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26 May 2016

Was the BBC’s World on the Move trying to cheer up coverage of the refugee crisis with a beautiful woman?

Angelina Jolie looked nervous as she addressed the threatre. But if anyone should feel foolish, it ought to be the BBC.

By Antonia Quirke

“Welcome to this special broadcast on Radio 4 and the BBC News Channel in the UK, BBC World News and BBC World Service radio. We are also being streamed live on the BBC News website . . .” The presenter Mishal Husain continues a day of debate about the “mass movement of people” – a special event made even more special by the live involvement of Angelina Jolie Pitt, a special envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (16 May, 12.15pm).

At the BBC Radio Theatre in London, Jolie takes to the podium wearing the sort of modest, grey wrap-top combo and wedding hair once favoured by Indira Gandhi – a touch of the noble Vanessa Redgrave in Howards End – and speaks sonorously about the migration crisis. “Deeply worrying . . . millions of refugees live without proper food . . . major test of our values . . .” A couple of times, she fluffs her lines, evidently nervous. Perhaps, I wondered, she is even feeling a little foolish (“I know that no one can speak for 60 million displaced people . . .”)? But if anybody ought to have felt foolish, it was the BBC.

Given the latest, stunning corporation figures – one in every 16 adults across the world now uses BBC News – to be seen playing along with the international charity jet set is definitively not good enough. What organisations such as the UN refer to as winning the media narrative by using the likes of Jolie Pitt is not just sickeningly vain and distracting (and entirely diminishes the seriousness of the institution) but transparently is what it seems – a bit of light relief from all this terrible stuff that has to be debated and decided all day between corporate heads.

The irony when Jolie Pitt or Emma Watson addresses Davos in particular! When you see photographs of them glad-handing caviar-plump executives (who probably live on a whole floor of the Dorchester), it is hard not to feel that they are unwittingly playing into the idea of virility and corruption and heads of state. The BBC can attempt to legitimise it but the “special envoy” tag in relation to a beautiful actress amounts to one thing only, even on the radio: the cheering up of an otherwise unconscionably depressing issue with a hot bird. 

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This article appears in the 25 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad