Thursday, 1 July 2010
A Tale of Two Worlds...
or... How I Was Thrown Off The BBC World Service, For Saying That Unsafe Formula Feeding Kills Babies In Africa...
Disclaimer: exact sequence may be out of synch. This is memory, not documentary. Lots of conversations, in a very short time. Some of them may have been one phonecall, and not the other, etc. But it's the essence of the event. Sequences of the actual radio discussions, are in my memory as the bits I was reacting too - I may report them in a different sequence. Also, forgive the epic storytelling. I've learned this sort of detail is IMPORTANT in being heard. You can skip down to half way through, if you want to, for the actual throwing off air bit.
So, it's a perfectly normal Wednesday afternoon. I've decided that I'll go swimming with my 5 year old, for a session with us both, before his swimming lesson at 3.30pm. I've not sorted out dinner, and I'm in the middle of sifting through how to layer the rest of the day, and get some work done, go swimming, and get some sort of dinner on the table. I need to get some yeast going, to get tomorrow's bread going. I've been making our own spelt bread now for 4 days, and need to keep the momentum going, or it's back to bought. I sit down with 5 year old, and talk through that we will both be going swimming soon, he's excited!
I just check my email. A new one is in my inbox. It's from the BBC World Service: they've been phoning my old phone number, can I contact them? It was sent at 13.52. Would I be interested in taking part in a global conservation about breastfeeding, in light of That Article, this evening? At 14.08, I send them my new phone number. I then entice 5 year old out of the living room, so I can talk without interruption. I phone the BBC World Service and have a lovely chat with the lovely journalist. She does the usual, and both flatters and pushes, to see how I perform under pressure. We cover a wide ranging series of reactions to the fuss. She is delighted. Of course, her FIRST question was "Are you still breastfeeding your 5 year old?"
So I knew where we were.
But it was a really good conversation. Can I come on and be a main guest on the discussion at 6pm? The male presenter, Ros, will introduce the various women from around the world who have been booked to speak, and then back out. It's a conversation like we would be sitting around chatting after dinner. Not too many facts and figures, short points, casual conversation, if that okay? Totally, I say. She emphasises the shortness of answers required. "You want soundbites?" I say. No, she says, not sound bites, your own words, just in brief. When the other women are talking, if you want to respond, just say your name and then jump in. Let everyone speak. "Fine", I say. I have to bring my five year old. "No problem" she says.
How does my husband feel about my breastfeeding, has it affected how he sees me sexually? "Ask him yourself." I say, and hand over the phone to David. She chats with him for several moments, and then asks him to take part in the programme. He can't come up, as he's in a wheelchair, but they'll phone him on the landline. "Fine" says David.
How to get me to a studio? She had no idea where I was, so I suggest Edinburgh, about an hour's drive away. She goes and sorts out a radio studio booking in Edinburgh, phones me back, and confirms the booking. The programme will be going out world wide, between 18.00 and 19.00. However, there is a run on programme, for Africa only. It's usually 19.00 to 20.00, but because of the World Cup it's only running to 19.30. Can I stay and do the Africa only programme? Of course, that's fine, I say. But start to worry about Hugh. Mummy in the glass box for an hour and a half is going to be hard on him. But no choice, with this late a run in.
She books the taxis, and we decide times. Hugh has his swimming lesson between 15.30 and 16.00. It's now 14.40. I suggest taxi gets here at 16.15, as you never know with rush hour traffic in Edinburgh. She sends me an email confirming my booking from 18.00 to 19.30, and that taxis have been booked. I reply to her, stating I will need help at the other end, to help me carry in the Child Car Seat, and it will need to be kept safe whilst I'm on air.
I've been here before, I know BBC reception staff do nothing to help anyone: "They're not allowed to."
My afternoon dissolves into epic rush. My swimming session with Hugh is cancelled. I literally pull my coolest dress off the washing line, and put it on wet. Swimming for Hugh is rushed around packing enough things to keep him occupied, i go shopping for drinks and good quality snacks for him whilst he's in the pool, and literally rushing him back into the car in his wet swimming costume, and driving back home. Taxi turns up at 16.20, and we load myself, Hugh, car seat and bags and supplies, into it, and drive off.
