Due to pressure of work I have only just read this email which arrived last week from L Rogers of Zimbabwe. The BBC, to its credit, is now persona (organisatia?) non grata in Zimbabwe. It was not always so. Mr Rogers writes:
My own experience with the BBC arises from the events in Zimbabwe concerning the “so-called” Land Question. I hope you will not find it too lengthy. If you do, and you find this account worth publishing, then please edit and let me know what you have done.
In fact, although it is somewhat longer than most of our posts, I am publishing it uncut. As with all the reader’s letters we publish, it does not necessarily represent the opinion of this blog, but it struck me as a very interesting and all-too-plausible mini-history of institutional bias. – NS
After Zimbabwe’s independence, Mugabe was the darling of the BBC, the leftwing media and other leftists. The potential problem of “Land” was rarely raised by Mugabe. Indeed after independence he, and his ministers, invited white farmers to stay and farm for the benefit of the country. .
Towards the end of the 1900’s, Zimbabwe started to experience economic and other problems arising from Mugabe’s poor governance and Mugabe started to lose popularity. At this point, in order to deflect criticism and to shore up his political standing, Mugabe started to raise the question of “Land”. He used the same tactics as Hitler used. Blame a minority. Hitler blamed the Jews – Mugabe blamed the whites – in particular the white farmers. Using blatantly racist language, he proclaimed the whites to be “enemies of the state”, and claimed “the whites” owned/occupied too much of the country’s land and the “millions of suffering peasants” were discontented with this situation. Mugabe propagated as a “fact” that white farmers (commercial) farmers owned the bulk of the land in Zimbabwe. The figures varied but generally it was said that whites owned “75% ” or “80% ” of the land or “75% of the fertile land” or “80% of the best land” and so on.
The BBC gleefully jumped onto the Mugabe bandwagon, quoting these figures in support of Mugabe’s assertion that whites indeed owned too much of Zimbabwe’s land and that this inequity was causing mass discontent among the millions of “suffering peasants”. What Mugabe was doing they agreed, was to redress a basically inequitable situation – even though what he did – and is still doing – was racist and illegal. Besides, the leftists in the BBC were not about to criticise one of their own – someone they admired and had supported all those years before – a black socialist revolutionary leader.
Of course, if one uses these figures, then it does seem entirely reasonable for Mugabe to redress the situation. By holding on to the bulk of the land to the detriment of the millions of suffering peasants, the white farmers were made to look greedy and callous. Who could blame Mugabe in the circumstances?
During the years that followed, this data and Mugabe’s claims were used frequently by the BBC TV and World Service radio. Joseph Winter, the BBC World Service representative stationed in Harare at that time, often and indignantly used this data to justify the Zimbabwe government’s illegal action against white farmers. The basic argument was, “you can’t blame Mugabe for taking action against 4000 white farmers. It is wrong for so few people (whites) to occupy the bulk of the land in Zimbabwe, when millions of suffering peasants are crammed onto such a small area and with such poor land”. This was extended to include the accusation that 100 years ago, the whites stole/seized the land from the blacks who were simply taking it back.
When being interviewed on the BBC, the same dishonest “facts” are repeated by Mugabe’s agents, ambassadors and ministers and used as justification for what they are doing. Rarely is this data disputed by the interviewers.
As the only respected international broadcaster based in Zimbabwe, one can be reasonably certain that the BBC’s endorsement of Mugabe’s data gave respectability to what Mugabe was doing. After all, you can trust the BBC to tell the truth.
This theme, using the same or similar data was seized upon by others in the media, and used by the press in South Africa, by Reuters, AFP, CNN and others, whenever the problem of “land in Zimbabwe” was a news item. As a consequence, the plight of the white minority, received little sympathy in the worlds media as Mugabe, for short term political gain, illegally and violently dispossessed nearly 4000 white farmers of their lawfully acquired land and in the process created unemployment and starvation for more than half a million farm workers and their families, and long term famine for the country. Thus he created rampant unemployment and poverty in the country.
After 2000, the BBC and Joseph Winter were expelled from Zimbabwe because Mugabe did not like the way the BBC reported on Zimbabwe’s elections. Despite this Joseph Winter still managed to report on World Service on the Land question leaving listeners in no doubt that he was sympathetic with the reasons given by Mugabe in order to redress a “colonial wrong”. The data on land occupation in Zimbabwe were used by the BBC for a number of years until the full consequences of Mugabe’s policies became apparent.
But what is the truth?
