BBC BLOGS - The Editors

BBC Hausa interview with President Yar'Adua

Post categories:

Jerry Timmins | 18:12 UK time, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

BBC Hausa got a telephone interview in English and Hausa today with President Yar'Adua. It generated a huge reaction in Nigeria and around the world. Here is some background from Jamilah Tangaza, Editor of BBC Hausa.


Jamilah TangazaBy Jamilah Tangaza

Nigeria has been a whirlwind of rumour and speculation over the last week. The speculation was driven by uncertainty over the whereabouts and state of health of President Yar'Adua. He has been out of the country for more than 50 days.

The Hausa Service has an audience of 23 million people and they were contacting us, they were e-mailing us, they were texting us, they were blogging about us, and they were challenging us - "Please tell us what is happening with our President."

They were saying things like, "We rely on you to provide us with the truth - and we want the BBC to tell us the truth about Yar'Adua."

Senior government officials, who said he was receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, maintained he was on his way to a full recovery following heart problem.

Four weeks after his departure, rumours were rife that President Yar'Adua was in a coma, others said he was brain-damaged. One report even claimed that he had died on the 10 January.

Presiden Yar'AduaRumours are not new to Nigeria; but then neither is speculation that Yar'Adua had died. During his presidential campaign in 2007 the would-be President Yar'Adua collapsed and was subsequently hospitalised in Germany.

In a dramatic response to speculation that he was dead, the then President Olusegun Obasanjo made a nationally televised phone call to Germany to convince Nigerians that Yar'Adua was indeed alive.

That was three years ago and Presisdent Obasanjo's intervention happened only hours after Yar'Adua had arrived in Germany. Last night, one of my thoughts was: if Nigerians needed to be convinced that Yar'Adua was alive after so short a time from falling ill in 2007, then such assurances were long overdue after 50 days of silence and absence.

The interview today aired across Nigeria and the World and put to rest the wilder stories. It has not put to rest complaints from the opposition about the extended absence and uncertainties it raises. And on the internet some new questions have been flying such as "Was it really Yar'Adua on the BBC?"

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

By way of an answer let me say that I and the interviewer thoroughly researched the interview before it was done. We dealt with people we know who are close to the President to set it up.

Before recording, Mansur Liman, who did the interview, had an informal chat to convince himself who we were talking to. In short days of checking on the president's whereabouts and condition culminated in the interview taking place.

One of my key concerns in broadcasting to a country as complex and sensitive as Nigeria, is making sure the BBC gets it right and our editorial checks have to be rigorous. With over 20 million Nigerians listening to the BBC on a regular basis, I feel pretty motivated to get the checks right.

One final thought: this is not the first time BBC Hausa has had cause to get to the heart of the story surrounding President Yar'Adua. In 2007 BBC Hausa service was the first to get an interview with Yar'Adua while he was receiving medical attention in Germany - again dispelling the rumours.


Jerry Timmins is Head of Africa Region, BBC World Service.

What to call a war

Jerry Timmins | 16:10 UK time, Thursday, 7 June 2007

In our desire to adhere to the BBC's commitment to impartiality, editors here wrestle with language and the meaning of words all the time. This is not out of some misguided desire to be politically correct and not offend anyone, it's driven out of a concern to speak a language that will be properly understood.

World Service logoThe current anniversary of the 6 Day War is a good example. Many in the UK may feel that it is a reasonably objective description of the war between Israel and Egypt in 1967 that lasted about 6 days. In the Arab world though many feel the description of 6 Days War was adopted quickly by Israel to emphasise the sweeping nature of their victory. In contrast, the event was and is described by many Arabs as "The Setback".

To some - both phrases are politically loaded. So in many of our broadcasts we try and avoid both descriptions and often talk of the '67 Arab Israeli War - a phrase that is less loaded and enables us to get in to the detail of what actually happened - and what the causes and consequences of the war are without getting blocked by a label which can act as a stumbling block which prevents them from even engaging with the topic.

It's not a rule. It's an example of the kind of thought that goes on about descriptors here...

Balance over time

Jerry Timmins | 09:13 UK time, Thursday, 19 April 2007

Last month I wrote on this blog about claims that BBC Arabic was "anti-Western". Thank you for all the comments - perhaps it's time for for me to chip in once more. Inevitably many of the responses were from people who do not listen to BBC Arabic nor see translations of it; so inevitably the debate developed into a broader discussion about whether the BBC is biased.

World Service logoPerhaps all judgments about this are bound to be relative to each person's experience and perspective. I know from personal experience that my colleagues inside this organisation put considerable effort and reflection in to trying to ensure that the output is impartial but - as some commenters point out - such assertions count for little.

Some questions might help.

Does the BBC have a proprietor defining an editorial line which journalists are expected to stick to?

No. Unlike many organisations the BBC has no such person. Instead it publishes its own guidelines so that the public can judge whether we abide by them or not.

When we say we try and be impartial - what do we mean?

