The Road Taken by Michael Buerk


I’ve just finished reading this extraordinary autobiography from Michael Buerk. What a life he has lived! The book was funny, insightful, moving (especially when he is recalling his time in Ethiopia), and also acts as a good historical reference for some of the major events over the last 30 years.

The book opens with him recalling how he cheated death when an ammunition depot exploded in Addis Ababa in June ’91, killing 800 people including a colleague of his, and nearly killed him. This set the tone for the book. From one war-zone to another; in Sri Lanka, El Salvador, South Africa, Zimbabwe, etc, he faced death on nearly a daily basis reporting for the BBC.

Although we know him as the face of the Nine O’clock News on BBC1 throughout the 90’s, it’s funny to read how he despised being a newsreader. He says anybody could do it – “it looks stressful and difficult but news casting is a doddle... little more than reading out aloud,".

The book is a tad too long at 432 pages (in very small print) but it’s worth sticking with. His account of the dynamics and changes within the BBC over the years are particularly interesting, but it’s his insight into South Africa during the last few years of Apartheid, as well as his account of his reporting in Ethiopia during the famine of ‘84/’84 which set off what was perhaps the largest ever international humanitarian effort, that makes the most compelling read.

At the end of the book he revisits some of the places where he’s travelled over the years. On South Africa, where he spent many years as the BBC’s special correspondent for Africa, until he was kicked out by the South African regime for reporting the truth, he talks of the contrast between then and now. His description of South Africa during the apartheid years was just like reading an account of the Nazis during the ‘30’s. Like the Nazis, they institutionalised prejudice and racism by writing it into law, effectively making blacks persona non grata in their own country, even though they made up nearly 80% of the population. Any resistance to the laws, even by foreign journalists trying to report what was going on, was swiftly and brutally dealt with by the vicious army and police.

On returning, he saw two sides to the country. He went to the beaches which 20 years ago were whites only. Now whites, blacks, and Indians happily play side by side. Yet all this has come at a cost. South Africa now has the highest rates for murder and rape in the world. And the country is ravaged with AIDS - it is reckoned that nearly 20% of adults have the disease.

In Ethiopia, the aid over the years has made some difference. The difference being that not as many die of hunger now. They’re still completely dependant upon foreign aid though. As he put it “We seem embarrassed to let them die but incapable of helping them escape this slide into dependence and international beggary”. Ethiopia is the largest recipient of relief aid per head in the world, but gets less development aid than any of the needy countries. The population is growing yet the fertility of the soil is falling; there’s a disturbing symmetry – the population is growing at nearly the exact rate that the topsoil is being washed away off the hillsides, nearly 3% per year. Obviously this is unsustainable and it can’t be long before we see a repeat of the tragedy of 84/85.

This book was published in 2005, before the Live8 concerts and the last couple of years where Africa has been more prominent in the agenda. Yet it seems to me that unless we get major reforms of the World Bank and IMF we’re unlikely to see any real improvement in our generation.

From my review of this book you may think that it’s fairly maudlin and a difficult read. Not so. Yes, he does recall in great detail many accounts of war, death, and destruction. But there’s also many funny stories as well. Like the time he got locked out of his hotel room stark bollock naked!

If I take anything from this book, it’s an even greater admiration of the BBC. At a time when the world is dumbing down, and after the American news networks have all but abandoned reporting on foreign news, it’s good to know that there’s one broadcasting organisation in the world that continues to maintain impartiality and integrity, and report on issues that matter, not just what the ratings analysts think we want to watch.