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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 April 2006, 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK
So what does TV think of Africa?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Madonna & Birhan Woldou
Live 8: But did it help people to understand?
Africa is a basket-case continent where everyone's hungry and dying of Aids - that, at least, is the impression the British public is fed in their living rooms, according to a report on how the developing world is portrayed on TV.

For those of you who watched the Live 8 concert last year, what did you make of Birhan Woldou?

Birhan was the Ethiopian woman who, 20 years earlier, was a child close to death on coverage of Live Aid. And in 2005, there she was - a healthy, happy and beautiful woman, dancing along with Madonna and being hugged by Bob Geldof.

Did it make you think, things are getting better or, rather, confirm your suspicions that Africa remains, and always will be, a basket-case continent?

A coalition of organisations has published a report which asks how British television portrays the developing world - and what the British public thinks.

It concludes that 22 years on from the great Ethiopian famine, the British are stuck with stereotypes and "static one-dimensional images of desperation" - despite increased coverage of development issues.

Dominic Nutt (picture: Christian Aid)
The report says development charities need to help broadcasters by feeding them ideas
But 'when we tell TV bosses we have a really good idea they tend to say they've not got the money or dismiss it because they 'did Africa last week','says Dominic Nutt of Christian Aid (pictured)
'Media companies blow budgets on stories such as the US elections, 9/11, the Iraq war & the tsunami,' he says.
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For the research, groups of viewers were shown TV clips covering the developing world.

The responses revealed that whatever preconceptions viewers had - positive or negative - they enjoyed human stories out of Africa.

Some of the most popular shows included:

  • a searing Channel 4 documentary on Aids, presented by a Sierra Leonean film-maker,
  • a BBC series which followed pupils and teachers in Uganda, and
  • a special episode of medical soap Holby City, set in Ghana.

"The people who took part in our focus groups were very clear that they liked positive and transformative television, characters that they could relate to - basically good storytelling," said Neera Dhingra of VSO, one of the organisations which commissioned the report called Reflecting the Real World.

But when asked to recall their own viewing habits in this field, they cited programmes like Comic Relief, coverage of the Tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake in Pakistan.

"When we showed them something different, they loved it - but that led us to ask why had they not seen it in the first place?"

Scheduling & marketing

One reason is that after a hard day's grind, people tend to opt for easy viewing.

Michael Buerk reporting in 1984
1984: BBC reports from Ethiopia fixed the image
But that raises questions about how challenging shows are scheduled - typically at the margins of peak viewing - and how they are marketed.

Live 8 scored on both fronts - being heavily marketed and scheduled across a whole day.

"All groups agreed that Birlan Woldou, on stage with Madonna, was an uplifting experience because it put a human face and voice on the continent," says Ms Dhingra. She says charities, with their ears close to the ground, even have a responsibility to develop ideas for TV shows.

But Live 8's come once every 20 years. So what are broadcasters doing to up their game to give Africa, and the rest of the developing world, a fairer portrayal?

Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of television, says the trick is to meet the demand for good programming, irrespective of who the audience is.

What this doesn't mean, she says is filling schedules with well-meaning television that nobody wants to watch.

Celebrity tokenism?

"It's a very thoughtful report because it acknowledges that some audiences are naturally interested in having programming that reflects the real world and that other audiences are less likely to be drawn to that programming," says Ms Bennett.

Two Ghanaian kids having a snack
Enjoying a snack, taken by E Tweyl in Ghana and sent to BBC
"That means there needs to be a variety of approaches that broadcasters like the BBC need to be taking."

Jana Bennett calls for innovative on-going programming, such as the BBC's 2005 Africa season, along with intelligent delivery of drama, documentary and news which makes the best of a convergent media age - on television, the net and on demand.

And this will continue to include using famous faces in unfamiliar places, such as the BBC's sending of comedians to Africa for Comic Relief. While the report and some NGOs question the use of "celebrities", Ms Bennett says it cannot be brushed aside as tokenistic.

"I know from working with Comic Relief that there are many [famous] people who devote a lot of time to its purpose," she says. "They are not just sincere, they are very well informed and they go and see the situations for real.

"They act as a translator or empathiser who connects with the subject on the behalf of the audience. They are helping to open doors to people who may not think that they would want to get involved in these subjects without being with someone they know."

See below for some of your comments on this story. Send your own by using the form.

