Tag Archives: human rights

Investigative journalism works: the mechanism of impact

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It’s landed, a really thought-provoking report by the film-maker, Christopher Hird, on how journalists can achieve impact with their work, funded by the not-for-profit foundation, Adessium. I edited the report, which is over 100 pages long, and you can read it here.

I also blogged about it for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which commissioned the report, and my blog is below. I’m reposting it as I think the report raises important points for those interested or involved in public interest journalism.

In Investigative Journalism Works: the Mechanism of Impact, a report for the Bureau, journalist and film-maker Christopher Hird quotes the reporter, Horace Greeley, who said: “The moment a newspaperman tires of his campaign is the moment the public notices it.” The aim of this report, commissioned by the Bureau and funded by the public benefit foundation, Adessium, was to look at how journalism can have an impact in the world and get the public to take notice. This is particularly important for not-for-profit media organisations like ourselves; our mission statement states that our core work is in “exposing the facts, informing the public, holding power to account”.

One of the key messages from Hird’s report, which I edited for the Bureau, was that journalists, if they do have an intended aim with their journalism, need to be patient. It requires long-term commitment from editors too, something demonstrated, in particular, by Harold (later Sir) Evans, with his campaign to secure justice for families affected by Thalidomide, discussed by Hird in Chapter Two of our report.

Some journalists debate whether not we should campaign and have clear aims for the end of every journalism project. Others are more comfortable with campaigning – there’s a spectrum of opinion stretching from what one might term pure reporting (exemplified by channels such as BBC Parliament and newer organisations like WikiTribune) through to campaign-led journalism by specialist outfits such as Global Witness and Greenpeace. One of the key messages of Hird’s report is that campaign-led journalism doesn’t have to be a poorer (and, to some, slightly disreputable) cousin to investigative journalism. If anything, Hird argues, with more not-for-profit journalism funded by philanthropic organisations, the return that they seek, in Hird’s words, is “transformation, rather than transactional”. To that end, one key recommendation of the report is that media organisations (following on from some in TV) consider appointing impact editors/producers, who work alongside journalists to achieve desired change.

Slide-10-Impact of Journalism

 

We also commissioned a YouGov survey of a representative sample of opinion formers, both in the UK and in Brussels, to gauge their views of impact in journalism. There was widespread agreement that investigative journalism can have impact on consumer behaviour, on policy-makers and can also set a broader media agenda. Over three-quarters of those polled believed that investigative journalism was an important pillar of the democratic process. Strikingly, when asked which investigations had most impact, many of those surveyed singled out the Watergate Scandal and Thalidomide, as well as other scandals (a good number of which involved vulnerable people and children in particular). Hird, therefore, has looked at both Watergate and Thalidomide in the report, as well as scrutinising the Bureau’s drone project and Channel 4’s campaign to shine a light on the aftermath of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka (see picture of slide above).

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Iconic as Watergate is, especially for journalists, Hird argues that the truths of the investigation have been obscured over time. Whilst the reporting was key to Nixon’s resignation, Hird argues, other parts of civil society and the criminal justice system were essential too. “It was not the journalism alone which had the impact. In order for the investigation to gain traction, the legal and political system needed to engage as well..the Watergate story, in its entirety, is a triumph of the checks and balances in the political system.” Reading Hird’s copy, I was also struck by the similarities with the Trump era today; the chapter gave me hope that journalists, working in collaboration with other actors, can hold power to account.

In Chapter Four, Hird turned his attention to a series of films, commissioned by Channel 4, which shone a light on the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which ended in defeat for the so-called Tamil Tigers. Callum Macrae, the producer/director for the films, makes a cogent case for how journalists can and should negotiate with campaigners who are also hoping to bear witness to injustice and, in this case, human rights violations. He attacks the use of the word impartial in this context (something with which I would agree, having filmed with the BBC in Rwanda, after the genocide).

Macrae is quoted in the report as saying: “If you are are impartial between the rich and powerful and the poor and vulnerable, then you preserve the status quo. So I think the word ‘impartial’ is all too often used as a kind of device or fig leaf to cover up what is shoddy, complacent and compliant journalism which does not attempt to speak truth to power.”

