This is a personal guide to how the BBC works and what it requires from its journalists.

Source: Media, War and Conflict


The quality of reporting African conflicts by Western media has declined in recent years as budgets have been cut and the number of correspondents has been reduced. Falling coverage has meant that audiences are unfamiliar with even the most basic facts about most African states. Most news stories must start from first principles, leaving little room for nuance and detail. This article, drawing on nearly three decades of first-hand experience, explains the pressures faced in reporting developing stories in complex emergencies. These include persuading editors of the need to cover events in countries that rarely appear in the Western media to the difficulties of interpreting journalistic standards written to meet the needs of domestic news coverage. This comes as the demand to satisfy the needs of an ever-expanding range of outlets has never been greater, including radio, television and online media. In the circumstances, careful preparation and a highly professional and supportive editorial team in a journalist’s home base are essential for a successful assignment.

Reporting from Africa’s many conflicts for nearly three decades was, of course, a considerable responsibility. The BBC has a huge and loyal audience across the continent, which has been built up over decades. Some have listened for years in English, but many in Arabic, Hausa, Swahili, Somali, French and Portuguese. Today television and online audiences are just as important. Across all platforms, the BBC World Service can boast an audience of 111 million people on the continent.1This includes 56 million who watch television, 76 million who listen to radio and 6 million who use the internet (either through BBC web content or on social media). This article is not an attempt to outline the services and how these have changed, but rather the issues that arise from reporting from and about Africa – particularly from the field during times of trouble.

Joining the BBC in 1984 and retiring in 2012, I covered many conflicts: from Eritrea’s war of independence to the fight against apartheid in South Africa. I witnessed the atrocities committed in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I saw famine in Ethiopia and Zambia, and grinding poverty in Lesotho and Zimbabwe. As Africa editor, I also had to turn around material submitted by the BBC’s Africa correspondents and stringers who filed from across the continent. Much of the time I was co-operating with journalists whose first (or even second or third) language was not English, who were working for their own language services. This involved re-writing their despatches, turning them into news stories and commenting on the events for the wider BBC.

In all that time I was – of course – guided by and required to follow the BBC’s editorial standards. These were encapsulated in a handbook, about an inch thick. It covered almost every conceivable eventuality, but was mainly aimed at domestic reporters. Frequently, the rigid rules and regulations were inoperable in an African context. One instruction required correspondents to obtain permission from parents before interviewing any child. In a British context this would almost always make sense. But how would one get this permission from children who had been abducted by the notorious rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Movement which has rampaged across a vast area, from Uganda to the Central African Republic? When the rebels attacked a village they took the villagers’ meagre possessions and then abducted the children. Boys became soldiers and girls were used for labour or for sex. The first acts the rebels forced on the children was the murder of their own family members so that they could never return home.

In these circumstances, one had to use one’s own judgement and act as sensitively as possible. The objective, as ever, is to provide fair, balanced and honest reporting. In all my time, I never once felt the heavy hand of the British government on my shoulder, despite the Foreign and Commonwealth Office paying every penny of my wages. Mistakes that I made were my own and I was pleased to answer to my editor and my audience.

Since I first began working on Africa in the 1970s, there have been several major changes in the way in which the continent is reported.

The first is that the number of correspondents working for the major Western media outlets has slumped. Four decades ago, most broadsheet papers in Britain had three Africa correspondents: in Johannesburg, Lagos and Nairobi. To this might be added an office in Cairo, although the role of this correspondent would be mainly to report on the Arab world. This was hardly surprising. Africa had enjoyed independence for less than a decade, there were a large number of former colonial officers who had a real interested in detailed African news and there were still white ruled countries in southern Africa who held substantial populations of British citizens – our ‘kith and kin’. There was also a raging Cold War across the continent, with Washington and the Soviet Union vying for influence. This meant there was a real appetite for African stories.

Today this has ebbed and waned. Although Britain has a growing African diaspora, they generally get their news from ‘back home’ from their relatives or the internet: they don’t rely on the Western press. There is also a large number of aid workers, but insufficient to mean that there is a real market for African news. Given the plunging revenues of most newspapers, it was no great hardship to cut the number of correspondents so that just one (often based in Kenya) is now required to report on the entire continent.