Driver is from Berwick-Upon Tweed. He has no idea where the BBC studios are. He's just been given a postcode and we know how good that is, in a city, right?. BBC phones me to check I'm on my way. I confirm we are, and ask if there will be someone at other end to help with child and car seat? She phones back. No, reception can't leave, but the taxi can park "right up outside".
I have a pretty clear idea what is happening at this point, and resign myself to doing all the work.
I phone David, and he looks on the map. Taxi driver and me and David, work out roughly where we are going. We get there, and stop a lady leaving the hairdressers, with expensive shopping bags. Does she know where the BBC studios are around here? Yes, she gives us direction. Hugh falls asleep in car seat, 3 minutes before we get there. *sigh*
We find the hole in the wall studio. It's a good 100 feet, downhill, from where we can get the taxi to. I leave asleep Hugh in car with taxi driver, cautioning him not to run off with my child :-), and carry the three bags of gear down to the BBC Alba, two room studio, under a shopping centre. I look wistfully at the Pizza Express next door.
Reception man lets me in, and I dump the bags and explain I have to return for child, and car seat. A total of 3 other people are in the very small studios. I ask who is going to look after Hugh when I am on air? They say I'm booked to take the child, and the car seat, into the studio with me. Female journo working on shared computers, says she's leaving in 5 minutes. Of course, this is what I really feared. I'd just been drop kicked into any free studio they could find, and that was that. I've worked in radio, it wasn't a surprise!
I return to the taxi, and we find a way to get within 30 feet in the front door, without being in the main traffic, and I wake up Hugh and carry him on my hip with one hand, and the car seat in the other. Hugh wakes up grumpy.
We sit in reception. No one offers tea, or a drink. it's about 17.40. Eventually, I ask if I can just go into the studio, which is about 8 feet by ten feet, and set up amusement for Hugh. I go in, and set up a dvd on my laptop, settle him on his very comfy car seat on the floor, with the laptop perched on a chair seat, settle him down, and put some apple juice by him. He's perfectly happy. I point out the red light, and that he can't speak to me when it's lit. He knows how radio works, and the lights, since the researcher who took care of him when I was on R4's "Today" took him through it.
I get out a pad, and a pen, a drink for me, opening it to make sure it doesn't fizz on the microphone, and put the silent head phones (cans) on, and twiddle my thumbs.
At least it's cool. Air conditioning for small radio booths is essential!
At about 2 mins to 18.00, someone called Chloe, introduces herself on the cans and says "Hi" from the London end. Takes me through the process again, quickly, and says we'll be joined with women from Argentina, Somewhere I've Forgotten And Didn't Write Down (USA? Boston?), and Nairobi. Reinforces the informal chat between women point. Says there is a recorded interview with Kathryn Blundell, as she couldn't be on live, so could I listen carefully to it, and then respond with my reactions. I ask her the name of the women I'll be chatting too. She sounds nonplussed, then recovers. It's Lee, Adriana and Bilac. I write down the names of my fellow women.
The interview rolls out with Ms Blundell. I hear how subdued she is, and how this has shaken her. I also hear her say outrageous things, like the "wonderous" miracle science of formula. When she's asked why she feels so creeped out by the thought of a baby feeding on her, she replies she had "not thought about it too much". I write this quote down, as I think it speaks volumes, and is the point I'd like to react to, as requested by Chloe.
Ros takes the air, and slowly and methodically plods through the list of the four women, around the world, being kept in order by the power buttons in Bush House. I am frustrated. This is not the free chat between us that I was told would occur. I'm also dismayed at Ros's clear attempt to get each and every one of us, to slag Ms Blundell off. I am delighted when Lee in Argentina makes it clear that Ms Blundell's views of her own body, and are hers and hers alone. I feel I have so much in common with these women, and I'm truly excited by the thought of being able to chat to them. Ros gets to me, and the same ponderous "give us your reaction to that" occurs, and I give my reaction. Ros them continues on with controlling the mike, and all the discussion, and lobbing in comments from emails. At no point is the micophone open to the four or us. We cannot talk to each other at all.