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It hurts me, as an African to see that we are given a grim picture as a continent that has no hope. I passionately believe that Africa is richer, all we need is for Africans to start helping each other because we know our problems better than outsiders who have to make scenes to get money to assist my fellow brothers.
Dogo Singh, Kampala, Uganda

I don't think the British TV does justice to Africa - all they ever report is the bad side of things in Africa. I think the English media loves to see African people in a bad light. Surely something good must be happening in Africa.
Emmanuel, Basingstoke, UK

I second an opinion put forward by Caitlin Moran in a popular broadsheet newspaper on Monday. Why can't the BBC portray the people of the world as well as it manages to portray the beauty of it's wildlife and nature?
Guy Sharp, East London

I grew up in Nigeria and a lot of news coverage of Africa doesn't seem familiar. It would be nice if TV coverage is balanced and shows both sides to Africa. My son is half-African and has a lot of friends who are African. I despair that whenever they see TV pictures of children in Africa they see children who are crying, have flies on their faces and sitting in some refugee squatter camp. To help the self-esteem of black kids in the UK, please show a more balanced and accurate picture of Africa.
Anne Evans, Hounslow, England

I'm sorry if this sounds really nasty but the way I see it and probably always will, is that Africa is a lazy continent. It really needs to sort itself out and start getting themselves out of their poverty-stricken background themselves. They need to stop expecting hand outs from the West and learn to work hard like the rest of us in the majority of the world.
Mark Whippy, Watford, UK

Having visited Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa, the clearest message I got was that these countries are full of people who are prepared to work hard, strive for better lives and always stay positive. That is something I've never seen portrayed on TV .
Rebecca Cottey, Wolfurt, Austria

Stereotypes will be around for a long time but the question is WHAT ARE WE DOING ABOUT IT OURSELVES IN THE MIST OF ALL THIS?
Ronning, Tema, Ghana

Africa has a fair share of problems such as war, disease, hunger and so many others. But people dance, laugh and enjoy life as well. Well-balanced coverage is certainly a welcome development.
Madalo, Colchester, UK

Live 8 too was a great symbolic gesture but it would have even been better if we saw the American, British & European Artists hand in hand with African artists. There is more to Africa and Africans than AIDS and starvation. We have a lot of talent too in the various fields and industries - it's also up to us too to make some noise about how we are presented to the world.
Proud African, London

I really enjoyed the BBC documentary about the school in Uganda, much as I like many programs about real people. Having spent an enjoyable year in Tanzania, I get fed up that the majority of programs I see about any part of Africa are wildlife programs (which either don't feature the locals, or treat them as other objects of curiosity) or doom and gloom pieces.
Eleanor, York

I have been to Africa and I love it. Once you go, smell the air and feel the earth beneath your feet you know there is no other place on earth that you will love in quite the same way. What a beautiful country, with wonderful, wonderful people.

I think with Birhan appearing on stage with Madonna and Geldof, God was saying here is that person you all wrote off patronisingly as history, as a a basket case and here is that same person, sharing the same stage with celebrities, and then with all her faculties functioning in the exact same way as they would for them. Africa seems to cut very deep into the soul. I went to Kenya in 2001 and caught the bug like everyone seems to. I suggest everyone go there and be changed for life.
Will Davies, Bookham, UK

I guess everyone is appalled by what is happening in Africa, but also totally fed up with it. How long has this problem been going on, it's no good keep sending millions upon millions of pounds, in which only a fraction of it actually goes to helping the situation, most of it is lost thanks to corruption by the so called people running the country. I will not give anymore to Africa until they start to help themselves and the corruption is dealt with.
Gary, Newbury, UK

A lot of positive things have happened in Africa in terms of education and health but we never hear of these things in the western media. We as Africans are tired of the double standards from western media, it is time the media reflected and heralded the African story - both the positive and negative.
Farai, Leeds

Recent documentary series on African Schools and on a detective agency were fascinating and entertaining. More such programming would be welcomed by many people and would do much to address the negative image of Africa. The future of Europe is completely linked to that of Africa so the more we know about our neighbours now, the better
Andrew Crick, Oxfordshire, UK

If you think africa is a basket case then you truly have no clue of what we africans are about. Maybe if you visited one country then you would be in a situation to comment. If you the media stopped filming only the negative on Africa you would see that there is more to us than begging.
Josephine, Nairobi

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