Gabon and on

leana-pic2Hi my name is Leana and I’m a producer on Newshour. Our programme has a great reputation for getting world leaders and opinion makers on air. But I’ve had a particularly obstructive day with the government of Gabon. I wanted to share my experience with you and get your opinions on it. This is the story that they didn’t want to talk about:

Sorry, but if you’re ill today in Gabon, West Africa, there is no doctor or nurse to help you. Every health worker in the public sector is on strike and so every hospital, doctors surgery and clinic is closed. Imagine you’ve been in a car accident and you turn up at the hospital and there is no one there! Unless you have the money to pay for private health care – which most people in Gabon don’t – then you have no choice but to go home.

I really wanted to have this story and news rarely comes out of Gabon – another great reason to do it. We have a reporter there, Linel Kwatsi, so I thought no problem. I thought wrong.

I gave our man in Libreville a call to check the story out. Indeed Gabon is in crisis. I sent Linel out to find and interview a doctor on strike and a sick person who can’t get care. Of course this was a bit of a hard task as every hospital was empty! However, he managed to track down couple of women suffering from malaria who are unable to get treatment. The doctor told him how staff are not paid properly and the hospitals have been drastically deteriorating and lack even the basic supplies; like cotton wool and thermometers. Union leaders said corruption in government meant the money never got to the health sector.

Now I had to get an interview with the government. Usually when you have several days to fix a government interview, it’s not difficult. You put the bids in and you usually get the Minister or a spokesman. But no – the Health Minister is actually very high up in the military and does not do interviews. OK. What about the President’s spokesman?_40077261_gab_bongo_ap

 No. He doesn’t talk. The spokesman doesn’t talk? The reporter gave me his number and told me to have a go – but warned me not to let him divert me to his wife. A classic tactic apparently. Libreville was not looking good – so I called the Gabon embassy in London. Sorry the Ambassador is away and I don’t have his number. The Charge d’Affair? He doesn’t come into work till 11am. I pushed the poor lady who was by now sounding very nervous at my insistence – he hasn’t really done any interviews lately and no I can’t call him, we’ll call you.

Ten minutes to air and I had nothing – there was a hole in the programme – aahhhh. I had given up on the government, but where my interviews from Gabon? Linel our reporter was desperately trekking from internet café to internet café, but internet connection is slow and seemingly intermittent in Gabon. Well if there isn’t any cotton wool in the hospitals it’s not surprising that broadband connection is slow. Finally he got it all through and it went to air – much to our satisfaction and exhaustion!

How can we entice leaders from media shy administrations to come onto the programme? Or do our programmes even need official voices – especially if interviews are not going to be candid?

14 Responses to “Gabon and on”

  1. 1 ~Dennis Junior~
    February 10, 2009 at 18:44

    How can we entice leaders from media shy administrations to come onto the programme? I hope that administrators and other officials will be willing to come on the programme and talk, about problems in the country!!!

    Or do our programmes even need official voices – especially if interviews are not going to be candid? I think that your programmes need officials voices, but….If the officials don’t want to be on air; then the show must go on!!!

    ~Dennis Junior~

  2. February 10, 2009 at 19:01

    If leaders are despised and/or don’t have a popular mandate, like the Mugabe regime or the former Bush regime, what point is there in asking them to take part? That’s like asking a Nigerian scammer to have a chat with the police at the police station.

  3. 3 The Statesman, FL - USA
    February 10, 2009 at 20:03

    Media-shy administrations who don’t recognize the necessity for public discussion shoot themselves in the foot (while likely aiming elsewhere…). A programme needs to remind the government liaisons they CAN reach that there will be a show whether or not there is an official public position. Likely that air time will be filled with critical voice. So, a tactful reminder that there are people out there who don’t know yet what to believe about the government’s policies will likely benefit from a public explanation. Otherwise, someone else is going to have to explain it to them. It’s not a threat, but a reality.

    “We really need a government expert to discuss this with us. If we can’t get one, we have several individuals lined up to give us a sense of what’s happening and they have some theories on why the officials won’t talk with us. We’d rather have an official comment, but we’re on deadline…”

    If a government doesn’t respond to this, sounds like a news story in itself. Official comment is (understandably) self-serving. You can’t expect that to ever change. The difference between what a government says and what it does, however, should be the real evidence of a government’s sincerity. Official comment is critical for this evaluation.

  4. February 10, 2009 at 21:45

    I really appreciate your story. This is what BBC should be all about. Say that world listeners (like me, right now in print} really need to hear how this story unfolds as you go back and go back and go back on our behalf.

  5. 5 rawpoliticsjamaicastyle
    February 11, 2009 at 21:27

    Hi Leana,

    Thanks for the insights into the production of your show. Very interesting! What I think your question is aiming to do, more than the issue of winning a guest from governments in these places (I say that advisedly!), is more to attract attention to the politics of media relations in administrations which are often closed and inaccessible, especially to the West.

    While, I am sure you may also run across problems in some other parts of the world, even where people are more open and accessible, the issue here seems to be political ideology. Perhaps it is that in such instances, the BBC needs to get unofficial voices, as in the case of Zimbabwe where you are not allowed to broadcast from. However, unofficial ‘sources’ are still able to give important insights into developing/ ongoing stories.