This is important since there is a limited budget for foreign reporting trips. Without a media environment in which Africa is seen as an important part of the world news agenda, every story has to be ‘sold’ to editors who hold budgets. This has made the task very much more difficult in recent years as the flow of news carried by other outlets has declined. Budgets are tight and each suggestion must be carefully weighed. Planning a trip often involved a lengthy round of discussions with programmes (domestic and World Service, radio, television and the websites) to try to scrape together sums of money to make the journey viable.

This had unintended consequences. It is of course necessary to have a completely researched, well-formed narrative before getting on a plane. This is no bad thing, but it does mean that once one lands and discovers what is actually happening on location it is hard to back away from the original story. Every conflict is far more complex than any reporter expects, but it is not easy to explain to London why a story has changed. It is not difficult to end up with hard conversations with editors who grumble that this was not what they had been ‘sold’ a few weeks ago. Then it is important to understand that the demands of every medium (online, radio, television) are different. Fulfilling the expectations of each is complex and all demand priority treatment. Finally, travel to Africa inevitably costs a great deal. It may require almost a week of travel before anything is filed. This again requires difficult phone calls to explain why costs are accumulating but nothing has been received by London.

The process I have outlined relates mainly to stories that are not urgent enough to demand an instant response. When the planes crashed into New York or the bombs exploded in Paris or Brussels, there was an immediate deployment of staff. Cost would have been a secondary consideration. Nor is this just a question of location: if an African story was sufficiently pressing, the BBC’s reaction would have been the same. Rather, it was stories that were seen as ‘nice to have’ rather than essential that tended to be dropped.

Let me provide two examples of trips for which I had to fight hard to get the necessary backing. The first was a drought in southern Ethiopia in early 2006. Thousands lost their cattle and were on the brink of starvation. As I flew into Addis Ababa the situation was on a knife-edge. Yet drought and hardship are hardly unknown in the Horn of Africa and – with prompt intervention from the UN – a tragedy was averted. The second was in April 2011, when I travelled to South Africa to report on the treatment of thousands of miners by relatives of President Jacob Zuma and former President Nelson Mandela. The mine had been purchased but almost none of the miners had been paid. Some were so desperate they had committed suicide. This underlined the problem of corruption at the heart of the African National Congress government, but it was not a breaking news story. To ask for scarce resources to report on these kinds of ‘second order’ stories is more difficult, particularly when no other Western news media are carrying them.

There are three essential steps that are required before leaving on any trip, once it has been approved in principle. The first is obvious: to collect the background you need and any useful contacts. This takes time but pays huge dividends. The information is inevitably only partially accurate, but it does give an idea of what the issues might be and who could be a useful source. Contacts are far more use and it is good practice to phone or email everyone who might be of assistance. One never knew how or when they might be asked to step in. They can also advise on which is the best transport company, or the most appropriate hotel or translator in the area.

Secondly, senior management and the High Risk team must sign off all trips to conflict zones for the BBC. The latter are ex-military personnel who keep an eye on wars and conflicts around the world. The forms to be filled in are long and complex. They contain questions designed mainly for domestic situations: might there be a ladder involved in the production? How about trip hazards? Others are more appropriate: extreme heat or cold … any dangerous animals … access to medical assistance? The problem with going to a country like Sudan is that there is a tick in almost every single box by the time one has ploughed through it – which is pretty meaningless.

All BBC staff going to high-risk areas must go through week-long courses on how to confront these issues – with regular refresher courses. Most of the training is relevant: how likely is anyone to hit you if they fire a pistol? What kind of cover can be used when under shell-fire? How to react during kidnappings or abductions? The rest is an intensive first-aid course of the kind you never wish to put into effect, like dealing with a leg blown off by a landmine.

In reality, the informal chat with the High Risk team was the most helpful and essential. They will advise on the latest intelligence on the area and – after a few trips – they have a fair idea of what you and your team are capable of. In full-scale war situations they might even accompany you to advise on what course of action is safe, and to act as your eyes and ears when you are busy filming or recording. They also suggest what safety equipment to take, including helmets and flak-jackets. I never took these: in African conditions they were far too hot, heavy and conspicuous. There was every chance that a war-lord would take them from you at the point of a gun. They also prevent you from deploying your most effective defence: fleeing the scene as rapidly as possible.

The third essential step is to get all the broadcasting and recording equipment you need. The aim – for a radio journalist – is to carry everything you need to be able to conduct live broadcasting from anywhere in the world. This can all fit into a large, single but very heavy rucksack. Every piece must be checked and re-checked since if any link in the chain is missing the equipment will not work.

