Once in a while we see a positive ‘Africa season’ – then western media revert to sensationalist and stereotypical coverage
These days no self-respecting western reporter dares to describe anything potentially “primitive” in Africa without a sophisticated disclaimer. John Humphrys’s warning, as he dispatched the Today programme from Bong county, Liberia – was: “You can’t come here with European eyes.” Christopher Hitchens’s 1994 essay on his trip to Zaire, and current editions of the Economist – still reeling a decade on from its “Hopeless continent” front page on Africa – are examples of similar introspection.
And with good reason. Western eyes do not have a good track record of seeing what is really going on on this continent. In 1963 the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper – made a life peer by Margaret Thatcher – captured the still prevalent tone of western thinking. “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach,” he wrote. “But at present there is none: there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.”
Much has been said, written and done to prove that western reporting of Africa has moved away from this paradigm. Most international news outlets now have programmes specifically designed to champion positive news stories in Africa. The BBC runs African Dream, a series about successful African entrepreneurs, CNN has African Voices. They are stories that I, for one, enjoy reading. They capture a reality about the African continent, which is one of rags to riches, wheeler dealers made good, and steady economic growth.
But in a parallel development to the fashion world’s infuriating tendency to trend on “tribal” prints and “ethnic fashions” (ie African) for the occasional spring/summer collection – before reverting to a world where Africa has no fashion bearing and African models barely exist – the media’s tendency to run an “Africa season” has its own flaws. After the season is over, little in the mainstream coverage has changed. And the BBC, in particular, has its own Africa service that delivers excellent news coverage of the continent by local journalists and a mainly African-staffed team in London. Yet instead of driving the decision to have and produce a BBC Africa season – two of which the BBC has now held – they are confined to a “research” role. Read more…