Ros tells me he's never noticed any pressure to formula feed. I ask if he's ever watched television, and after talking about the glowing babies 'supported' by follow-on milk, move on to the point that isn't it interesting that follow on milk only appears in countries where formula ads are banned? Ros has talked over me, and I persevere, sure that as it's bad radio, to overtalk, he'll back down. I'm confused, but continue to maintain my subject. He's overtalking me, and moving onto to another caller, even as I'm describing how much money is made by pressure selling formula to mothers around the world.
Yes, I was being a dunce. I can only blame the adrenaline. And that my experience is 'live in the same studio', where they can't do what they were doing so easily.
Lee in Argentina commends me for carrying on breastfeeding Hugh, as she couldn't get past two years. I make sympathetic noises, and hope to feed back that I understand that feeling and to discuss how hard it is sometimes, and one of the problems is you are never allowed to say sometimes that it is work, and you do struggle. I hope to reassure her that I think two years is marvellous, and she should look to what she achieved. I try and speak up, but no one seemed to respond to me, no matter how hard I tried to be heard. No, I still hadn't twigged.
I was getting very frustrated.
The woman from Jamaica comes on, and pulls the "I did it for X time, and if you past when I did it, you are weird." card. When she states that after one year, milk has no nutritional value, I interrupt her, and say "That's not factually accurate." She carries on. I repeat this 3, maybe 4 times, and am getting very annoyed that she criticised me, and when I respond that she is refusing to let me speak, and what she is saying is not factually accurate... I finally twig.
Yes, I am a dunce.
No one had been hearing what I was saying to her. I was being controlled, and censored, by the buttons and sliders at Bush House. There was no discussion space between the women on air. I had no idea what of mine had been heard. As I had clearly been carrying on after I was silenced, I didn't have any idea what had actually been said by me.
Realising this, I say into the the microphone "Morgan here, I wish to respond to that comment." I'm livid.
Not at the women in Jamaica, I'm livid that I had been taking part in a two way conversation and escalating the urgency of my own voice, in order to get the space to finish speaking, and I'd been speaking into empty air.`
Ros returns me to a live mic, tightly controlling the intro, and I repeat to the woman what I'd been saying non-stop for a few moments. It still really hadn't sunk in that although I was annoyingly repeating the 'facts' things, and the WHO stuff, that probably, it was the first time it was being heard, not the third or fourth!
And, of course, she gets to criticise me personally, whilst I have to bend over backwards not to criticise, or comment, on anyone else.
Because I'm the weirdo woman.
And Ros goes off on one about there not actually being a lot of 'facts' about breastfeeding, and sidelines the entire discussion back to emails. With me on the other end saying "There are lots of facts about breastfeeding, the science is undeniable..." But you didn't hear that, did you?
So I sit, in the cool empty space of the studio in Edinburgh, with my 5 year old behaving impeccably on the floor, watching a dvd, and I listen to every opportunity for a proper exchange of views, being slammed down and controlled by the presenter. Again and again, points that could be picked up and expanded upon, discarded and closed down, in favour of just spouting on the same point again and again. The actual meat of the debate, the pressure on women to do what society wants, and how we polarise the issues, and ignore how much women need support... trying to be heard, and being strangled at birth.
The sliding button of censorship. The knot that binds.
This is the programme that did something so unthinkable, so mind bogglingly obscene, I cannot contain it. They ask a breastfeeding support in Nairobi, if a mother came to her and asked for support to formula feed, would she support her? What would she say? A women who lives next to the Kibera slum.
Bilac answered the question with grace (as did all the women being goaded to criticise other women). But I could not get my head around what was being said. I just could not deal with the level of Western centric arrogance that was being displayed. That was constantly, and consistently, positioning this debate within the cosy secure world of the London chattering classes. How on earth could you ask a mother in Kenya, that question, without any reference to the dangers of formula feeding there?
I sat and fumed on this, as I was completely removed from the programme. Half way through a sentence, Ros told me he was having to move the discussion on, as I was arguing or something, and I was completely closed down.