Another rucksack is needed for recording equipment and a laptop for editing, as well as cameras for TV and web-images. Plus another kit-bag for any personal equipment you require, including sleeping bags, water purification tablets, dry food, a few changes of clothing and plenty of money – in dollars. Finally there are satellite phones to keep in contact with London in case all other systems fail.

In 1832, Carl von Clausewitz wrote:

War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.2

The idea that war is the ‘realm of uncertainty’ is therefore not new, but in Africa the fog can be particularly dense.

During the 1980s I travelled into Eritrea twice during its 30-year fight for independence from Ethiopia. This involved flying into Khartoum, then to Port Sudan and meeting the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) who held large portions of eastern Eritrea. They would put foreign visitors up at a guest house in the port for a few days before taking them by land-cruiser into Eritrea itself. This involved a 36-hour journey, all of which (bar the first half an hour) was undertaken through desert and scrub and up wadis. There were no roads – paved or unpaved; journalists were accompanied by EPLF fighters and they acted as our translators and guides. At the end of the trip, we filed down into bunkers dug deep into the sides of hills to avoid Ethiopian bombing and shell fire. Each day we would be driven at night deeper into EPLF territory.

We could interview anyone we came across, but of course they were all members of the same movement and we had no independent translators to rely on. There were no civilians to speak to and almost no villages that we came to. There was no real way of even ascertaining where we were: the hills and valleys looked almost identical and there were no maps detailed enough to show our location. The EPLF governed our entire universe; their fighters, commanders and their political leaders. As independent journalists, we did our best to exercise our judgement and listen carefully for the gaps in the information, or little phrases that might reveal more than they wished to. We could observe and note the weapons they carried, the supplies they had, the hospitals they had built – cut into the hillsides, with camouflaged entrances. But we were completely dependent on the movement with whom we travelled. We might have been on the moon, for all we knew.

This is an extreme example, but it is not untypical of the problems of reporting African conflicts. Even when one is covering a drought or another natural disaster, a journalist will frequently be with an aid agency. You travel with them, live with them and rely on them for information and translation. There is nothing special about this – all ‘embedded’ journalism faces the same issue, but it is something that needs to be considered carefully when assessing what has been written or broadcast. Maintaining independent judgement is as essential as it is difficult.

In early 2010, I began hearing rumours of a terrible massacre carried out in a remote region in the far north of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The atrocity had allegedly been carried out by the Lord’s Resistance Army, which was led by the notorious Joseph Kony. Human Rights Watch confirmed that they had information about the attack, which had apparently left hundreds dead. It took time to verify, but by April 2010 a colleague of mine and I were on a plane into Uganda. From there we travelled into eastern Congo with the United Nations and then, from Bunia, we chartered a small plane to fly into Niangara.3Once an elegant Belgian town on the banks of a river, Niangara had little more than a landing strip to serve it. Most roads had deteriorated into tracks or even paths. Buildings (apart from the Catholic church) had fallen into decay. A huge fig tree grew through what had once been the roof of the jail. We landed a few miles from the town to find that there was no-one in the vicinity. Our bags were far too heavy to lug all the way. We just had to wait until, fortunately, a truck sent by one of the few aid agencies working in the area arrived to see if a parcel had been delivered, and they kindly took us into the town.

The town itself had next to nothing to offer us. There was no hotel of any kind, no restaurant and nowhere to buy any food. In the end, the priests took pity on us and offered us a room. They were without electricity, but did have a generator and were delighted when we bought enough diesel to last a week. After a day or so we had found our feet and discovered the one person with whom we had been in contact from London. He had – bravely – recorded the names of all those who had died during the raids by the LRA. Over five days, the rebels had murdered at least 321 people and abducted a further 250 – many of them children.

Hiring five motorbikes, we set off to reach the villages in which the atrocities had been committed. They were about 50 kms away and it took three or four hours on the backs of the bikes, down narrow paths to reach them. Thick bush and giant trees hemmed us in and we were distinctly nervous. There were rumours that the rebels might still be in the area. In the event, they were not and the journey was peaceful. My report for the BBC website carries the basic facts and a video of the trip.4In addition, we produced perhaps 20 radio reports and live interviews on every aspect of what had taken place. A week later, we left – the pilot picking us up from the same landing-strip that he had deposited us at, a week earlier.

