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Shout of Africa

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As the clouds gathered over the small village house in the Liberian bush early on Tuesday morning where John Humphrys was preparing to co-anchor the Today programme, little could he have known that a Twitter Storm was about to rain down on his head.

BBC radio's flagship had chosen to focus attention on the new opportunities opening up across the continent with a year-long series of broadcasts from the West African nation. It's a good place to start. There are green shoots of recovery there, though their problems, not long after the end of a vicious civil war, are still numerous.

It's with this in mind, that Today had prepared a whole programme's worth of coverage - interviews, packages and features - with Humphrys anchoring from Bong County, four hours drive from the capital, Monrovia.

Within minutes of going on air, the Twitter- and blogospheres were alive with comment - much of it complimentary, but a lot, particularly from Africaphiles, most certainly not.

Paul Vallely, the respected Independent journalist, told his Twitter followers that the programme was a "disgraceful concatenation of patronising, prejudiced, negative sneering stereotypes".

Another Africa expert, columnist Ian Birrell described the BBC's view of the continent as "myopic" and "tosh". He added: "Sadly, this is the view of Africa perpetrated by charities - and this is what happens when the BBC acts as promotional tool for their causes".

The Director of the Royal African Society, Richard Dowden, wrote an open letter to Humphreys turning some of the broadcaster's comments during the programme on its head.

"'You can't come here with European eyes', you say. But that is precisely what you and the rest of the British media have been doing all this time", Dowden wrote.

Whilst generally praising the ambition behind the programme, he added that the BBC could do more for Africa than any amount of international aid by reversing their decision to cut the number of reporters in the region.

"£1 spent on a good BBC World Service does more for development in Africa than £100 spent on aid".

Loyal BBC staff indulged in a spot of soul searching after reading Dowden's letter. Foreign correspondent Andrew Harding asked if they were getting Africa wrong. News Channel Controller Kevin Backhurst admitted there was "food for thought".

There were also plenty of positive comment. Channel 4 News's Jon Snow called the programme "brilliant" and "sensitively reported". David Aaronovitch called it "lovely stuff". Many members of the public were equally supportive.

Let me declare an interest here. It was from our office in Bong County that John Humphrys anchored the initial broadcast, though we had no influence on the content.

We are, however, tremendously excited to support the project, because it was, and will be, a fantastic opportunity to give a rare, on the ground account of the exciting changes and challenges in one country in Africa. Through African eyes.

Today has a certain style, a style that attracts millions of listeners every morning. To change that combative, opinionated, way of broadcasting just because they were reporting from Africa would have been wrong - and far more patronising than anything Humphrys said this week. I liked Today's focus on both the progress in Liberia and the more difficult issues, like secret societies and female genital mutilation, that are often seen as too sensitive to mention.

Today's millions of listeners are intelligent enough to cope with nuanced debate - that's why the programme is so successful. There will always be positives and negatives. As Richard Dowden said in his letter, we need to cover both if we are to reflect fairly African diversity.

We heard African voices, lots of them, from all walks of life. This is what's needed, because people at home can identify with and understand the problems they face - and because these are the voices we don't normally get to hear.

Yes, perhaps we could have heard more about the country's many successes as it lifts itself up from the terrible civil war, but hopefully this will come in later visits.

The key learning from Wednesday's broadcast is that we don't have to portray Africa as hopeless to raise money or engage listeners. Inspiration and personal stories are enough, and from the many calls we took at our offices, they reach people in a different and more profound way than easy stereotypes.

So Today should keep its nerve on this, despite the dissenting voices. We want the show to be honest about telling Africa's story in the same way that it reports everywhere else in the world. If that means being critical, sceptical or even occasionally flippant, then so be it.

I'm thoroughly looking forward to hearing the next instalment from Liberia. The challenge for BBC radio and its listeners is to give this experiment a chance to change the way we think about Africa.

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