highbrow Anglo-American publications, Bulletin was always more likely to resemble the anti-immigration Daily Mail Online, or a slightly more serious version of Fox News, than the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Multiple commentators in Sweden noted that the purpose of Bulletin, rooted largely in the ideology of the primary financiers of the project, was to serve as a messenger for the anti-immigration conservative right.

The content during the early weeks of the publication only confirmed this. Heavy on re-hashed wire service stories and opinion pieces, and thin on actual journalism, Bulletin marked itself with stories and articles centering around immigrants and immigration, and particularly those related to crime and cultural clashes. Evidence of “evidence-based” reporting in the vein of the New York Times was almost non-existent.

But, as it would turn out, low-quality anti-immigrant content was the least of Bulletin’s problems. The outlet was marked from the outset by deep and fundamental structural problems, as well as the presence of owners who saw Bulletin as their own, personal messaging system.

Read more opinions about life in Sweden:

After just two months on the job, Paulina Neuding inexplicably stepped down as editor-in-chief, handing the reins to former columnist Ivar Arpi. As would be revealed later, after discovering that a Bulletin co-owner had published an article on the site without her knowledge, Neuding had the piece removed. The resulting conflict led to her stepping down.

Only a few weeks later, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published a piece showing that Bulletin had plagiarised over 20 news articles, with material taken verbatim from press releases, wire service articles and even other media outlets. Adding to the crisis, free speech expert Nils Funcke argued in a separate article that Bulletin did not have the proper legal structure in place to offer their sources protection and anonymity; and, in addition, the lack of proper legal structure made those who wrote the stories legally responsible for the content, rather than the publisher (the standard for Swedish news outlets). In short, Bulletin was nothing like an actual news outlet.

At the start of March, the wheels had come off, and open warfare broke out between Bulletin owners and editorial staff. Senior editors accused owners of undermining editorial integrity by using the platform to publish personal pieces without oversight. Owners, on the other hand, accused editors of being both dishonest and incompetent. Publicly. On Facebook. An audio recording was even leaked to the media trade newspaper Journalisten documenting a heated meeting between Bulletin staff and owners. The situation became untenable, and by the end of March editor-in-chief Arpi and several other senior staff announced their resignations.

What are the lessons of Bulletin?

First, the story exposed the fallacy of the idea that if you combine well-known media “personalities” with some money and hype, you can overcome an almost total absence of editorial experience and organisational structure. Bulletin put all of its eggs into the celebrity basket by recruiting famous conservative columnists who had little or no experience either editing a daily newspaper or starting a news organisation from the ground up. The results became immediately obvious to anyone who actually looked at the website.

Second, Bulletin is a classic case study of media owners who think that their investment gives them the automatic right to dictate the content of their outlets. This is nothing new, of course, and owners influencing content – either directly or indirectly – is a feature of many privately controlled outlets around the world. What is unusual in the case of Bulletin, however, is how explicit and how public was the exposure of that tension.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bulletin is a particularly brutal case study in reaping what you sow. The investors, and many of the media personalities they recruited, made their names by attacking the ideological biases and political agendas of mainstream outlets in general, and public broadcasting in particular, as well as advocating for increased freedom (often in form of the free market) from what they see as an oppressive state apparatus. And what happened? The media personalities ended up working for an outlet that displayed the bluntest forms of corporate bias and owner interference. Those who resigned from Bulletin were not simply victims of aggressive owners. They were, first and foremost, early and willing participants in a media venture that reflected a worldview they had themselves pushed and defended.

That this conservative outlet, which published multiple opinion pieces lamenting the decline of Swedish culture, is now edited by someone sitting in a foreign country who is literally unable to read the stories he publishes is perhaps the perfect conclusion to a tale of media failure.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.