I really wanted to get up and leave. I knew how I was being painted, and just as I didn't want my windows put through after "Today"... I just didn't want the aggro. But I knew some of you would be listening, and cheering that things that should be heard, were being said.
So I sat, in silence, listening to the inane presenter carry on with their own reduced agenda. Chloe came on the cans, to explain that I was acting inappropriately, and I clearly didn't understand the type of show I was on. That they had wanted personal stories and opinion, not 'set speeches'. I replied that everything I'd said was personal, and she cut me off and said she understood I was against formula, and pro-breastfeeding, but formula wasn't the issue. I was biased, and they couldn't have that bias on air. I said they had the bias, not me, and this was the World Service, and they had a duty to act globally, and not act as if the whole discussion was taking place in West London. How could they ask a women in KENYA if she would support formula feeding? She replied that they were a global service, and that was why my views were not suitable, I was biased. I said how would a woman sitting in the slums in Nairobi tonight, sitting in a tin shack with a sick child, feel about us wittering on about breastfeeding without discussing the risk of formula feeding? Did she know how many babies would die tonight in those slums, from being formula fed?
(WARNING: NAIROBI SLUM VIDEO BELOW CONTAINS FOOTAGE OF DEAD BABY IN OPEN SEWER PIT.)
Chloe went BALLISTIC. She told me up front I'd made her REALLY ANGRY and that was it, I was off the programme and a taxi would be called to take me away RIGHT AWAY. The one that was booked would be cancelled and I could go NOW.
"You just said that formula kills babies!" It was a mantra, a safety talisman: I could be dispensed with, since I'd uttered those words, which she kept quoting back to me, as evidence of my bias and agenda.
So I was out, gone, away, no more. I would not be on the Africa segment of the programme.
I tried to reason with her, and referred her back to what I'd said on air, about how 4000 babies die every day from UNSAFE formula feeding, and she needed to apply that to Africa, and how does she think the African woman had felt, being asked if she'd support formula feeding? They had to be responsible for the global context, and think it through.
It was just making her angrier, and she retorted I had no right to speak for African women. She just could not get past her own anger, and engage. She finally snapped that she was running an on-air live programme, and she could come back and argue with me later, but she had a programme to run! And she pulled the plug.
So I sat there, with Hugh, feeling that if I'd been in Bush House, not in Edinburgh on my own, my bags would be being picked up and I would be being escorted to the door, via security. I had been thrown off air, and as soon as they could get a taxi to me, I would be out of the building.
Which, by the way, cost them a lot of money. They actually phoned a black cab, to get me out of there as fast as possible. A handsome cab for a 60 mile trip!
I simply picked up my mobile phone, and started phoning people. Whilst I was still in the studio, waiting my Taxi of Doom, I phoned people and let them know what had happened. Why I was being turfed out. I phoned Patti Rundall, at Baby Milk Action, who happened to be in Brussels, and told her I'd been thrown off the BBC World Service, for saying that unsafe formula feeding killed babies in Africa.
I told everyone, very clearly, that I has been told precisely, by Chloe, that the reason I was no longer on the Africa programme, was that I'd said "formula kills babies." I do think the phrase "4000 babies die of UNSAFE formula feeding" did get out on air.
But I ain't listening to it, I can tell you. I'm not that much of a sadist.
I calmly packed up my things, Hugh played with the revolving chair, listening to how they thanked me ever so much for taking part, and making it sound like I was still on the programme! My mobile rang, and it was the cab driver, outside on the main, busy, road. I asked Hugh to stay in the studio on his own with his chair, explained to the reception man, who was quite bemused by everything, and took the car seat out, rather excited to see the black cab.
I walked past the pizza again, rather more wistfully.
I fixed in the car seat, and then went back for Hugh and the bags. Hugh was still waiting patiently, on his own, in the tiny glass booth. Hugh said he needed to pee. Reception man said the toilets were up on the second floor. The taxi was in the street, and I had three heavy bags. I took Hugh outside, and allowed my five year old, to pee up against the wall.
It was total coincidence he was peeing on the walls of the BBC. But the image pleased me. :-)
We then climbed into the taxi and took the long road home.
I didn't want to write this blog. Not really a choice, .... it is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done before... I may expand on it after I post.