Alert Update – The BBC Responds on Mass Death in Afghanistan

On January 3, 2002 Media Lens issued a Media Alert focusing on how the BBC and ITN had been ignoring the mass starvation and death of civilians in Afghanistan. Since then, we have received a flood of copied letters sent by readers to the BBC and ITN. In response we have received several replies from the BBC (see below). We have as yet received no replies from ITN.

Since our original alert, however, ITN has finally acknowledged some of the terrible suffering in Afghanistan.

On January 9 and 13, ITN reported the story of Marjan the one-eyed lion in Kabul zoo. Marjan’s “battered image touched people around the world”, we were told on the 9th, “his plight a symbol of maltreatment under the Taliban”. As a result, a team of vets had flown out to deliver “much-needed help… treatment and food” (ITN Lunchtime News, 9 January, 2002). The closing clip featured a happy Marjan chewing on a large piece of meat.

We found out what was being eaten elsewhere in Afghanistan on the same day in one of the Guardian’s rare reports on the Afghan catastrophe:

“The village of Bonavash is slowly starving”, Ravi Nessman wrote. “Besieged by the Taliban and crushed by years of drought, people in this remote mountain settlement have resorted to eating bread made from grass and traces of barley flour. Babies whose mothers’ milk has dried up are fed grass porridge. The toothless elderly crush grass into a near powder. Many have died. More are sick. Nearly everyone has diarrhoea or a hacking cough. When the children’s pain becomes unbearable, their mothers tie rags around their stomachs to try to alleviate the pressure. ‘We are waiting to die. If food does not come, if the situation does not change, we will eat it [grass] … until we die,’ said Ghalam Raza, 42, a man with a hacking cough, pain in his stomach and bleeding bowels.” (Ravi Nessman, ‘Afghans eat grass as aid fails to arrive,’ Guardian, January 9, 2002)

Nessman related the story of Khadabaksh, a former farm labourer, who looked in despair at his four young daughters: “Three weeks ago, his children had a mother and a baby sister. Both have died. Khadabaksh begs his neighbours for pinches of their small amount of home-grown barley so his family can make grass bread… ‘It is better to die in our house,’ he said, ‘not in some strange place with strange people.'”

About this, ITN, like BBC TV news, has had nothing at all to say so far this year and through the second half of December.

Coverage of Marjan the lion throws interesting light on the theory posited in the New Statesman in September: namely, that it is only natural that Britons should care more for the suffering of victims in New York than for people in the Third World. The extent to which “British emotions are touched”, the editors wrote, is determined by “human nature” and the affinity of lifestyles of people in the U.S. The point being that the victims of September 11, “lived lives much like ours”.(Editorial, ‘It’s not the Wild West, Mr President’, New Statesman, 24 September, 2001)

Curious, then, that the human rights and (merely potential) suffering of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo base in Cuba have roused the consciences of ‘liberal’ commentators everywhere, while the actual suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians surviving on grass passes them by. In truth, the Guantanamo base story is a classic mainstream ‘liberal’ cause, one that gives the superficial impression of bold independence, whilst not seriously embarrassing the powers that be. Issues truly embarrassing to powerful interests tend to escape prolonged attention. There also remains the problem of Marjan the one-eyed lion, who presumably belongs in the category of those who do not live “lives much like ours”.

Among the replies received from the BBC in response to the January 3, Media Alert is the following, received 16 January, 2002:

Dear Mr Edwards

Thank you for your e-mail and attachment addressed to my colleague, Richard Carey, to which I have been asked to reply.

I have noted your comments about BBC ONE’s One O’Clock News on Thursday 3 January. However, it is not possible to report on everything that happens in a day and opinions will differ as to which stories should be included in a half hour news bulletin. Unlike newspapers, news programmes do not have the luxury of the inside pages or specialist sections that enable newspapers to carry a wide range of reports.

Yours sincerely

Denise Tattersall
BBC Information

Remarkably, Denise Tattersall’s email was a response to a Media Alert which did +not+ focus solely on the BBC’s One O’Clock News on January 3, but on BBC reporting “over the Christmas period” and into January. This renders everything said about “which stories should be included in a half hour news bulletin” completely redundant. But even if we had been referring only to January 3, Tattersall’s suggestion that covering the 100 Afghans civilians who died on that day would require the “luxury of the inside pages or specialist sections” is extraordinary. Our own view is that a tragedy on this scale merits inclusion alongside the antics of joint-smoking royals, Marks & Spencers’ increased profits, showers of giant hailstones, and other vital topics.

Recall that we were, and still are, asking the BBC a serious question: why has it given no coverage to the starvation and death of hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians – not enemies, but innocent bystanders like the victims of September 11 – given that our government bears considerable responsibility for their suffering? To this, Media Lens has not yet received a serious answer.

The absurdity has continued with the BBC side-stepping our question by mechanically restating its commitment to “open-mindedness, fairness and a respect for truth”.

Media Lens received a copy of an email exchange between one of our subscribers and Lee Rodgers of the Editorial & Investigation Team at BBC Information, in which Mr Rodgers claimed, “there is widespread confidence in the impartiality of the BBC’s reporting.” When Media Lens asked Mr Rodgers to support this claim, he cited the BBC’s annual report, adding cryptically: “Much of our audience research is intended for internal use only and is of a commercially sensitive nature.”

The annual report itself says nothing substantive about the extent to which BBC reporting is perceived to be trustworthy and accurate by licence payers. (See:

Media Lens pressed Mr Rogers further, referring to the corporation’s coverage of specific events, including the US/UK attacks on Afghanistan and the ongoing humanitarian disaster there. We reminded him, in particular, of Section 2.2 of the guidelines for BBC producers: “News programmes should offer viewers and listeners an intelligent and informed account of issues that enables them to form their own views.” (See:

Mr Rodgers replied: “I am sorry to hear you are still concerned about how the BBC demonstrates that its programmes are open-minded, fair and show a respect for the truth. I’m afraid there is nothing I can usefully add to my earlier reply, although I would point you once again in the direction of BBC Online.”

Sadly, these responses are typical of a corporate media system which is not seriously accountable, much less responsible, to anyone. The media can do as it pleases, the public can like it or lump it, and the media will go its merry way regardless.

Last year, BBC adverts ceaselessly declared: “Honesty, integrity – it’s what the BBC stands for.”

More realistically, journalist John Pilger has referred to “the subliminal pressures applied by organisations like the BBC, whose news is often selected on the basis of a spurious establishment ‘credibility’.”

It follows, then, that where this basis is lacking – for example, where the establishment is embarrassed by mass suffering for which it bears real responsibility – then such news cannot be credible and so is not selected.


Write to Richard Carey at BBC Information ([email protected]) and ask him why the fate of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo base is of more concern than the suffering and mass death of Afghan civilians subsisting on grass.

Write to ITN ([email protected]) and ask why the fate of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo base is of more concern than the suffering and mass death of Afghan civilians subsisting on grass.