1. The truth is that white farmers, under Zimbabwe’s laws, may only occupy farm land set aside by the government as “Commercial” farm land. Commercial farm land comprises 11 million hectares and amounts to about 20% of the total land area of the country. It is never mentioned that Black Commercial farmers also own a substantial share of the same “commercial” farm land. Where I live in Zimbabwe, a number of black commercial farmers own large farms unhindered by the government while their white neighbors have been dispossessed. White farmers probably occupied about one sixth the land in Zimbabwe. This may nevertheless be a large area considering that they comprised only about 4000 individuals, but a far cry from the figures being bandied about by the media and the government and is not unusual in agriculture based countries. What is never mentioned is that the largest landowner in Zimbabwe is the government itself. Almost all government owned agricultural land is undeveloped and underutilized but has never been used to meet the needs of the peasants.
That white farmers occupy “almost all of the best or most fertile” land is also a myth. Commercial farm land includes ranch land in arid areas with little water where cattle struggle to survive and suitable only for game and wild life. It includes land with poor soils and granite mountains on which nothing can be planted or grazed. Large areas of fertile land are reserved for and occupied by black subsistence farmers.
As far as the colonial “stealing” of the land is concerned, most white farmers (80%) bought their farms in Zimbabwe during the years after independence, with the encouragement of the Mugabe government.
Another myth is that Mugabe intended to redistribute the white land by giving it to black farmers. In fact Mugabe gave most of the former white land to his friends and cronies. That this was happening, and would happen in the future, was apparent to Mugabe’s critics but ignored by the BBC and others.
A further fact which was ignored by the BBC was the harm that would be inflicted on the workers employed by the white farmers. The Commercial farmers pointed out that more than half a million farm workers would lose their only means of livelihood and, after including their families, millions would be destitute. The BBC chose to ignore their plight and instead believed the government when it promised the workers they would also get their free piece of Zimbabwe land. Besides the whites did not treat their workers well, they said. In fact, Mugabe regarded the farm workers as contaminated by the opinions of their white employers and therefore as political enemies who would never support him anyway. Today millions of former workers beg in the streets of Zimbabwe’s towns or have fled the country altogether.
The clamour of the peasants for more land is also a myth. In a survey conducted by the Social Welfare department of the government itself during mid 1990 most people polled listed a job as their number one priority. The desire for a barren piece of farm land was low down on the list. Four years after the land dispossessions started, the government cannot find enough peasants to actually occupy the seized land, so much so that in many cases the government has used threats against the reluctant peasants. Of the “millions” of suffering peasants who it was claimed were clamouring for land, only a handful have actually emerged to take advantage of the free land actually offered to them.
All this information was available to the BBC at the time but was ignored in favour of supporting their man – Mugabe.
In 2002, Rageeh Omar appearing on BBC TV in Johannesburg, and repeated some of these myths, stating, among other things, that the white farmers occupied “75% of the land” in Zimbabwe. I was appalled that the BBC still repeated this false data and telephoned the BBC in Johannesburg and spoke to the producer of BBC news. The person I spoke to was, I believe, Jane Stanley, who is now based in the US. I told her that the figures used by the BBC are incorrect. She was obviously annoyed that someone should have the temerity to criticize the accuracy of a BBC report but agreed the report should have stated that white farmers “occupy 75% of the most fertile land.” When I persisted in referring to incorrect data being used by the BBC she trumped me by retorting triumphantly that the data had been given her by the Commercial Farmers Union in Harare and therefore was correct!
I was dumbstruck and ended the conversation. I could not believe I had been so wrong and immediately telephoned the offices of the Commercial Farmers Union in Harare and spoke to the CEO, Mr Dave Hasluck. After relating to him my conversation he answered that he had on many occasions communicated with the BBC in order to correct the misinformation they were broadcasting. He had frequently sent them documents with the correct information but the response of the BBC was always the same – they simply ignored the information sent to them and carried on broadcasting the same myths. They did not even bother to contact him or reply.
What the BBC did, at least until recently, was to ignore the truth and knowingly assist the Mugabe government in the propagation of myths and lies to the detriment of a minority ethnic group and ultimately to the detriment of the people of the country as a whole. They were even prepared to overlook the openly declared policies of Mugabe which were blatantly racist, dishonest, and violent. They ignored the truth even when it was pointed out to them in favour of left-wing solidarity. I believe Mugabe was emboldened by the lack of criticism and the apparent seal of approval given him by the BBC in particular and other sections of the media in general.
It is too late now, but what might have been the result if, instead, the BBC and others in the media had adopted principled policies and told the truth. Perhaps Mugabe might have been restrained and some of his worst excesses might have been avoided. Perhaps millions of people, the same ” millions of suffering peasants” and now the remaining urban people as well, some ten million black people, would not have been plunged into an endless cycle of famine, poverty, disease and suffering.
L.Rogers. Zimbabwe. November 26th 2004