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How a Report on Ethiopia's 'Biblical Famine' Changed the World

A report about famine in Ethiopia, first broadcast 30 years ago today, is one of a handful of TV news reports that changed the way we view the world.
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A report about famine in Ethiopia, first broadcast 30 years ago today, is one of a handful of television news reports that changed the way we view the world.

Michael Buerk’s report led to the greatest single global outpouring of charity and sympathy in the late twentieth century, as Bob Geldof’s Live Aid Concert galvanized a world stunned by the images.

In turn, it spawned a generation of celebrities for whom Africa, and the causes of the under-developed world, would eventually become a necessary accessory to their careers.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say George Clooney would not have gotten involved in Darfur, nor would Salma Hayek have breastfed a baby in Sierra Leone, were it not for the bandwagon begun by Buerk’s report; a movement that has also made Angelina Jolie a UN Ambassador. The very idea would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.

I worked for the BBC when the piece aired on the Nine O’ Clock News on October 23rd 1984. It was stunning. The sharpness of the writing, the economy of words – “a biblical famine, now, in the twentieth century” – and the quality of the images shot by African cameraman, Mohammed Amin, made the report unforgettable. It burned its way into our collective memory.

It was next broadcast on NBC and on hundreds of television stations worldwide. It made Buerk’s name and catapulted one viewer, stunned pop star Bob Geldof, into the role of global crusader.

It taught us that famine and mass starvation can be as much the fault of man as nature. The famine Buerk and Amin filmed was long known about and was the result of politics, war, history and food hoarding as much as lack of rain.

It inspired a generation of reporters, much as the Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein had done a decade earlier.

It also eventually led charities to transform themselves into multi-million dollar aid organizations, bordering on businesses and bred beefed-up overseas aid departments in every Western government. Charity was replaced by aid, sympathy by action. Turning a blind eye was no longer a policy option.

Buerk’s report did what journalism should do; it shone a light on a dark place and exposed the suffering of the helpless and voiceless.

It’s easy to be cynical about the report. It’s only other voice was that of a white aid worker. It is easy to question whether changes begun by the report have truly altered the lives of Africans.

A decade later, another African country, Rwanda, could still fall victim one of the most appalling acts of genocide the century had seen. The years since have seen the continent scarred by wars and by deadly disease, as the world can see today in Liberia.

But I challenge you to watch it and tell me that it doesn’t move you with its quiet outrage. It is a brilliant piece of journalism that still inspires me, its phrases echoing even today: “Dawn…it lights up a biblical famine…the closest thing to hell on earth…wasted people…death is all around.”

Famine and drought have never been ignored, and millions left to die, as they were in the decades before Buerk’s report. A global conscience was awoken. Very few pieces of television news can boast as much.