Ian Burrell: How campaigning NGOs have joined the foreign-reporting business

Viewpoint: As news organisations have cut numbers, charities have availed themselves of the skills of experienced reporters

Click to follow
The Independent Online

On the borders of Syria they are there, just as they were in the ruins of Misrata in Libya and among the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square last year. Alongside hard-nosed war correspondents are a new breed of researchers from campaigning organisations, 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 photojournalists on foreign assignments in search of images that will support an important campaign.

As news organisations have cut numbers, charities have availed themselves of the skills of experienced reporters 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 recently worked on the charity's Death and Taxes report, which showed global companies were cheating the developing world out of $160bn a year in unpaid taxes. "The subjects you are looking at are really deeply important subjects 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, an experienced 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, using a more personal tone of voice, like a correspondent would have done in the old days."

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

Among the pioneers of this journalistic approach to campaigning is the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, which recently worked on a documentary with the BBC's Panorama on the scandal of computer waste being dumped in Africa. Global Witness, another NGO with headquarters in Britain, uses its website to publish revelations of its investigations into the finances of dictators and other subjects.

In response to this convergence of NGO work and news gathering, the investigative reporter Paul Lashmar has created an MA course in campaigning and journalism, which begins in September at Brunel University. He acknowledges that "journalists have a tendency to the butterfly mind", whereas those working for campaigning organisations aim to deliver lasting change. "Your success is only judged when you have achieved that," he says. Students attending Brunel's "pure" journalism courses tend to be more "career-orientated", whereas applicants for the new course "are slightly more idealistic, they want to change the world for the better".