Darfur: pornography for the chattering classes

Why have the British media been silent about the Advertising Standards Authority’s damning judgement against the Save Darfur Coalition?

Normally, when one of Britain’s stuffy media watchdogs decrees that some public figure or broadcaster has said something less than honest, it causes a commotion. When the Advertising Standards Authority said earlier this year that Gillian McKeith, TV’s self-styled healthy eating guru, should stop using the title ‘Dr’, the media had a feeding frenzy. The Office of Communications’ harsh judgement against Channel 4 over the bullying of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother in January generated metres of newspaper coverage. And in recent weeks, official findings against TV production companies and broadcasters for fixing quizzes or taking liberties with the facts in the editing suite have led to widespread Pontius Pilate-style debates asking: ‘What is truth?’

However, one recent judgement – and an important and potentially deeply embarrassing one at that – has caused barely a ripple of reportage in the serious British media. Last Wednesday, 8 August, the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld a complaint against the Save Darfur Coalition, an American-based collection of campaigners and celebrities whose aim is to raise awareness about the alleged genocide being executed by the Khartoum government in the western region of Sudan. The European Sudanese Public Affairs Council (ESPAC), an organisation that is generally pro-Khartoum, complained about a Save Darfur advert that was published in the British national press. The ad claimed: ‘SLAUGHTER IS HAPPENING IN DARFUR… 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed.’ The ESPAC said the claim of 400,000 innocent dead was based on speculation, and therefore this was a case of false, or at least misleading, advertising (1).

The ASA agreed. It examined evidence put forward by both the Save Darfur Coalition and the ESPAC. The Save Darfur Coalition cited a study carried out by the now-defunct Coalition for International Justice (CIJ) in April 2005, from which the 400,000 figure is derived. It cited the views of Dr John Hagan, a professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University in the US, who was a co-author of the CIJ study into mortality in Darfur. Dr Hagan has published an article on Darfur fatalities in the peer-reviewed journal Science, and as the Save Darfur Coalition told the ASA, Hagan believes that the 400,000 figure is ‘within the realms of possibility’ (2).

The ESPAC’s evidence pointed out that of the various estimates of the numbers of deaths in Darfur, the US General Accountability Office had judged a study by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), which is affiliated with the World Health Organisation, and not the study by the Coalition for International Justice, to be ‘the most objective and methodologically sound’. The CRED’s report, published in May 2005, estimated that 120,000 deaths were attributable to the conflict over a 17-month period, from September 2003 to January 2005. And these 120,000 deaths were not all amongst ‘innocent men, women and children’: they included deaths of combatants as well as violent deaths of civilians and deaths from malnutrition. As part of its evidence, the ESPAC also quoted from a letter written by the CRED’s director, Professor Debarati Guha-Sapir, which was published in the Financial Times in May 2005: the letter criticised the CIJ’s report on the deaths of 300,000 or 400,000 people in Darfur, which was co-written by Hagan, as ‘sensational’ (3).

The US General Accountability Office (GAO) also found Hagan’s estimate to be ‘deficient’. In November last year, the GAO convened a panel of 12 experts to assess the credibility of six different mortality estimates for Darfur. The experts judged that Hagan’s source data was ‘unsound’, and that Hagan had failed to disclose his study’s limitations. Ten of the experts convened by the GAO found Hagan’s assumptions ‘unreasonable’ and 11 said that his extrapolations were ‘inappropriate’. Eleven of the 12 experts said they had ‘low’ or ‘very low’ confidence in Hagan’s study (4).

Finally, the ESPAC put forward evidence to show that mortality rates have decreased in Darfur since 2005. It cited a report in the World Health Organisation’s Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Bulletin from 2006 which said that the number of excess deaths in Darfur had fallen below emergency levels. It also presented comments made by Jan Pronk, a UN Sudan Special Representative, who said that mortality and malnutrition rates had decreased dramatically after 2005, largely as a result of aid received and the setting up of refugee camps (5). This would mean that the Save Darfur Coalition’s adverts were shocking for two reasons: first, they were allegedly based on ‘deficient’ data; second, they were aimed at raising awareness about the ‘SLAUGHTER’ of an alleged 400,000 people at a time when the number of deaths in Darfur had fallen below emergency levels.