    Or, as an alternative, you can give us the details and allow us to decide, as you have done above. This reminds me of question of water scarcity (?) in Israel, on a recent ‘Over to You’ broadcast, where the producer of the documentary in question acknowledged that perhaps a disclaimer may have been useful to explain at the start of the programme that it was produced prior to the war between Israel and Hamas, recently.

    While, I do not recall all the issues related to that report, I thought the suggestion was useful in allowing the audience the wherewithal to make its own decisions. Of course, bias in wording such a disclaimer may well also affect how we perceive the story which follows….Still, it’s just a suggestion.

    February 12, 2009 at 09:45

    I have a question for Newshour…Did the report from Gabon on this episode ever made it to air?

    ~Dennis Junior~

  7. 7 rawpoliticsjamaicastyle
    February 12, 2009 at 14:46

    Yeah, did the report make it to air?…By the way, thanks for the insights, again! Much appreciated!

  8. 8 Mark Sandell
    February 12, 2009 at 17:56

    This from Leana :

    Thanks for all your comments and your encouragement. Yes the piece did make it to air. We interviewed our reporter and we used clips he got from a doctor and the health union leader. Dennis I think you are right, we should always try for officials and if they don’t want to come on, then the show must go on without them.

    Manx I take your point. We always invite officials along so we can challenge them with the evidence. But it can be frustrating when they are so smooth and media trained that they can turn things around and never answer the question. This is somewhat revealing in itself – but never very satisfying. Do you think we hear too much of their opinions anyway?

    rawpoliticsjamaicastyle I think you’re right about political ideology – different government’s have different attitudes to the media, which I find interesting. The savvy political administrations have huge public affairs departments and during a crisis or war they know that getting their side across in the media is crucial. There are always spokesmen or think tanks available and ready to go to a BBC studio. But there are times when government’s see that it’s not in their interest to draw attention to themselves or they see no gain in speaking. Whether a government has standing in the international arena and needs international public opinion, influences how much they play ball with the international media. The media have managed to cover what is going on in Zimbabwe, though I’m sure there is a lot we don’t know. To be fair to Zanu PF there are a couple of members of government who do give us interviews, though not all the time. How much they deepened our understanding of the situation is another matter. Just one last thing rawpolitics – what difference did that disclaimer make to you in your inderstanding of the story?

  9. February 13, 2009 at 15:56

    I am very happy that the dictatorship and bad governance in the continent of Africa has been partially exposed. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Just take a walk to neighbouring Cameroon and you will be shocked!

  10. February 14, 2009 at 02:54

    Thanks Mark (Leana):

    ….Just saw this and really appreciated your response. Thank you very much!

    In terms of what the disclaimer did for my understanding of the story, specifically the documentary about Israel and the water scarcity issues, I was not altogether sure of all the details, as I noted earlier. However, I thought the admission by the producer on ‘Over to You’ interesting, if not eye opening, in part because it suggests a level of responsiveness by the BBC which is commendable. This is, especially as there have been so many contentious issues raised about stories covered by the BBC (pro-Hamas sympathies, for instance) and issues discussed even in this forum. It was refreshing to see that the producer was at least willing to take that into account.

    For my part, a disclaimer used to announce the shortcomings, real or imagined, in a story like the one above, gives a sense of balance. For instance, it is like listening to news here and the story would say: “checks my our news team went unanswered up to news time” or some such. The challenge with that though is that, a lazy journalist might choose to use that as a escape clause without actually making the checks. I believe that it is important to outline the facts and allow us to decide how we feel about the story. I liked the fact that you gave us this insight into the production of the show, which we can sometimes take for granted without also realising that serious work/ effort goes into producing what we hear and see.

    As I have noted before, I listen to alot of BBC programmes, it is always refreshing to know that the complaints/ concerns/ observations of the listening/ viewing/ interacting audience do not get filed away in a box somewhere as part of set of troublesome complaints for which the organisation either feels no accountability or regard. The disclaimer, in a way, connects the reality that some within your audience do not all share the same perspectives and may require, as part of the maintenance of the narrative of believability/ objectivity, a reminder of the steps taken to achieve balance and fairness.

  11. 11 Shakhoor Rehman
    February 14, 2009 at 13:43

    If you have to “entice” them on its probably the case they should not be on anyway. The bottom line is to get the most information available onto the media for public consumption from all verifiable sources.

  12. 12 rawpoliticsjamaicastyle
    February 15, 2009 at 16:34

    @ Shakhoor,

    Agreed. Except that, there is also the slight challenge of telling appropriate stories, as well. So that, while the point you make is unquestionably valid, there is also a value to exploring particular options in terms of certain kinds of guests who will give particular perspectives, not available to the regular, common folk. In those instances, the challenge is a little greater, I think, in terms of how you tell the story. No?

  13. 13 Dennis Junior
    February 16, 2009 at 16:42

    Re: Leana’s remarks towards me….

    Thanks…Most think tanks and policy groups would have had people available to make appearances on a show…

    ~Dennis Junior~

  14. 14 Jan
    February 19, 2009 at 23:20


    Thanks for such an informative insight whilst pleased that it is being aired and exposed by a liberal person not hiding behind her desk.

    Look forward to hearing more in the future!

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