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Franks, Suzanne, Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media.

Franks, Suzanne, Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media, Hurst and Company, London, 2013, ISBN 9 7818 4904 2888, 256 pp. Distributor: Inbooks.

The Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s was associated with two images in the public mind: that of starving people crowded around feeding stations and charity super-group Band Aid singing 'Feed the World'.

Suzanne Franks' Reporting Disasters focuses on media coverage of the famine and its influence on UK government policy and aid agencies' responses to the humanitarian crisis. However, the picture she paints is more complex than is implied by either media coverage of either starving people or Bob Geldof and Midge Ure's famine-relief concerts.

Franks' research is strongly supported by her access to BBC files, through its Official History Project, and internal papers from the UK government accessed through freedom of information, as well as extensive interviews with key players from the media, government and aid agencies, including BBC South Africa correspondent Michael Buerk.

Buerk focused worldwide attention on the famine through his reports for BBC television news in October 1984, using cameraman Mohamed Amin's images of starving people in northern Ethiopia.

Franks' interviewees also include Minister for Overseas Development Sir Timothy Raison, and BBC International Development Correspondent David Loyn, who likens media use of 'dying baby shots' to 'instant coffee journalism' (p. 150).

Franks (p. 110) criticises the media for telling a story that was 'simplified, incomplete and on occasion plainly wrong'. She argues that both the media and aid agencies promoted a narrative of people in distress needing help rather than focusing on human causes of the famine, including military strategy and social engineering. Yet correspondence between Band Aid and the Relief Society for Tigray, on file at the BBC, revealed 'the Ethiopian government had seized aid donations and used them for their own, often military purposes' (p. 119). This was particularly problematic because it allowed aid to become 'a useful fighting tool', something aid agencies were 'unwilling or unable to acknowledge' (p. 115). Franks attributes such inaccurate coverage to disjointed reporting on Africa in the period and a lack of understanding of the complex political situation in Ethiopia.

Another issue considered is whether the UK government's response reflected what later became known as the 'CNN effect'--a term used in the Gulf War in 1991 to describe the influence on government policy of domestic audience reaction to media coverage of foreign news stories. Franks argues that public pressure appeared to affect government policy, but its use of RAF Hercules for airlifts was a high-profile quick fix, and 'the reality gleaned from internal documents tells a different story' (p. 5), with famine seen as an opportunity to extend Western influence (pp. 56-7).

However, aid agency protocols did change in response to questions about ethical use of 'populist, simplistic and ethnocentric images' (p. 150) of famine victims, resulting in the 1992 Red Cross Code for conduct in disaster relief.

Franks presents the famine as a story sold by television that transformed media and aid agency relationships, made charity newsworthy and highlighted the 'terrible paradox' (p. 178) that aid efforts could end up doing more harm than good.

--Janet M. Harkin, Deakin University and Monash University
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Author:Harkin, Janet M.
Publication:Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2014
Words:530
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