The Advertising Standards Authority found in favour of the ESPAC and against the Save Darfur Coalition. In its adjudication published on 8 August, it said the Save Darfur Coalition had breached the ASA’s Code, clauses 3.2 (on ‘division of opinion’) and 8.1 (on ‘matters of opinion’). The ASA said: ‘Although the claim appeared in a strongly worded campaigning ad, and [the Save Darfur Coalition]…were entitled to express their opinion about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur in strong terms, we concluded that there was a division of informed opinion about the accuracy of the figure contained in the ad and it should not have been presented in such a definitive way.’ The ASA said that in future the Save Darfur Coalition should ‘present the figure as opinion, not fact’ (6).

Scour the British newspapers, and you’ll be hard pressed to find much coverage of this quite cutting judgement by the Advertising Standards Authority. You will see plenty of coverage over the past week of the fact that pro-breastfeeding groups have reported OK! magazine to the ASA for featuring a photograph of former glamour model Jordan feeding her child with a brand-named formula milk; but there seems to have been no serious newspaper coverage of the ASA’s adjudication on the Save Darfur Coalition. (It has, however, been covered in the New York Times.) Why is this? In my view, the ASA should not have the authority to censor or censure anyone, including the self-righteous activists of the Save Darfur Coalition. But the question remains: why has there been a deafening silence on the ASA’s adjudication, and why has it been left to a grey, censorious body to raise awkward questions about the Coalition’s sensationalist claims?

Perhaps because many in the British media have uncritically, and continually, repeated the Save Darfur Coalition’s claim that the Khartoum government is pursuing a genocide against Darfuris which has left 400,000 innocent people dead. And thus the ASA judgement is as embarrassing for them as it is for the Coalition. The Independent has published articles on the ‘mass slaughter of 400,000 innocent Muslims in Darfur’; the Observer has reported that ‘as many as 300,000 people have died [in Darfur] in three years’ (7). The Guardian has published articles that describe Darfur as ‘the first genocide of the twenty-first century’, in which ‘up to 400,000 [have been] murdered in a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing’ (8). The British media have done a great deal to instil the figure of ‘400,000 innocent dead’ in the public’s mind. To cover the ASA’s adjudication in favour of a complaint by the ESPAC, who argue that actually around 120,000 have died in Darfur and that the mortality rates have since decreased, the media would have to own up to the fact that they themselves relied on ‘sensational’ figures, which are judged by experts to be ‘deficient’ and ‘unreasonable’ and are now described by the ASA as being in the realm of opinion rather than fact. It seems the British media are quite happy to cover media watchdog judgements against broadcasters, production companies and celebrity health experts, but they prefer to keep schtum about any judgement that might indict their own behaviour.

The ASA story shows the deep divide between Western campaigning on Darfur and the reality on the ground; between sensational Western claims about a twenty-first century genocide and the fact that, while things no doubt remain terribly grim in Darfur, the situation there has improved since the intense conflict period of 2003-2005. Western agitation for action in Darfur, which culminated in the deployment of a 26,000-strong UN peacekeeping force at the end of last month, spearheaded by new British PM Gordon Brown, is divorced from real events in Darfur or Sudan. This is not really surprising, since ‘Save Darfur’ activism – from Hollywood celebs calling for Western military action to the growth of campaigning commentary on the conflict – has not really been about Darfur. Rather, it has been about creating a new moralistic and simplistic generational mission for campaigners and journalists in America and Europe.

The Save Darfur brigade has effectively transformed Darfur into a morality tale, in which it plays the role of a pure and virtuous warrior force against what a columnist for the UK Daily Telegraph hysterically describes as a warzone ‘comparable to the death camps in Nazi Germany’ (9). And as with all morality tales, facts are less important than feelings, and the truth comes a poor second to creating a childishly simplistic framework of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University in the US and author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror, has written an excellent essay exploring how Save Darfur activists have transformed the conflict in Sudan into a platform for moral posturing. First, says Mamdani, they have denuded the conflict of its political complexities. A complicated struggle between various armed factions and government forces, over political influence as well as land, resources, grazing rights and dwindling water supplies, is reduced in Save Darfur propaganda to a genocide executed by ‘Arabs’ against ‘Africans’. As Mamdani writes, for Save Darfur activists – many of whom are American celebrities and writers – ‘Iraq is a messy place…with messy politics’. They far prefer to campaign on Darfur, despite their own government’s responsibility for what is happening in Iraq, because they see Darfur as ‘a place without history and without politics; simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as “Arabs” confront victims clearly identifiable as “Africans”’ (10).

