Powerful reporting that shocked the world into action

Last month the world finally woke up to the humanitarian crisis in Niger. Kevin Bakhurst explains how the BBC broke the news

July was always going to be one of the busiest months of news. The
hopes of the country travelled with Lord Coe to Singapore as London
fought Paris for the 2012 Olympic Games. The hopes of the world focused
on Gleneagles as the eight most powerful politicians on the planet met
to discuss the future of Africa and the climate at the G8 summit.

Then, of course, the unexpected and tragic terrorist attacks on London.

And yet through all this, the story of one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters emerged – the story of Niger.

In
the build-up to the G8 summit, the Ten O’Clock News planned its
coverage of the event and the issues around it. Gavin Hewitt and John
Simpson were to be at Gleneagles, while the BBC’s Africa correspondent,
Hilary Andersson, was to go to Swaziland to produce a series of films
on Aids, corruption and investment.

Over the past couple of
years, Hilary has become one of the best-known faces of the programme
and has produced a series of hard-hitting reports on the crisis in
Darfur, the descent of Zimbabwe and the civil war in Congo.

The list goes on and illustrates the skills and energy of Hilary’s talented Johannesburg -based team.

Hilary
and I discussed the type of reports we should do during G8. We looked
at Mozambique, Zambia and other countries. During the discussions, we
spoke of a few agency pictures the Ten O’Clock team had noticed from
Niger.

We had used them in a Gavin Hewitt report ahead of G8 and
they looked quite bad: children at a feeding centre, filmed by an aid
agency, I believe. Hilary promised that she and her producer, Jackie
Martens, would enquire about the extent of the problems in Niger and we
would consider going after G8.

The aid agencies told them the
situation was bad, and getting worse. They described it as a late
response by world food donors to a crisis that had been escalating for
three months. We had covered the plague of locusts a few months earlier
that had helped to tip Niger over the edge. We determined we would go
straight after G8. I ask myself now why some of the aid agencies don’t
come to people like me to highlight these problems when they are being
ignored by politicians and governments.

Hilary and Jackie put
together a budget for how much the trip might cost. Africa is poor, but
the times and distances involved and the extortionate costs of travel
make it an expensive place to cover. I was told a week-long trip would
cost nearly £13,000. And then came the London bombings.

Hilary and I had a brief chat and decided we should go ahead on the strength of what we knew about the story.

The
team from Johannesburg flew out to Niger on 12 July and arrived 24
hours later. They then faced a long and testing drive across this
enormous country to the worst-hit areas. It took six days to journey
hundreds of miles into the desert. Much of the impact of the story came
from the power of the pictures and credit for this should go to Glenn
Middleton, one of the BBC’s bravest and best cameramen and an Africa
veteran.

The piece was sent back using “store-and-forward”, a
quite brilliant device to send reports from the middle of nowhere using
satellite phones – but which is prone to relatively frequent bouts of
failure or unreliability.

Bizarrely, after days of discussion,
planning and travel, Hilary’s first piece finished coming into the
building while the Ten O’Clock News was on air on that day. We ran it
mid-programme with no headline, although we would have liked to have
led with it. And yet its impact was huge.

I was truly shocked by what I saw. The
crisis in Niger was far worse than any of us had imagined. When Hilary
and I corresponded by text after the piece, it was clear that she and
the team shared a similar sense of shock.

The stories of the sick
and dying children truly shocked politicians and viewers. Because the
report appeared on BBC World, the impact was felt around the globe. The
World Food Programme suddenly found itself receiving offers of aid,
money and help that it had been denied for months.

And now we have the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal in Britain.

Despite
the huge coverage of the London bombings, the programme subsequently
found space to run three more reports on Niger. Each time, the stories
were almost unbearable to watch. The story of Amina – a six-year-old
girl who initially put on 100 grams. In Hilary’s second report, she had
taken some milk, her life still in the balance.

And Aminu, the little boy with skin lesions, who seemed to be recovering, but later was reported to have died.

The
small BBC team spent a fortnight in Niger and I hope their reports will
make a difference to this stricken people. As they left, I sent them a
text telling them how powerful their reports had been and that the
world now seemed to be responding. Hilary and I agreed – if only we had
known earlier and gone earlier.

Kevin Bakhurst is editor of the BBC Ten O’Clock News

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