ECU Ruling: Claims that aid intended for famine relief in Ethiopia had been diverted to buy arms

Last March, in reports about aid money donated to Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, a number of BBC programmes and online items implied or stated that large amounts of money raised by Band Aid and Live Aid for famine relief in Ethiopia had been diverted by a rebel group to buy weapons. Following a complaint from the Band Aid Trust the BBC has investigated these statements and concluded that there was no evidence for them, and they should not have been broadcast. The BBC wishes to apologise unreservedly to the Band Aid Trust for the misleading and unfair impression which was created.

 

The detailed findings on the Band Aid Trust's complaint are set out below.

Assignment, World Service, 4 March 2010

This edition of Assignment consisted of an investigation by Martin Plaut, the BBC's Africa Editor, into claims that aid intended for famine relief in Tigray during the Ethiopian famine of 1984-5 had been subject to large-scale and systematic diversion by the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and its relief agency REST, to buy arms and for other political purposes. The Band Aid Trust ("the Trust") complained that the programme and coverage generated by it had given the inaccurate and unfair impression that much or most of the money raised under the Band Aid banner had been diverted, whereas Band Aid was noted for the effectiveness of its monitoring of funds, and there was no evidence that funds raised by Band Aid had in fact been used to buy arms. This impression was damaging to the Trustees personally (implying negligence on their part) and to the good repute of the Trust as a custodian of charitable funds.

The Trust complained that the programme

1. gave an impression that Band Aid money was diverted to rebels of the TPLF and used to buy weapons when there was insufficient evidence to support the claim;
2. claimed that there was evidence of "the systematic diversion of aid received by REST to buy arms for the TPLF" when there was not;
3. included Band Aid in the allegations being made in order to sensationalise the story when there was insufficient evidence to justify doing so;
4. gave an inaccurate impression that, when an agent of Christian Aid was allegedly swindled out of aid money by rebels, Band Aid money may have been involved;
5. placed undue reliance on two witnesses, Aregawi Behre and Gebremehdin Araya, whose credentials, credibility and veracity were open to question;
6. presented, as evidence of the allegations being made, CIA reports which did not in fact support the allegations and in which Band Aid was not mentioned;
7. presented the testimony of former Ambassador Robert Houdek as corroborating the allegations being made when this was not so;
8. failed to provide adequate opportunity for Bob Geldof or any of the other Band Aid trustees to respond to the allegations;
9. included the claim that 95% of the aid which went to REST was diverted for other purposes when this was inaccurate and not supported by the evidence;
10. gave "a false and dangerously misleading and unwarranted impression ...and left an overall impression that the vast majority of resources raised by aid efforts in the mid 1980s largely went on buying arms".

The Trust also complained about related items, including

From Our Own Correspondent, bbc.co.uk

  • The article unfairly suggested that the fact that Bob Geldof had declined to be interviewed showed that "the subject is too sensitive to be discussed openly" and was further proof that the allegations being made were correct.
  • The article inaccurately and unfairly suggested that "the worst" may not have been averted in the Ethiopian famine crisis of the mid-1980s.

    Ethiopian Famine Aid 'Spent On Weapons', bbc.co.uk
  • The article reported unchallenged the claim that "$95m (£63m) from western governments and charities, including Band Aid, was channelled into the rebel fight" when there was insufficient evidence to support it. This was inaccurate and unfair to Band Aid and its trustees.

    BBC News (6.00pm), BBC One, 3 March 2010
  • The bulletin's report of the story was inaccurate and unfair to Band Aid and its trustees.

    Bob, Band Aid and how the rebels bought their arms, The Editors, bbc.co.uk
  • By using phrases such as "key figures", "compelling evidence", "uncomfortable facts", "uncovers systematic diversion of aid" and "credible voices" the article gave unwarranted support to allegations which were not sufficiently corroborated.
  • The article gave support to the allegation that "95% of the money received by REST was spent on military and political campaigns" when this allegation was not sufficiently corroborated.

