There was some good news from Zimbabwe in December and, surprisingly, it came via the BBC which has broadcast mainly negative stories about that country for many years. In Crossing Continents on Radio 4 Martin Plaut followed up a ten year project by Sussex University’s Institute of Development Studies. This is, apparently, one of several studies challenging the common view of land reforms which Zimbabwe began in 2000.
The British Government has routinely condemned those reforms as an unmitigated disaster, and the BBC has done nothing to moderate or contradict official assertions. All the main news channels have focussed on attacks by ‘veterans’ against white farmers who were being driven from land they’d developed into a thriving agricultural sector for Zimbabwe. To make matters worse, we’ve been told that once white farmers and their native workers were ousted the land was left unproductive, more evidence of the country’s economic ruin under Robert Mugabe.
Martin Plaut offered a more balanced view. Critics of the land reform programme were interviewed and instances of fertile acres now unused were cited, but he also found evidence of large farms formerly owned by whites being developed as smallholdings, where native Zimbabweans are earning a living by traditional methods. One witness was even allowed to dispute the oft-repeated claim that land taken from white farmers has been corruptly distributed among Mugabe’s political allies. However, it would have taken another programme to inform the casual listener of the background to this story.
This would tell how Victorian Britain came to distribute African land among white colonisers in the first place, and recall the long struggle of indigenous Zimbabweans to recover territory on which their ancestors had lived for millennia. It would describe how Britain did allocate some funds to buy out white farmers when it granted independence in 1980, but never completed the process of returning the land to its original owners. That funding ceased in 1995 and the new Blair government refused to renew it, beginning a war of words which intensified when the Zimbabweans set about land reform by other means. In general, we were allowed to hear only one side of that argument, as though our news media were part of the British Government’s PR machine.
A more recent, and possibly more serious example of this tendency was the ‘cross-Channel spat’ with France, amid the fallout from David Cameron’s use of our veto. On successive BBC news bulletins we were told of derogatory comments about Britain’s economy made by representatives of the French government – these were presented as unprovoked attempts to undermine our credit rating. Again, the casual viewer might never have known that those comments had been in response to remarks by our own Chancellor George Osborne, who had carelessly suggested that France might be as vulnerable as Greece and Italy to anxiety in the money markets.
Now, we might expect our mainly Europhobic newspapers to relish any conflict with France and eagerly point the finger of blame across the Channel. But aren’t we entitled to a more balanced approach from the supposedly independent BBC ? In domestic politics the Corporation is required to adopt an impartial stance, allowing time for competing views, but this principle has never been recognised in the reporting of foreign affairs. Indeed, over Northern Ireland and our government’s conflict with Argentina, the Corporation was readily accused of something akin to treason. But wouldn’t it be best for peace in the world if the people of every nation heard both sides of the story when politicians get entangled in international ‘spats’ ? And wouldn’t it be excellent if our BBC were to give the world a lead in that respect ?