Flat Earth News

The famine that never was

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Tagged: / Posted: 13 May 2009

The Norwegian television journalists who exposed the Flat Earth News story about the non-existent famine in Niger in 2005 have put their programme onto youtube. You can get it by putting 'Famine Scam' into the youtube search engine.

It's a classic tale. The Norwegian documentary team went to Niger in 2007 and interviewed politicians, health workers, farmers, local residents and others who say that, contrary to claims which were made by the BBC and then recycled by numerous other news organisations: there was no famine in Niger in 2005; there was no drought the year before to cause a famine;  there was no plague of locusts the year before to cause a famine; there were no 3.5 million starving people; there was no significant increase in deaths.

It's a classic tale not just because it's false but because of the way in which different agencies combined with each other and with the media to generate an unstoppable tide of misinformation. In Niger, it was the UN and aid agencies who worked with a BBC reporter and then with a herd of other journalists to produce the stories. Those who have read Flat Earth News will have seen a similar pattern in other global tales like the Millennium Bug and the Iraqi WMD programmes.

And, as is so often the case, the roots of the story lie in the ignorance of the journalists who write them. Journalists did film sick and dying children - without understanding that they were sick and dying not because they were starving but because they were ill, with diarrhoea and particularly with malaria. Journalists did film people picking leaves off trees for food - without understanding that this was a standard part of the Niger diet.

It brings to mind a passage in Flat Earth News:
"So, why did the journalists run their stories? Telling the truth is their primary purpose. Why would they not do that? The revealing point here is that nobody ordered them to get the story wrong. No corporate advertisers blackmailed newsrooms into running this stuff. No media proprietors leaned down from on high and imposed this story on their compliant staff. Sure, there were plenty of mercenaries and fools who were happy enough to make the most of the story, but they didn't initiate it or even control it. Journalists around the world spontaneously hopped on board a global flight of fiction which took off and left a few sad facts standing flat-footed and forgotten in its wake.

"Why? They did it because, just like their sources, the journalists themselves did not know the truth - even though truth is their primary objective. And that is commonplace. Ignorance is the root of media failure. Most of the time, most journalists do not know what they are talking about. Their stories may be right, or they may be wrong: they don't know.

"I say this not as an insult to them (well, most of them). Generally, journalists, like any other professionals, prefer to do their job well. I say it because this profession has become damaged to the point where most of the time, most of its members are no longer able to do their job. They work in structures which positively prevent them discovering the truth. Historically, there has always been an element of ignorance in journalism, simply because it attempts to record the truth as it happens. Now, this has become much worse. It is endemic. The ethic of honesty has been overwhelmed by the mass production of ignorance.

"The whole story of modern media failure is complicated and subtle. It involves all kinds of manipulation, occasional conspiracy, lying, cheating, stupidity, cupidity, gullibility, a collapse of skill and a new wave of deliberate propaganda. But the story begins with journalists who tell you the Earth is flat, because genuinely they think it might be. The scale of it is terrifying."

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