Inept Journalism: AA Gill and the Sunday Times on Darfur

On 11 July 2004, the London "Sunday Times" magazine carried an article written by AA Gill, on the situation in Darfur in western Sudan. A year- long civil war in Darfur has had devastating humanitarian consequences. The article was described as the "first of our series of stirring reports from around the world" and featured a picture of Gill swathed in a head-scarf on the magazine cover. Entitled "Welcome to Hell", the article demonstrated almost every facet of the poor journalism that has characterised media coverage of the Darfur crisis. Noted more for his writing as a restaurant critic, this was Gill’s first foreign piece and it showed. In culinary terms it was the equivalent of a meal in a dismal "greasy spoon" café. He rushed at the Darfur issue with all the enthusiasm of a cub reporter – and made all the mistakes one would have expected from one.

Gill chose the easy option on Darfur, echoing sensationalist claims, stating for example that "there are rumours of war, of genocide, of ethnic cleansing". He moved on to assert that there is "ethnic cleansing and genocide", and then concluded that the Sudanese government is a "blatantly racist, genocidal regime". Gill’s inept journalism was illustrated by his attempt to produce evidence for the "genocide". As proof of genocide and ethnic cleansing Gill pointed to the fact that in the refugee camps he visited "all the refugees are black: there are no Arabs here."

Here Gill makes his first mistake. One of the complexities of the Darfur conflict is that both "African" and "Arab" in Darfur are black. The London Observer newspaper – no friend of Khartoum – has reported, for example, that "[c]enturies of intermarriage has rendered the two groups physically indistinguishable". (1) Even "African" Darfurian anti- government figures such as Dr Eltigani Ateem Seisi contradict Gill’s dangerously lazy racial shorthand. Speaking at a recent conference in Brussels he stated with reference to "Arabs" and "Africans" in Darfur that "we all look alike" and that one "can’t tell from the features if he is Arab or African". He added that he, an "African", had a darker skin than many "Arabs". (2) Perhaps Gill was expecting "Arabs" to be Omar Shariff lookalikes. The discrepancy between simple Darfurian realities and the "reporting" and claims of people such as Gill exposes either poor reporting or reporting that has been purposefully skewed. Either is simply unacceptable: in Gill’s case it is all too obvious that it is merely poor journalism.

Gill chose to make serious claims of genocide in Darfur. In so doing he ignored clear statements made by reputable sources challenging such assertions. He seems to have missed statements by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (who was after all the first to voice concerns about the fighting in the region) that there is no genocide in Darfur. Neither had events, serious as they were, amounted to ethnic cleansing in Annan’s judgement. (3) The American Secretary-of-State Colin Powell, at the end of his own visit to Darfur in June, stated that there was no comparison between events in Darfur and Rwanda ten years ago. Powell said that on examination of the "evidence that is available" events in Darfur do not "meet the tests of the definition of genocide". (4)

More important undoubtedly, are the observations of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders or MSF) on the allegations of "genocide" in Darfur. This is for two reasons. Firstly they are the biggest aid agency in Darfur (and an agency with an excellent reputation), with camps and personnel at the heart of the crisis. And secondly, what little "front-line" colour there was in Gill’s report came out of visits to MSF camps and facilities on the border. While visiting their camps, Gill seemingly neglected to ask MSF for their view of claims of genocide. ‘The Financial Times’, however, did show interest in MSF’s views, reporting, for example, that "on his return from visiting MSF projects in Darfur", Mr Jean-Hervé Bradol, head of Médecins Sans Frontières, "stated that the use of the term genocide was inappropriate". Mr Bradol stated: "Our teams have not seen evidence of the deliberate intention to kill people of a specific group." (5)

Mr Bradol’s observations echoed those made in April 2004 by Dr Mercedes Taty, the deputy emergency director of Médecins Sans Frontières. Dr Taty worked with 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals set up in the towns of Mornay, El Genina and Zalinge in Darfur. Asked about claims of genocide, her answer was blunt: "I don’t think that we should be using the word ‘genocide’ to describe this conflict. Not at all. This can be a semantic discussion, but nevertheless, there is no systematic target – targeting one ethnic group or another one. It doesn’t mean either that the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself." Dr Taty also questioned the claims of "ethnic cleansing". (6) AA Gill would have come across these views had he done even a basic internet search. He opted however for easier, more sensationalist and less demanding story-lines.