I have provided an outline of the circumstances of our trip in order to explain the constraints under which reporters frequently work. Little of this ever appears on air, except sometimes in From Our Own Correspondent.5Nor should it. Yet it forms the backdrop for much of our work. There is one other aspect that is perhaps not obvious – the relentless demands placed on reporters.

The first broadcast may be as early as 05.00 in the morning, which means getting up no later than 04.30 to unpack the equipment and point it skywards to find the satellite that will carry the interview. This connection can be difficult to achieve. It is subject to the vagaries of climate, buildings and a host of other issues of which a reporter is only partially aware. If any of the many dozens of pieces of equipment has been forgotten, lost or breaks down in a rainstorm or the blistering heat, the entire system fails. The studio in London has no interest in the problems on the ground thousands of kms away. They just want it to work and to begin and end at a specific time. Speaking to time in an interview on a complex subject requires steady nerves and an ability to shorten or extend the discussion at a moment’s notice.

After a few live interviews, perhaps including elements pre-recorded the night before, there is a chance for some breakfast. The midday editor needs to be contacted in London, once they have completed their morning editorial meetings, and an offer made for their programme. Then the work of collecting the story of the day begins. Interviewees must be tracked down and persuaded to talk; film and photographs taken and leads pursued. By about 11.00 am most of this will often have been completed and the business of editing on a laptop gets under way. While the producer cuts clips, the reporter will rough out a script. These will be compared and then woven together and mixed. The satellite equipment will be put up once more and the material fed back to London. Then a brief, but tense wait, while the London editor listens to the output. If all is well, then it will be played in its current form with a ‘live’ introduction and perhaps a discussion to follow. Sometimes the editor objects to some aspect of the report (as is their right) and asks for it to be re-worked. By this time the reporter on the ground may be getting a bite to eat, or working to find the evening’s story and interviewees. This can, inevitably, lead to tensions.

This cycle continues, relentlessly, with demands for material for the dawn broadcasts, lunchtime, ‘drive’ time (around 17.00 London time) and then the evening programmes. If one is covering a breaking story, then this might be interspersed with requests for short reports for the hourly news bulletins to carry, as well as requests from television (World Service and domestic) in addition to domestic radio. On a busy story, where one is the only source, it is possible for the phone to be going incessantly and sometimes it just has to be ignored. The last editing is frequently undertaken after midnight and the next day will begin at 04.30. Tiredness and frustration inevitably set in. Tempers can become frayed and exchanges with London are sometimes fractious. But, on air, the reporting must be fair, balanced and accurate – whatever the circumstances.

When there is real danger, there is also the question of informing one’s manager of the situation. Decisions have to be taken about how far to push any story. I have, at times, decided not to proceed with a particular report, since I simply did not believe it warranted the risk. There is, of course, an understanding in London that this has to be left to the team on the ground. In extremis, one can always call on the High Risk team for advice and even an evacuation. These are not options that any freelance journalist has at his or her disposal. These journalists are frequently young, have only limited training and are naturally keen to obtain a ‘scoop’ that will perhaps make their careers. Sadly, it is they who are most likely to be killed.

It was a privilege to report for the BBC from Africa. We always knew that the information that we broadcast would be listened to intently – particularly by the African audience. They were enormously appreciative, but also quick to criticize anything that was sub-standard. I have walked through markets in Africa and been accosted by ordinary men and women who knew my name simply from my voice. What journalist could ask for more?

This does not imply that the reports that I (or my colleagues) produced were without fault. Whether I was on a march in South Africa, with stones flying and the police opening fire, or caught up in a Liberian coup, I always brought my own perspective to the story. The hardest test is to admit that the facts indicate that your frame of reference is incorrect and must be changed accordingly. The greatest challenge is to describe clearly and accurately what is happening in front of one. Basic, decent journalism is all that can be hoped for, particularly in conflict zones. Reporters are not scholars who understand every nuance of a story. Nor is it possible to fit all the complexities of a situation into a minute-long report. Journalism is a simple, rather primitive, skill designed to meet the needs of an audience for accurate information.

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Author biography

Martin Plaut is Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He worked for the British Labour Party as Secretary on Africa and the Middle East before joining the BBC in 1984, working primarily on Africa. He was Africa editor, BBC World Service News for 10 years, retiring in October 2013. Since then he has been Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. His publications include: Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State(Hurst, 2016); Promise and Despair: The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa, 1899– 1914(Jacana Media, 2016); and Who Rules South Africa?(Jonathan Ball, 2012, with Paul Holden).