This inhumane reduction of Darfur to a ‘place without politics’ can be glimpsed in the statements of Save Darfur activists. Hollywood actor George Clooney, a leading light in the Save Darfur Coalition, says of the conflict: ‘It’s not a political issue. There is only right and wrong.’ (11) Fran Healy, lead singer of the British pop group Travis, who visited Darfur on behalf of the charity Save the Children, recently wrote in the British tabloid the Sun: ‘Africa is a very complex place, but the Darfur crisis is quite simple. The conflict is essentially the Arabs against the Africans. It’s all tied up in various battles over things like oil and gold.’ Clooney and Healy are not just being thick celebrities: rather, they’re taking their lead from the charities they represent and from campaigning journalists and intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Levy, all of whom insist that the political-historical conflict in Darfur is actually ‘quite simple’. This demonstrates, in Mamdani’s words, the ‘reduction of a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart’ (12).

Second, says Mamdani, Save Darfur activists and commentators describe the violence in Darfur in lurid and often exaggerated terms. ‘Newspaper writing on Darfur has sketched a pornography of violence’, he argues. ‘It seems fascinated by and fixated on the gory details, describing the worst of the atrocities in gruesome detail and chronicling the rise in the number of them. The implication is that the motivation of the perpetrators lies in biology (“race”) and, if not that, certainly in “culture”.’ (13) Part of this ‘pornography of violence’, says Mamdani, has been the forever fluctuating figures of how many have died in Darfur, which inexplicably rise and fall, often in the same newspaper on different days, between 120,000 and 300,000 and 400,000. For Mamdani, ‘This voyeuristic approach accompanies a moralistic discourse whose effect is both to obscure the politics of the violence and position the reader as a virtuous, not just a concerned observer.’ (14) In short, Western activists’ fevered obsession with Darfur’s dead, and the grisly details of how they died, is motivated by a search for a gratifying feeling of virtuous outrage.

Many campaigners and writers in the West have cynically and opportunistically turned Darfur into ‘Our Mission’. They have done this through propaganda and deed. Propagandistically, they insist that the conflict is a simple case of African savages trying to wipe out African victims, and they have exaggerated the current scale of the suffering to suit the purposes of their own Heroes vs New Nazis morality tale. Increasingly, commentary on Darfur is not intended to clarify what is happening there but rather to indulge and flatter readers’ sense of self-serving anger. In deed, campaigners and writers have demanded Western military action to end a conflict that has actually been in decline since 2005 (although there have been renewed outbursts in recent months); and now they have got what they wanted, in the shape of the 26,000-strong UN force. Every bit as cynically as the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq, these activists have sought to turn someone else’s country and conflict into outlets for their own moral self-gratification.

If this only meant that they have distorted public understanding and debate about Darfur, that would be bad enough. But it’s far worse than that. The narcissistic campaigning of the Save Darfur Coalition and others has helped to prolong and even intensify violent clashes in the region. The good-and-evil presentation of the conflict has warped its dynamics. State Department officials claim that, during the height of the conflict, some Darfuri rebels ‘let the village burnings go on, let the killing go on, because the more international pressure that’s brought to bear on Khartoum, the stronger their position grows’ (14). Furthermore, the intense international and celebrity pressure on Khartoum has had the effect of inflaming and encouraging other rebels, based in eastern Sudan, to renew their war against the Khartoum government (15).

In Africa, Western do-gooding can prove deadly indeed. Save Darfur activism is one kind of porn that really has given rise to violence in the real world.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said that Darfur has been damned by pity. Philip Cunliffe looked at what it means for Darfur to have been colonised by ‘peacekeepers’. He argued that Bernard-Henri Lévy’s report from Darfur shows that liberal lust for Western intervention survived Iraq, and that African Union troops are being enlisted in Darfur to give a respectable face to Western intervention. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.


(1) See the ASA’s adjudication on the Save Darfur Coalition advert here

(2) See the ASA’s adjudication on the Save Darfur Coalition advert here

(3) See the ASA’s adjudication on the Save Darfur Coalition advert here

(4) An Atrocity That Needs No Exaggeration, New York Times, 12 August 2007

(5) See the ASA’s adjudication on the Save Darfur Coalition advert here

(6) See the ASA’s adjudication on the Save Darfur Coalition advert here

(7) The first genocide of the twenty-first century is drawing to a close, Independent, 4 October 2005

(8) Funding genocide, Comment Is Free, 19 June 2007

(9) Darfur is as bad as Nazi Germany, and I know, Telegraph, 3 August 2007

(10) The politics of naming, Mahmood Mamdani, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(11) The politics of naming, Mahmood Mamdani, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(12) The politics of naming, Mahmood Mamdani, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(13) The politics of naming, Mahmood Mamdani, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(14) The politics of naming, Mahmood Mamdani, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(15) See Darfur: colonised by peacekeepers, by Phil Cunliffe

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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