Gill was equally strident in his claims that humanitarian access to Darfur is being blocked by the Khartoum authorities, claiming: "invariably the promised visas for observers and NGOs never materialise…There are 500 applications from humanitarian agencies alone gathering dust." This claim would come as a surprise to aid workers in Darfur.

Mr Jan Egeland, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (and a fierce critic of the government) stated in early July – a week before Gill’s article – that he was surprised to see claims that aid was not reaching Darfur: "It is strange to see that there is still the notion in the world that nothing is happening and we’re completely blocked from accessing Darfur. We are reaching some 800,000 people at the moment with some sort of assistance and food." (7) Gill may also have been interested that three weeks before his ‘Sunday Times’ magazine article, Mr Kevin Kennedy, the outgoing acting UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, stated that visas were generally being granted within 48 hours and that "people are experiencing very few visa difficulties". (8) Gill’s claims are also somewhat dented by the United Nations announcement that two million children in Darfur have now been immunised against measles. (9) This was carried out by 2,000 health teams made up of World Health Organisation, UNICEF and other humanitarian workers. Perhaps Mr Gill could calculate how many visas would have been issued to facilitate this one project alone?

Mr Egeland, incidentally, also had something to say about the hackneyed claims of "ethnic cleansing" repeated by Gill, stating that the term "ethnic cleansing" did not fit events in Darfur: "I think we have more reports actually of a kind of scorched earth [policy] – and that nobody has taken over….It’s complex, because some have said that it doesn’t fit the legal definition of ethnic cleansing. The same tribes are represented both among those who are cleansed and those who are cleansing." (10)

AA Gill’s gullibility would appear to know no bounds. He rounds off his lacklustre piece on Darfur by repeating a few more stale and discredited claims about Sudan. He states, for example, that Khartoum has "attempted to develop chemical and nuclear weapons". This will come as news to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The Clinton Administration’s farcical 1998 cruise missile attack on the al-Shifa aspirin factory in Khartoum and its subsequent inability to substantiate its claims (and Gill’s) about Sudan and chemical weapons was painful and public. (11)

Quite where AA Gill got his information on Darfur from is unclear. Perhaps it was gathered over a comfortable lunch in a London restaurant. It certainly wasn’t derived from front-line relief organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières or the United Nations. What is clear is that it was "sexed-up". Mr Gill should have spent less time posing for cover shots and more time researching the serious assertions he was making about Sudan. Those suffering in Darfur, along with reputation of the ‘Sunday Times’ and foreign affairs journalism in general, would be best served if Mr Gill perhaps confined his journalism to restaurant reviews and literary criticism.


[1]. "Empty Villages Mark Trail of Sudan’s Hidden War", ‘The Observer’ (London), 30 May 2004.

[2]. Comments made by Dr Eltigani Ateem Seisi at the seminar "Confronting the Crisis in Darfur: A Transatlantic Assessment", Transatlantic Institute, Brussels, 12 May 2004. Dr Ateem is the head of Darfur UK, an anti-government group based in Britain.

[3]. "No Genocide in Sudan, Annan Says", News Article by Deutsche Press Agentur, 17 June 2004.

[4]. See, for example, "Powell Says Talks With Sudan Government Yielded Agreement", News Article by, 1 July 2004 (available at

[5]. "Thousands die in Sudan as world defines genocide", ‘The Financial Times’ (London), 5 July 2004.

[6]. "Violence in the Sudan Displaces Nearly 1 Million. An Aid Worker Describes the Gravity of the Humanitarian Crisis", News Article by MSNBC, 16 April 2004.

[7]. "Sudan: Interview with UN’s Jan Egeland on the Situation in Darfur", News Article by UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, 5 July 2004, Nairobi.

[8]. "Sudan: Interview with Kevin Kennedy, Outgoing Acting UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan", News Article by UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, Nairobi, 23 June 2004.

[9]. "Two Million Darfur Children Get Measles Shot", Press Release by UNICEF, Geneva, 6 July 2004.

[10]. "Sudan: Interview with UN’s Jan Egeland on the Situation in Darfur", News Article by UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, 5 July 2004, Nairobi.

[11]. See, for example, "The Missiles, the Bungling Pentagon and the Nerve Gas Factory That Never Was", ‘The Observer’ (London), 30 August 1998; "Sudan Attack Blamed on US Blunders", ‘The Times’ (London) 22 September 1998; "Dubious Decisions on the Sudan", Editorial, ‘The New York Times’, 23 September 1998; "Experts Find No Arms Chemicals at Bombed Sudan Plant", ‘The New York Times’, 9 February 1999.