As a young TV viewer in 1968 I distinctly remember Blue Peter Appeals.The one in 1967 was I think about sending in postage stamps.Our local school encouraged us to do it and the result was to build or renovate property to ‘help the homeless’. A worthy cause and one of the earliest examples of TV charity efforts that would morph into Children in Need and the like. Instead of sending money over a mobile phone network ( they were not invented yet) they urged people to send recyclable items like postage stamps or cotton or wool.
In this clip ( and its only audio as the original tapes were wiped) we hear of Blue Peter’s new appeal for the worthy cause of building and equipping a hospital in Biafra. Biafra was small state which wanted to become independent. Around 1967 there were many African countries doing the same. Biafra represented nationalist aspirations of the Igbo people whose leadership felt they could no longer coexist with the Northern-dominated federal government. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi gives a good account of the period from the point of view of 5 unforgettable characters in her novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’.
At the time I remember the media being flooded with images of starving African children. I would have been about 10 or 11 years old and believed anything a teacher or TV presenter would suggest to me. The images were shocking for a well fed and well cared for Scottish boy in a normal working class household, not well off but with plenty of food and parental care.
Many schools took part in sending wool, old pyjamas and other cotton items to make the appeal a success. However what I did not know then was the political context of the conflict in Nigeria and the role of the UK Government and the media in the portrayal of the whole affair.
Strangely enough the Nigerian War or Biafra Civil War was focussed on oil.Starting to ring any bells? Tribalism and religious tensions within Nigeria were also a factor but the concentration of oil resources in the Niger delta was for former colonial rulers the main point of interest.
The war started in 1967 and after a year the federal government effectively surrounded Biafra and imposed a blockade hoping to starve the small emerging country into surrender.The main strategic assets were the coastal oil reserves around Port Harcourt near the river delta.
The images of starving children led to many media based fund raising ventures, not just Blue Peter’s. It was in media terms the start of the media led view of Africa being still a continent full of dependent, poor, hungry people despite the fact that in political terms the opposite was true.Across the continent there was a swathe of independence movements in full flow. Many emerging nations casting off colonial rule. It was not going to be easy for them but they were trying.
In Biafra and Nigeria the role of the UK government under Labour PM Harold Wilson is interesting. People have written about the UK’s role in investigating ‘genocide’ as part of its intervention, but what the Blue Peter appeal did not mention to me as a young person contributing was that while we were collecting wool and cotton rags the UK government were supplying weapons to bomb the same children we were trying to save. John Lennon, the famous Beatle gave back his MBE because of it. Shell Oil and BP were also big players. But what of Blue Peter? The point of this article is that a children’s TV programme with a naive audience was fed lies about a conflict and the government’s role in it to make children feel good and charitable. Me, I still feel cheated and lied to.