Every year at around this time, the radio stations start to play Christmas music. This also gives me an excuse to listen to “Do They Know It’s Christmas Time?” one of my favorite songs – it’s one of my favorite songs, not just a favorite Christmas song. A few years ago, for a National History Day project, I had written about the Irish singer Bob Geldof, and the work he did in the 1980s for famine relief in Africa. Writing about Geldof, discovering the 80s music, the involvement of the music industry in charity, the famine in Africa, the BBC reporting of the famine, Band Aid, Live Aid, and their legacy – I learnt more from this project than I ever expected to. As I was hearing the song, I decided to write about it some more as I really enjoyed that project.
The BBC Documentary: A Watershed Moment for News Reporting
The Ethiopian famine came to international attention when BBC correspondent Michael Buerk started reporting on the extent of this disaster. On October 23, 1984, during the evening news BBC aired his report. According to The Guardian, Michael Buerk’s broadcast of a “biblical famine,” was filmed in a remote part of northern Ethiopia. The images shot by Kenyan cameraman Mohammed Amin, together with Buerk’s powerful words, produced one of the most famous television reports of the late 20th century. Though there were news reports prior to this, the haunting images from the documentary triggered an avalanche of support from all who viewed it.
The New York Times said of this report, “The plight of starving Africans had been recounted previously in newspapers and on television but it was not until a film report by a British journalist appeared on NBC late last month that governments and individuals were galvanized to help” (NY Times, Nov 22, 1984).
The report shook the world from its stupor. Suzanne Frank of The Guardian wrote, “Long before satellite, social media and YouTube, the BBC news item from Ethiopia went viral – transmitted by 425 television stations worldwide. It was even broadcast on a major US news channel, without revoicing Buerk’s original English commentary – something that was almost unheard of. Bob Geldof viewed the news that day.”
“We watched the 6 o’clock news.., the scenes were absolutely riveting and this from the get go did not look like television, it looked like Spartacus, something vast and it was gray, these grey waves moving in this grey moonscape. And the camera was pitiless, it was like a cyclops, just there it would not let you off the hook” (Bob Geldof)
It was this incredible report by Michael Buerk, and its serendipitous watching on the BBC evening news by an Irish rock band Boomtown Rats group member that led to Band Aid and Live Aid. Its legacy is massive, not only for the aid it generated at that time but for the line it drew connecting rock music and charity that lasts to this day. (Bob Geldof featured image: Rolling Stones magazine).