Ian Burrell: Campaigning journalists become global champions for justice

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The Independent Online

On the borders of Syria they are there, just as they were there in the war-torn ruins of Misrata in Libya and among the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square last year. Alongside the hard-nosed war correspondents are a new breed of researchers from campaigning organisations, and they are just as determined to get the scoop.

They are hungry for documents from fallen regimes which might be evidence of human rights abuses. They are looking for eye-witnesses who can give testimony of war crimes. Such material is not only valuable to news organisations for their front pages and bulletins, it is potential gold dust for an NGO too.

The relationship between the news business and the charity sector has been drastically changed by Internet technology. As traditional media has seen its business model undermined and been forced to close international bureaux, NGOs have realised the opportunities to become broadcasters themselves, publishing their material online and diffusing it through social media. Suddenly it is the NGOs, rather than the news media, which have the money to fly photo-journalists on foreign assignments in search of imagery to support an important campaign.

As news organisations have cut staff numbers, charities have been able to avail themselves of the skills of experienced reporters. The media teams of many NGOs are now bolstered by the presence of top-flight investigative journalists who have forsaken the transience of the news agenda to commit themselves to a cause they feel passionately about.

Andrew Hogg, news editor of Christian Aid, is a former editor of the Sunday Times "Insight" investigations team. He worked on the charity's Death and Taxes report, which showed how global companies cheat the developing world out of $160bn (£101bn) a year in unpaid taxes. "The subjects you are looking at are really deeply important for people on this planet who don't have anyone to speak up for them," he says.

The Internet has driven change. "We still produce the old fashioned press releases and reports," says Steve Crawshaw, a foreign correspondent who works for Amnesty International as director of the office of the Secretary-General.

"But blogs can give more colour and context to the work we are doing on the Syrian border or in Benghazi or Tahrir Square, describing what we are doing in a more personal tone of voice, like a correspondent would have done in the old days," he adds.

Emma Daly, another Fleet Street veteran, is communications director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in New York. "We're doing investigative reporting, coming up with our facts and writing about it, and increasingly making videos as well," she says. "We have been print publishers for a long time but now we are broadcasters and online publishers of photojournalism, video content and satellite imagery. Social media is really important to us."

The HRW Twitter account has 300,000 followers. Traditional media (including local outlets) is still vital to "amplifying" the organisation's message but HRW is at the frontline digging out its own material. "In Libya we had a big team. Journalists would call us in the morning and say 'Where are you going?' We share cars, we tip them off about stories and they tip us off."

Among the pioneers of this journalistic approach to campaigning is the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, which recently worked with the BBC on a documentary on the scandal of computer waste dumped in Africa.

Former national newspaper journalist Julian Newman, campaigns director of EIA, says: "EIA uses many of the techniques common in investigative journalism, including managing contacts/sources, gaining stills and video evidence, using trade databases, employing fake identities and front companies, and using covert recording equipment."

At Action Aid, former BBC Newsnight reporter Sue Bishop worked on the "Disappearing Daughters" campaign into the plummeting numbers of baby girls in parts of India. Bishop, Action Aid's director of communications, says NGOs require a different mind set from the news media. "It's about keeping the level of integrity, impartiality and accuracy they had as journalists but having a much bigger understanding of how that fits into a long-term change agenda."

In response to this coming together of NGO work and newsgathering, investigative reporter Paul Lashmar has launched an MA course in Campaigning and Journalism, which will start in September at Brunel University in Middlesex. He accepts that "journalists have a tendency to the butterfly mind", whereas those working for campaigning organisations aim for lasting change.

"Your success is only judged when you have achieved that," he says. Students on Brunel's "pure" journalism courses tend to be more "career-orientated", and those keen on new course have "a slightly more idealistic view of the world, they want to change the world for the better".