We don’t mean that we never make mistakes. We are by no means perfect. Mistakes do get made and we are not always able to get access to every piece of information or every view but we strive hard to be accurate, balanced and fair - and audience research suggests that most people who use BBC services greatly appreciate those efforts.

Do you hear views you disagree with on the media you use?

I certainly hope so. Personally I hear all kinds of views on the BBC I do not agree with and hear interviews with all kinds of people I would prefer my children not to meet, including some contributions from those on published lists of "terrorists". I disagree with what some of these people say and if I hate what someone stands for that does not mean their views should not be heard; nor does it mean that I should not spend some time in trying to understand where they are coming from.

f Protestant or Catholic leaders had held to a view that "terrorists" should not be given opportunities to air their views publicly there would be no power sharing or reconciliation in Northern Ireland - and peace (which is surely what most people want) would remain elusive. Very few commenters suggested that views should be suppressed. Most are essentially discussing the concept of balance. That can be impossible to achieve within single reports, especially when one side has a more efficient press machine than another. However, it can be achieved over time. One thing that is very difficult in this is the sheer impact of a picture. If a bomb hits a civilian area and you see pictures of children dying - that is going to stay in the mind longer than a reasoned argument from a politician. Different people - depending on their own personal experience - will react very differently to the same piece of information.

An example: you see a picture of a policeman beating up a man in civilian clothes on the street of some foreign country. If you are British you might think immediately that a great offence is being committed. If you are from that country you might think the same thing. But if you are someone in that country who spends their lives constantly in fear for your safety on the streets from thugs and cronies in civilian clothes - you might well feel that someone in authority is on the street battling on your behalf. Your own experience can change or distort the meaning of something that at first appears quite straight forward.

I think what the BBC can and should continue to strive to do is report over time and in detail what is actually happening so that over time people are in a better position to make up their own minds about what is going on. It’s not our job to push a line or push a "BBC" point of view. It is our job to enable many others of very diverse views to air their own - as has been done here so you can make up your own minds.

When you listen to the BBC do you hear a consistent view pushed continuously?

I suggest that anyone - academic or not - would find that very hard to prove unless you quote only highly selectively - always ignoring anything that does not fit the case you are trying to prove. I do see some things on the BBC that make me wince as a piece of individual journalism. But I can quickly point to something else that counters the concern I have. And encouragingly I find my colleagues are open to criticism and indeed criticise my work - so we try and keep each other on our toes (and of course our audiences are constantly in contact!)

The point I am making is that impartiality is partly dependent on balance and it is not possible to internally balance every piece. If we waited to do that we would be very slow on stories and our credibility would diminish. That kind of balance is only achieved over time and if you are going to be as highly critical as Professor Frank Stewart was in the original attack which started this debate, you ought really to take a broader look at the output than I believe he has done.

But of course he is entitled to his view!

Both sides

Jerry Timmins | 14:22 UK time, Thursday, 22 March 2007

Professor Frank Stewart attacked BBC Arabic in the New York Times on 15 March ("British Biased Corporation"). He says BBC Arabic is “as anti-western as anything that comes out of the Gulf if not more so.”

World Service logoI wonder in which direction Mr Stewart’s receiver is pointing. Possibly his agenda interferes with reception. Professor Stewart has written to the BBC at great length about his views. Recently he wrote a nine page critique of the BBC Arabic Service’s coverage of the conflict in Lebanon, claiming among other things that we were anti-Israeli. We were able to respond in great detail showing that his highly selective and misleading account of our coverage was unfair and showed no knowledge of the brave and comprehensive coverage that had in fact been broadcast and which included clear and impartial accounts of Israeli views and experiences during the war. Having failed to substantiate his detailed criticism he now resorts to a generalised attack in the New York Times.

It’s clear from his original letter to the BBC, that what really upsets him is that the BBC does not overtly push an American or British government line to the exclusion of other views. He seems to find it hard to understand that an institution can be committed to impartiality and mean it.

In the New York Times he says a BBC programme in Arabic only focused on views critical of the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, whereas in fact the presenter consistently put the American view and the programme had a contributor who put the US government’s argument for imprisoning combatants in this way. BBC Arabic has also interviewed the commander of the prison complex. So the American view has consistently been represented in our output.

Professor Stewart asserts that BBC Arabic is sympathetic with dictators and poor governance in the Middle East. However, BBC Arabic covered Saddam Hussein’s atrocities when others ignored them and holds leaders to account in a way rarely seen in Arab media. This week we reported the opposition arrests in Egypt and before that we were getting the Egyptian transport minister to answer criticisms of the way he handled the ferry disaster.

Recently we interviewed the deputy president of Sudan about his government’s behaviour in Darfur. Again, BBC Arabic covered Darfur long before other media houses picked up the current tragic story. So what is Professor Stewart listening to? I would suggest it is his own desire to see and hear only one side of the story and one view asserted: the one he agrees with.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.