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In the final chapter, Hird turned his attention to the Bureau’s own drone project, in which we have sought to increase transparency of the covert drone war by the US against targets in four countries – Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan. Our contention, from the beginning of the project, has been that civilian casualties have been far higher than the US has ever admitted. Just as in Vietnam, they are the collateral damage of a war that may spare the lives of American troops – but not of citizens in those countries, including children. As for impact, Hird notes that it has been significant – the drones programme under President Obama was made more transparent and civilian deaths fell. Other groups have also increased their scrutiny of this hidden war. However, since President Trump took office, deaths have risen sharply and the US led NATO mission in Afghanistan has stopped providing us with strike data. Despite this, our work shows, in Hird’s assessment, “sustained commitment..impact is achieved by the interaction between the journalism and other civil society organisations and the political process.”

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Hird concludes that investigative journalism works and can have an impact. Journalists need to be tenacious and bloody-minded if they want to change government policies, bring down the corrupt and save lives. Until now, Hird says, we haven’t had to identify the mechanisms by which journalism achieves its end. But we do now, because, frankly, impact is, as Hird says, “a measure of success and therefore a route to an important source of funding for public interest journalism”.

But funding alone, in my view, probably isn’t what gets most journalists up in the morning. On a personal level, when I look at the journalism I’ve been proudest to be part of, it’s been about results in the real world. From getting war criminals sent to the Arusha war crimes tribunal, to a Guardian front page splash on Turkey Twizzlers, leading to them being taking off school menus, to campaigning for disability hate crime to have parity with other similar crimes, I’ve always been interested in measurable change for the person on the street, whether they are a genocide survivor in south-east Rwanda, a disabled person or even my own school-age daughter and her peers. (And, of course, with these campaigns reform wasn’t achieved by reporting alone.) I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that journalism matters on a visceral level to many reporters.

But impact in journalism is best achieved, as Hird recommends in this valuable report, when lots of other organisations can work with us to achieve an aim on which we can all agree – mediated, to some extent, by the work of an impact producer, as Hird argues.

Lastly, I was struck by Hird’s emphasis on collaboration, whether it was with fellow journalists or with other key figures – law-makers, academics, charities and whistleblowers. The phrase from the disability movement, “nothing about us, without us” is timely right now. As our new network, Bureau Local does already, to some extent, we need to shift position and, where appropriate, align ourselves alongside what Dan Gillmor has termed the “former audience”, who can participate in what we do, rather than see ourselves as set apart from civil society. Then the impact we seek to achieve will be clearer from the outset – and useful to those who entrust us with their stories.

 

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Some thoughts on human rights reporting and its discontents

This is a longer version of the blog I wrote for the Oxford Human Rights Hub, which you can see here, on the hierarchy of human rights and human rights reporting: 

http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/?p=5002

This followed on from my talk for Wadham College, Oxford University, on human rights journalism generally, and how it is evolving in the age of the Internet. 

http://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/news/2014/march/an-uncertain-future-for-human-rights-reporting

Whilst I applaud so much of the human rights reporting that takes place in the world, it paints on a large canvas. We think of it being about combating the death penalty, pointing out human rights violations in combat zones and protecting the rights of asylum seekers – all noble aims that I fully support. But when human rights journalism – and human rights – inconvenience us or affect our property rights, things become a little more uncomfortable. So here’s my thoughts on that – comments please. 

Is there a hierarchy of human rights and human rights reporting?

Looking back over my many years of writing and making films about human rights issues, I’m struck by which stories and groups get the most publicity and which stories are more difficult to fund, write and make. I believe that just as there is a hierarchy of rights, as discussed by human rights scholars for many decades, there is also a hierarchy of human rights reporting.

 

War reporting and the human rights violations that occur in conflict zones, are seen as what one might call ‘classic’ human rights journalism. It’s dangerous work. Last year, the International Federation of Journalists estimated that over 100 journalists and media workers were directly killed because of their work – and around half of that number were engaged in human rights reporting.

 

http://www.ifj.org/en/articles/108-journalists-killed-in-2013-to-test-un-day-to-end-impunity-francais-espanol

 

I was one of the many journalists who travelled to Rwanda after the genocide that killed at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. (It’s noteworthy that the killing of the Pygmy people, the Twa, was far less covered.) I was there in 1997, to record the aftermath, with BBC Panorama and the film we made, Valentina’s Story, produced by Mike Robinson and reported by Fergal Keane, is a classic piece of human rights reporting. It drew attention to the genocide through the eyes of one child survivor. In 1999 I went back with Fergal, as a BBC Newsnight producer, to make two more classic human rights films, gathering evidence on rights violations during the genocide that could be forwarded to the Arusha War Crimes Tribunal. This kind of journalism is done today by dedicated correspondents throughout the world – from CNN to Al Jazeera, to the BBC and to PBS, in war and conflict zones as various as the Central Africa Republic, Syria and many areas of the Middle East. It’s crucial that such journalism continues.

