The poor state of development journalism: Daily Mail, BBC & 'Ethiopian Spice Girls'

The Daily Mail campaign against ‘wasteful’ foreign aid is in full swing (see my earlier reflections in my 2016 blogging review) and in the latest example we can see that it has real impact as DFID promptly executes the Mail’s campaign wishes. In addition, the Mail’s campaigning in the age of ‘post-factual’ journalism is unfortunately taken up by the mainstream media echo chamber and finds willing amplifiers, for example the BBC.
BBC’s article ‘Yegna, Ethiopia's 'Spice Girls', lose UK funding’ is a telling example of how the Mail’s discourse is slowly but surely poisoning the debate around development in the UK. As we are embarking on a new term in our Communication for Development MA program, it is also an important case study I will discuss with students.

So let’s have closer look at the framing of the article:
after reports that pop group Yegna had received millions from UK taxpayers.
The reference to ‘UK taxpayers’ is usually the first red flag that news items come with a certain spin; articles on the Royal family, agricultural subsidies or wasteful military spending usually do not remind ‘the taxpayer’ of their contribution to various inefficiencies. Also, by not adding a precise figure, an unspecified ‘millions’ leaves room for imagination and speculation just how much money was wasted spent.
The band, dubbed "Ethiopia's Spice Girls", has been the subject of a long-running campaign by the Daily Mail, which claims grants to the group were a waste of money.
Well, at least they are honest how this story broke: The development efficiency experts from the Daily Mail uncovered evidence and carefully reviewed it in a nuanced way. ‘Complexity’ is a word Daily Mail editors use frequently-almost as frequently as ‘nuanced reporting’…
It said the decision had not been influenced by press coverage of Yegna.
Of course not. But DFID only responds with policy-plastic-speak anyway:
"We judge there are more effective ways to invest UK aid," a spokeswoman said, adding that the government will "deliver even better results for the world's poorest and value for taxpayers' money".
Rather than responding to the case of Yegna, a DFID spokeswoman plays buzzword bingo and shares a completely meaning- and context-less statement. References to ‘the world’s poorest’ and, you guessed it, the ‘taxpayers’ money’ complete the non-statement.
So how politicians respond to the story?

Shadow International Development Secretary Kate Osamor said it was "really unfortunate" the project "was being rubbished".
Humanitarian aid was "not just about food parcels", she said.
That’s nice to hear, Kate Osamor, and I agree about the role of humanitarian aid-but what has this sentence to do with anything? We are neither talking about humanitarian aid nor about food parcels. It is a continuation of policy buzzword bingo on the next level.
It is also noteworthy that The Guardian featured a very different quote in its article that was published on the same day:

“Sensationalist, headline-grabbing stories of waste and corruption have become an ever increasing staple of British newspapers over recent months,” Osamor said. “No policy, project or programme designed to improve the lives of destitute and marginalised people around the world seems exempt from rightwing media criticism.”
She said aid should not be “one size fits all according to what we in the west think is what is needed”.
But let’s return to the BBC piece and enjoy some comments from a true development expert:
Conservative MP Nigel Evans said the decision was about stopping "vanity projects" in favour of causes such as children's education and life-saving vaccinations.
"It is a victory for common sense", he told BBC News. "As well intentioned as it may have been, the fact is it does not measure up."
Nigel Evans is pulling out the big conservative verbal guns, i.e. referring to ‘common sense’. He just knows that this is a ‘vanity project’-plus, the Daily Mail wrote so. He is also referring to ‘the fact’ which is usually post-truth speak for ‘we don’t really have any, other than a right-wing media campaign and my gut feeling’…

In the end, it is also important to justify the attacks on the development budget, by linking it to other austerity measures, the usual neoliberal line that we (taxpayers) all need to
tighten our belts:
the government is under pressure to prove that the more than £12bn it sends overseas each year is being well spent, particularly as domestic budgets are being squeezed.
Why is the government under pressure’? Well, partly because it cuts anything related to social expenditure, but the Daily Mail rather focuses on one minor policy arena. Also note the passive voice in ‘domestic budgets are being squeezed’-probably by Adam Smith’s invisible hand or something…
But even the aforementioned Guardian piece ends with a long quote from a Tory MP who repeats a similar part line:

Tory MP David Nuttall welcomed the decision to cut funding. “The project is no doubt well intentioned but this is not the sort is spending my constituents expect our aid budget to go on,” he said. “At a time when domestic services are been cut back to help balance the books, taxpayers cannot understand how we can spend money on projects like this whilst there are so many pressures on spending at home.”
Do note the references to constituents’ expectations (he asked them about development priorities?!) and the passive voice-complete with the ‘us vs. ‘them dichotomy of priorities ‘at home versus those abroad.
In the end, what seemed to have started as simple factual reporting
by the BBC on a DFID-funded project and organization turns into an interesting exercise of analyzing the policy echo-chamber in London:
The Daily Mail backed the UK's decision to end ties with Yegna on its front page on Saturday, with the headline: "Aid: Now they're listening".
We have come full-circle. Despite the fact that no petition was signed, no Internet shitstorm emerged and no real public outrage took place, Daily Mail front page journalism and the willing Conservative executioners of cutting the foreign aid budget work hand in hand.
This is a powerful reminder that post-factual journalism is not just a
thing’, but has real consequences for public spending-usually affecting those who do not have access to the powerful lobbying arsenal of the establishment.

Being vigilant and pointing out these narratives can only be a first step for the communication for development community. Again, I do not have any quick answers at hand on what counter-strategies could work, but including critical media analysis in our teaching is a small step to build up a counter-narrative.


  1. I do agree with you that critical media analysis is, well, critical. But how to do it when you loathe the Mail and all it stands for, but also have real problems with the project they are talking about? It's one thing to do it in the classroom - and a good thing - but how can you debate these pernicious narratives about 'development' in the public domain while critiquing the narrative of the project itself? or even just acknowledging it was a wrong 'un. I do sympathise with Kate Osamor and to some extent DFID if they dont want to defend something they have reservations about (my projection) - although obviously in DFID's case, they signed it off so should provide some explanation. Although co-funders Nike seem to have escaped the censure... (maybe not - I havent read the article as I can't cope with the bile this early in the morning).

  2. Thank you for your interesting insight on the effect of media criticism on a development activity that was changing the lives of many people in Ethiopia. Since 2013, Yegna (Ours) have received criticism from both serious (OECD) and unserious sides (DailMail) for being ineffective and expensive. Once again Yegna has became the poster child of misused foreign aid in the British press. For my degree project I am interested to do a discourse analysis of representations of Yegna in print media from a media critique perspective. Do you think it is a good topic? Thank you for your advice in advance.


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