Yesterday the BBC made what the Independent newspaper called "a comprehensive and humiliating apology" for unfounded allegations made eight months ago that millions of pounds of Band Aid and Live Aid money intended for victims of the Ethiopian famine was diverted into arms sales.
The BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit this week upheld a complaint by the trustees of Band Aid Trust that the March 2010 programme, 'Assignment', made by the World Service’s Africa Editor, was unfair. There was “no evidence” for its claims, they concluded.
Yet as recently as the end of May, BBC Director-General Mark Thomson (who has previously been under fire for political bias in refusing to broadcast a charities' humanitarian appeal for victims of the Gaza conflict) had bullishly claimed that the programme was “robust and excellent journalism”.
Ekklesia was sceptical (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11418 ) of the claims at the time. We reported the eyewitness refutations of an on-the-ground development worker (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11428 ) and also the response of Christian Aid to the allegations (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11417 ).
The case is important, because the vital work charities and NGOs do is undermined, and public confidence weakened, when careless or populist media mud is thrown - even if it fails to stick.
That doesn't mean proper critical scrutiny or disagreement is out of order. Far from it. The aid agencies are among those who recognise the importance of accountability.
"The public can and should always demand that aid reaches the people who need it, that responses are faster and more coordinated and ultimately that the international community put maximum effort into preventing such emergencies from happening in the first place," they say.
Now Oxfam have republished, on 4 November, the full agencies' response to the 'Assignment' furore at the time (15 March 2010), in order to make sure that, in addition to the BBC's climb-down, the factual record is set straight:
"Aid money sent to Ethiopia in the mid-eighties saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The British public should feel justifiably proud of the very generous contribution they made to this.
"Assertions made by a TPLF former commander in a recent BBC investigation that the majority of aid money to Tigray in 1985 was used for arms or political purposes are incorrect. When Ethiopia was struck by one of the worst famines in history amid heavy conflict 25 years ago, agencies including Oxfam, Christian Aid, CAFOD and others sought to save the lives of distressed and starving people under difficult circumstances.
"We are confident that aid got to millions of people who needed it. It would be wrong to claim that no money was ever diverted in such a situation of active conflict. However, the uncorroborated allegation, made by a former rebel leader in the BBC report, that 95 per cent of $100 million aid for famine victims in Tigray in 1985 was misused is grossly inflated. There is no credible evidence that this figure - or any figure remotely close to it - is accurate.
"We welcome public scrutiny of aid distribution and media investigations including those by the BBC. The public can and should always demand that aid reaches the people who need it, that responses are faster and more coordinated and ultimately that the international community put maximum effort into preventing such emergencies from happening in the first place. In 1984-5 and today, we are fully dedicated to uphold these standards in our mission to end poverty worldwide."
Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.