 

I have moved on to smaller scale, intimate human rights journalism that I also consider important, but which is far less well funded and at times controversial. I think this is because the very rights of those under fire are seen as questionable and not mainstream – even by those inside the human rights field. This means that the funding for reporting on them, and the importance ascribed to them is far less – what one might call inconvenient and unpopular human rights journalism. I think this is a pity.

 

In 2012 I looked at how human rights organisations wrote and campaigned on disability rights for Amnesty International’s magazine. I found that few saw them as central to their work – in fact, in the drop-down menu of rights on the Amnesty International’s website, disability was not mentioned as a category – unlike childrens’ rights, gay and lesbian rights, women’s rights and refugee rights. Happily, at the annual general meeting last year, it was overwhelmingly decided to remedy this. Disabled peoples’ rights are still seen as segregated from other rights – as if human rights groups mirror some of the divisions between disabled people and non-disabled people in Britain today. During the Leveson Inquiry, similarly, despite a campaign by disabled people and their organisations, none were called to give oral evidence on how they were treated in the media, something I and many others wrote and campaigned about at the time.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/may/08/leveson-willful-blindness-disabled-people

 

 Leveson did, however, take oral evidence from women’s rights organizations, transgender organizations, and refugee organisations – something I completely agreed with – but I did not agree with the lack of oral evidence from disabled peoples’ organisations. Eventually, some campaigners (I was one of them) were invited to give written evidence, but it is disappointing that this division was so evident in such a key inquiry, when the stereotyping of disabled people by certain sections of the media, especially around benefit cuts, is clearly evidenced to have caused a worsening of public attitudes towards them.

 

http://www.inclusionlondon.co.uk/bad-news-for-disabled-people-report-reveals-extent-of-media-misrepresentation

 

This lack of understanding of the discrimination faced by disabled people meant that it took many years for me and others to get the real and pressing issue of disability hate crime recognized. The key intervention of Lord Ken Macdonald, then the Director of Public Prosecutions, who called disability hate crime a ‘scar on the conscience’ of the criminal justice system was one of the reasons why that change happened – but it was a long time coming, and human rights organisations are still playing catch-up when it comes to integrating disability rights into a wider rights agenda.

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7655244.stm

 

Disability rights can be seen as inconvenient to the general public (think of wheelchair spaces on buses, and how they become contested spaces with parents with pushchairs, for example) and this attitude is mirrored in journalism itself.

 

Lastly, we come on to unpopular human rights journalism – and this is where I would place the rights of Britain’s nomads, which come into conflict with another highly cherished set of British rights – property rights. Essentially the rights of Britain’s nomads to enjoy a life free from discrimination, to enjoy the right to family life, the right to education, the right to vote, the right to a decent standard of living and housing come into conflict with British planning law. This was played out in Court 76 of the High Court on October 12, 2011, as I reported for the Economist, when the Dale Farm Irish Traveller residents lost a crucial legal battle against their eviction.  I wrote at the time: “Dale Farm has become a symbol of an increasingly bitter dispute about the rights of Gypsies and Travellers, around a fifth of whom have nowhere legal to live. Basildon council argues that it is simply enforcing planning law, by which all citizens must abide. This was echoed by Mr Justice Ouseley. He said that there must be “public respect for and confidence in” planning law, and that although Basildon council had not identified alternative pitches where the travellers could live, those deemed homeless had been offered “bricks and mortar” accommodation. The decision by Dale Farm residents to decline such housing, due to their “cultural aversion” to it, he said, was their own responsibility. He pointed out that the Travellers were breaching the law by remaining on site.”

 

http://www.economist.com/blogs/blighty/2011/10/dale-farm

 

The eviction of Dale Farm left some 86 families without a secure home, and cost Basildon Council millions of pounds. Many of the families still live roadside, in poor conditions. Basildon was right in legal terms, but who has won? Children are no longer in school, mothers are on anti-depressants, families do not have running water and local tax-payers are footing an enormous bill. There has to be a better way of honouring property rights than creating a situation in which the human rights of these particular Traveller families are so completely ignored, three years on. But such views are unpopular, and the rights of Britain’s nomads are questioned, constantly. Those who seek to defend their rights find it hard to get commissions. This is unpopular human rights journalism – but it is important, all the same.

 

I am grateful for all the journalism I’ve been able to do, over so many years – from Rwanda to Dale Farm, to small-scale human rights stories for Private Eye. That’s our job and it’s worthwhile – at all its levels: popular, unpopular, inconvenient and small scale. But the hierarchy does make me uncomfortable.