Platform10: Jane Standley

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The Independent Online
While Africans cherish any news that crackles over the airwaves, we turn away from the outside world ...

``Don't look the other way." Amnesty International's plea to the British public not to ignore world-wide inhumanity has been splashed across full-page newspaper advertisements. It was one of the first things I saw when I came home a couple of weeks ago after three years as a BBC correspondent in Africa. I was shocked that there on the page in front of me was someone whose face, name and story I already knew - Sallay Goba, a middle-aged village woman from Sierra Leone. "The men stripped me naked and assaulted me - I begged them to kill me," she says. "Instead, they cut off my hands with machetes."

I didn't look the other way as, no doubt, many horrified readers did, unable and unwilling to learn what has become of Sallay Goba. My eyes initially fixed on Sallay's face - out of surprise, I'm sure; here was someone from my "Africa life", looking at me over my British breakfast table. Perhaps, because I have witnessed other terrifying suffering, in Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire and Somalia, I am able to force myself to read on, to search my soul for why we do things like this to each other. But I was surprised and horrified, too, that Amnesty International's advertisement was equivalent in size to that day's international news coverage in the broadsheet I was reading. One page.

In my three years away, the space allotted to foreign news has shrivelled ever smaller, while the media has bloomed exponentially. My television set now has dozens of channels, my radio has stations I've never heard of and there are new magazines and endless supplements to the newspapers. There are also, of course, millions of pages on the Internet.

Information is everywhere and it's all easily available. After the paucity of Africa, I feel bombarded, overloaded, even if at first inspection I suspect that a lot of what is new is all very much the same. But the interest of my countryfolk in the world outside this small island has not increased in line with the media explosion. Even some friends and family don't want to know. Out of politeness, they ask how it's been in Africa, and they express genuine surprise that I've survived. I tell very little; their eyes glaze over. People want to look the other way. Perhaps it's because much of the news reported from Africa is too horrible for them.

I'm not particularly surprised or angry: everyone has their own interests and concerns. Motorway by-passes, water boards and pensions - all very serious issues - are more important to many people. But I am troubled about the extent to which consumerism has taken over the news, and about the extent to which people here really want to look the other way, to consider the UK only.

Working for the BBC World Service in east and central Africa, where virtually everyone listens to national and international news on foreign-run radio stations, is the flip side to the insular British coin. In an area where millions of people are unable to read, where the media is usually state- run and far from free, where television sets and electricity are hard to come by, and where there are sometimes no newspapers because of civil war, the BBC and other international broadcasters are devoured greedily by an audience much better informed, more enquiring and eager to learn than that in the UK.

Professor Mohammed Gele approached me in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, to discuss the Dayton Peace Accord for the former Yugoslavia. The professor has no university to teach law in these days: the civil war in Somalia has reduced most of the once-beautiful capital nestling on the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean to ruins. But Mohammed Gele wanted to know from me, as the BBC personified, what the Dayton agreement was all about, to discuss the finer points of the news that he had heard listening to both the BBC World Service in English and Somali. I felt I had let this elderly dignified gentlemen down: he knew and pontificated more than I did, he had cherished more the information he heard over the crackling airwaves.

I met many other Professor Geles in Somalia, where the much retold anecdote that the fighting stops so that everyone can listen to the BBC Somali Service is actually true. Male, female, educated or not, they knew more, in the absence of abundant multi-media choice, about the outside world than many of the people I meet in this country. Everyone wanted a copy of the Princess Di interview on Panorama.

In the region where I have been working, the BBC is gospel - presidents and peasants alike listen religiously to broadcasts made in French, Swahili, Arabic and the native tongues of Rwanda and Burundi, too. The pressure to get the story absolutely right is enormous - your audience is all around and will berate you publicly otherwise. Presidents will order you jailed if they don't like the truth and expel you, like I was from Zaire in 1996.

I have been relentlessly admonished by these Africans whose engagement with the outside world is greater than ours. Every time I hear a story about BSE, I remember camping out in the rough grey bush in another war- devastated place - southern Sudan, with people of the Dinka tribe, who worship cattle as their god. We listened to the BBC - British cows were to be slaughtered en masse. These Dinka had been following the BSE row with Europe intently. Living where there are no brick buildings, let alone televisions and newspapers, they again knew more than I. It shocked them that I was reporting their civil war, rather than at home defending my cows.

But how to make British people more interested in the outside world? I've read accounts of a leaked BBC study into public perception of foreign news which suggest that "celebrity presentation" may be the only way to get audience attention. Columnists have drolly speculated that such "dumbing down" could result in Vic Reeves and Ulrika Jonsson co-presenting Today, and in Cilla Black exploring ethnic hatred by inviting Hutu and Tutsi guests onto Blind Date.

I hope not. But there certainly is something in the argument that international news, particularly that from Africa, needs to have a broader agenda, to be less relentlessly depressing. Of course, I will argue until I'm blue in the face that war, hunger and genocide must be covered. The former Zaire, with its massive mineral wealth, now looks to Washington, not Paris, and the character of our own neighbour France will change as a result of its loss of power in Africa. Foreign news does affect us.

Why not some more positive, unusual stories? I'm all for them, like stories about Somalia's booming export trade in wondrous frankincense, sweet bananas and magnificent lobsters. The audience doesn't have to switch off from foreign news, or particularly news about Africa because they expect it to be badn

Jane Standley won the 1997 Sony Radio Reporter of the Year award for her work in east Africa. She has just returned to London after three years covering conflict, famine and crisis in Zaire, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya and Somalia.