    Outcome
    The ECU found as follows:

Assignment

  • The programme gave the impression that the claims of diversion related, inter alia, to Band Aid/Live Aid money (and the programme-makers acknowledge that such an impression, though unintended, might have been formed by a fair-minded listener). However, the programme's evidence did not relate to Band Aid/Live Aid money, and the impression given by the programme in this respect was therefore unfair to the Trust. [1, 2]
  • There was no evidence that the programme's allusions to Band Aid were motivated by a desire to sensationalise the story. [3]
  • In the section of the programme dealing with the alleged swindling of an agent of Christian Aid, it was made clear that the allegation concerned Christian Aid money, and it was not suggested that Band Aid money might have been involved. [4]
  • The programme was not clear about the extent to which the evidence of Aregawi Behre (who was the source of the claim that REST had, at a certain point, decided to divert 95% of aid money to the purchase of arms and other political purposes) was open to question. [5, 9]
  • The evidence of Gebremehdin Araya (who claimed to have swindled the Christian Aid agent) rested on a somewhat different basis, and the programme had not placed undue reliance on it. [5]
  • The inclusion of evidence from a CIA report and from Robert Houdek contributed to the impression that the programme's allegations of diversion included Band Aid money, whereas those items of evidence did not apply directly to Band Aid (and, in the case of the CIA report, could not have applied to Band Aid). [6, 7]
  • As the allegations were not deployed in the programme as criticism of Band Aid, there was no requirement under the BBC's Editorial Guidelines to offer the Trust a "right of reply". There were, however, strong editorial reasons for seeking comments from the Trust, and the programme-makers' requests for an interview with Bob Geldof or another representative of the Trust did not give enough information about the gravity of the allegation of diversion of funds to enable an informed decision about whether to provide a speaker to be made. [8]
  • The programme made clear that the allegations of diversion applied to aid reaching Tigray, not to the Ethiopian relief effort as a whole, and that much aid had served its intended purpose. [10]
    Partly upheld

    From Our Own Correspondent, bbc.co.uk
  • The article's reference to the fact that Bob Geldof had not agreed to an interview ("Bob Geldof, who is not usually reluctant to talk, turned me down. It became clear that 25 years on, this was still a subject too sensitive to be discussed openly") invited an unfair inference about his motive.
  • The article did not give the impression that the relief effort in Ethiopia had failed to prevent "the worst" from occurring. One phrase, read in isolation, could have been taken in that sense, but overall the article made clear that the relief effort had saved many lives.

    Partly upheld

    Ethiopian Famine Aid 'Spent On Weapons', bbc.co.uk
  • The sentence "One rebel leader estimated $95m (£63 m) - from western governments and charities including Band Aid - was channelled into the rebel fight" was inaccurate in suggesting that the witness in question (Aregawi Behre) had referred to Band Aid, and there was no evidence for associating this claim with Band Aid funds.
    Upheld

    BBC News (6.00pm), BBC One, 3 March 2010
  • Though the body of the report was fair and accurate, the suggestion in the studio introduction that millions of pounds of Band Aid money had been "siphoned off by rebel groups to buy weapons" was inaccurate and unfair.
    Upheld

    Bob, Band Aid and how the rebels bought their arms, The Editors, bbc.co.uk
  • The article gave a misleading impression that there was evidence of large-scale diversion of Band Aid money.
  • The article was not clear about the extent to which the credibility of the claim of 95% diversion of aid by REST was open to question.
    Upheld

    The Trust's complaints about the following items were not upheld.
    PM, Radio 4, 3 March 2010
    The Andrew Marr Show, BBC One, 7 March 2010
    The Media Show, Radio 4, 10 March 2010

Further action

Apologies to the Band Aid Trust will be broadcast on BBC One, the News Channel, Radio 4 and World Service. Appropriate steps will be taken to guard against visitors to any relevant BBC online items being given the impression that the evidence of diversion applied to Band Aid money.

Note

In earlier correspondence with the Trust, BBC News had identified a number of other items arising from the Assignment story in which an inaccurate or potentially misleading impression had been given.

  • A headline on the News Channel and the BBC One One O'clock News to the effect that millions of pounds given to Live Aid was used by rebels to buy guns.
  • Text on a website page which gave the impression that only a small amount of money raised by the charities involved in the Ethiopian famine reached the hungry.
  • A caption on News Channel during a guest interview which read "It's claimed 5% donations spent on Ethiopians".
  • An introduction to a report by Martin Plaut on the BBC One One O'Clock News, the News Channel and BBC World which associated Live Aid money with the claim that only 5% of the aid money reaching Tigray was used to feed the hungry.

    The action to be taken by the BBC is addressed to the breaches of editorial standards already acknowledged by BBC News, as well as to those found by the ECU.

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