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Is that too much too ask?

Posted by Richard Wednesday, January 05, 2005

At last the BBC television news has been forced to acknowledge that the Americans are leading the relief effort in Indonesia, albeit grudgingly. We were fifteen minutes into the main evening bulletin - dominated by the EU's 3-minute silence - before we heard that nugget.

And then all we got by way of illustration was footage of Sea Hawks delivering supplies, and others lined up at Bande Aceh airport, intercut with details of Colin Powell's visit – which was probably the reason why the BBC could no longer ignore the US involvement.

But, as before, what we did not get – and still have not had – is any sense of the scale of the US involvement, or quite how skilfully they are handling the relief mission. There still has not been, for instance, any mention of the Bonhomme Richard group, much less any hint of the extraordinary capabilities of these ships, now steaming their way to Sri Lanka.

To get a better idea of what was going on, one had to turn to Fox News where, for ten minutes there was footage of operations on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, together with interviews of helio crews, describing their missions.

I was intrigued to see on deck a C-2A Greyhound that remarkable (in fact, unique) carrier-borne cargo aircraft, which can carry 28 passengers, litter patients or 10,000 pounds of cargo. Relief stores were being unloaded by a human chain and distributed out to waiting Sea Hawks, which were then taking off, no doubt to deliver them to the needy.

At a cool $40 million each, these aircraft lend a fascinating new dimension to the relief effort. I am sure many viewers would be interested to learn that they enable bulk stores to be uplifted from Bande Aceh airport, reducing the number of air movements at that site, thus extending the reach and capability of the air operations. Their capability enables the Abraham Lincoln to act as a distribution hub, in an area where the stress on the infrastructure is near breaking-point.

But forget about learning anything of this, or anything like it, from the BBC. Auntie seems now to have reverted to its usual "soap opera" mode, detailing endless "human interest" stories. Important, these are, and very much a necessary part of any news coverage but I am sure I cannot be the only one who wishes to know more about the mechanics of the relief operation – who is doing what, and how.

Some of our readers in private e-mails, have suggested that the BBC’s lack-lustre performance is largely down to "mindset" and their general lack of professionalism, but I am not convinced. If Fox News, to a lesser extent CNN and Sky News, can show detailed footage of the US relief effort, why can't the BBC?

However, those readers may have a point. The BBC seems to be approaching this "story" in the same superficial, trivial manner that it deals with virtually every other subject, whether it is the EU or Westminister politics.

Nevertheless, I remain convinced that there is an "agenda" here – the last thing the BBC wants to show is quite how professional the US forces really are. For me, as I have said, I want the news, all the news, not just "human interest" and "soap opera". Is that too much to ask?