More bad news: Does the media really impact how the aid sector works?

Newspapers on a doorstep. Photo by: stevepb / CC0

This is the second of Devex’s three-part series on the relationship between the British media and aid, the result of a year-long special reporting project. In the first part of the series, we explored the impact of media coverage on public attitudes toward aid in the United Kingdom. Now, we look at the implications for aid organizations. Keep an eye out for part three, coming soon.

LONDON — Newspapers in the early part of the 20th century were difficult to read. Browsing newsstands in London in January 1902, and scanning the crowded front page of a fledgling newspaper called the Daily Mail, one might have struggled to locate, amid the tiny type, an article about a refugee child in post-Boer War South Africa called Lizzie Vanzyle. The article is short, but sensational: Vanzyle was being intentionally starved by her refugee mother so as to look more pathetic and win the hearts of the British public.

UK media and the great aid debate

For more than a year, Devex has dug into the tempestuous and politically charged relationship linking aid and the British media. Comprising more than 200 hours of interviews, this project brings together journalists, charity executives, advocacy professionals, government officials, frontline aid workers, and many more in a three-part series looking at the high-stakes dynamic between the British press and its aid industry.

Read part one here: Bad news: How does media coverage affect public attitudes toward aid?

“A photograph was taken of this child upon her admission to hospital to show the condition to which she had been reduced by the criminal neglect of her mother,” the article read. “The woman had food in plenty in her tent; she had only to apply to the medical officers to obtain every delicacy that generosity could supply. Yet she did absolutely nothing. It will scarcely be believed that this case has been paraded by the pro-Boers as an instance in which Boer children were starved to death of the deliberate inhumanity of our army.”

The Mail’s aim at the time was a political one: To discredit the progressive “women’s commission” that had been sent to South Africa to oversee the new, civilian-managed care of Boer women and children placed in camps by the British military. It represents one of the first confrontations between British overseas aid and the tabloid press.

The article happened to coincide with a period of sharp growth in the Daily Mail’s readership — it was in this period of the Boer conflicts that the Mail broke the million-reader mark, from which it has scarcely looked back.

Now, with more than 10 million print readers and more than 20 million online, the Mail — alongside its tabloid brethren, such as the Mirror, the Sun, and the Express — has influence. While many readers claim to take these papers’ reports with a grain of salt, experts told Devex their vocal news coverage holds some sway over the public consciousness.

But does it matter? Does exaggerated or politicized media coverage hamper aid effectiveness?

Devex spoke with aid workers, government officials, and journalists to take stock of the impact of media coverage on the day-to-day operations of U.K. aid. From its effect on communication budgets to policy making, observers suggest the sector may be growing too malleable to media whims.

Collateral damage

It is impossible to discuss the media’s influence over U.K. aid without mentioning Yegna. Commissioned through the international nonprofit Girl Effect, Yegna is an Ethiopian girl band that sought to use broadcast media to increase awareness of child marriage, sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and the importance of education for Ethiopia’s rapidly-growing youth population. The Amhara region of Ethiopia, where the project focused, has the highest rate of child marriage in the country, with nearly 45 percent of girls marrying before 18.

The program proved successful according to evaluations, praised for attempting a more locally-owned and tailored approach to social change.

Yet in early 2015, the U.K. aid-funded music group became the subject of a series of critical Daily Mail articles derisively dubbing them the “Ethiopian Spice Girls.” The program was a “blood-boiling waste” of taxpayer funds, according to the paper.

At first, then head of the U.K. Department for International Development, Justine Greening, “just resisted it; she had no intention of doing anything about the [Mail],” one DFID official told Devex on condition of anonymity, as she is not authorized to speak for the department.

But in June 2016, a change in leadership saw Greening replaced by Priti Patel, a media-savvy politician with a history of aid skepticism. A few months into her tenure, after a renewed attack from the Mail, DFID announced it would pull the plug on the six-year program. In a statement, a DFID spokesperson said, “Empowering women and girls around the world remains a priority, but we judge there are more effective ways to invest U.K. aid and to deliver … value for taxpayers’ money.”

The program was due to receive 5.2 million British pounds ($7.37 million) in funding for the 2015-18 period, but the decision meant that not all the promised funds were drawn, leaving Yegna in a lurch.

“That decision disappointed many of us,” said the DFID official who spoke to Devex, adding that the controversy caused DFID to cut ties with the implementer, Girl Effect. “They’re really good, but we couldn’t touch them,” she said.

After a period of uncertainty, Yegna has landed on its feet, replacing the DFID funds with a number of grants from anonymous foundations. But while it remains the most clear-cut case of politicized media influence over U.K. aid, the dynamic extends much further.

Pound and pence

When Adam Smith International, a British for-profit development firm, stepped away from DFID funding in early 2017 in the wake of allegations that its employees “acted improperly” to get an unfair advantage in bidding, its new communications lead Brigid Janssen knew it would be an uphill battle to regain public trust.

The for-profit development model at large had already come under fire from the conservative media, which described such companies as “poverty barons” and “fat cats.” What she hadn’t expected, Janssen told Devex, was a letter from the BBC about the “Access to Justice and Community Security” program in Syria, a 20 million British pound, cross-sector initiative funded by the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund through the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, as well as four other government donors.

“We were a pretty easy target for the BBC, in the sense that we had already suffered some serious reputational blows in the preceding months,” Janssen said.

Janssen believes that the letter — which detailed 96 claims of corruption, the diversion of aid funds, and other problems in the program, which supports an unarmed civilian police force in Syria — was “influenced” by critical tabloid reporting of the company.

“The original inquiry already pre-assumed that ASI was corrupt and doing things wrong and diverting money, and consorting with terrorists,” Janssen claimed.

The company began a huge internal enquiry into the claims. “When you’re going through 96 different subelements of it, it takes a lot to get that confidence that it was in fact incorrect,” she said. By the third week of the investigations, donors suspended funding to the elements of the program within Syria. While Janssen said that decision was right, given the weight of the allegations, program staff were also keen to keep going given the urgency of their work in the region.

“The BBC [is] one of the most respected news organizations in the world,” she said. “Of course we had to take it seriously … We had to make absolutely certain that no matter how outrageous some of these allegations seemed to be, we couldn’t afford to do anything less than complete due diligence.”

But by the fourth week, five donor-led investigations, plus an inquiry by a third-party monitor, concluded that the allegations were either “false, distorted or misleading.” Industry insiders told Devex at the time that they failed to take account of the context in which ASI was working. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote that “neither the government nor ASI has been involved in any wrongdoing,” and that both already knew about some of the issues in the program and had taken steps to address them.

In a statement to the Guardian, the BBC defended its investigation, saying the allegations were “based largely on ASI’s own internal documents and were supported by the testimony of numerous sources. It is disappointing that the FCO did not approach us … [to] ask for further detail, or look at any of the source material we had uncovered.”

Nonetheless, the suspension was lifted after about two weeks. Though brief, the ordeal cost 3,400 members of the Free Syria Police Force their only source of income for the period. Syria program staff also lost their salaries.

Back at headquarters, Janssen said: “There were of course straight pound and pence costs to it in terms of bringing in outside advice, in particular legal advice.” She said these costs “added up well into the six digits, just in terms of the actual things we had to write checks for.”

Finally, she said, there was the “opportunity cost.”

“Donors start to feel much more concerned, they feel under scrutiny, unfair scrutiny in some cases, so that means a less strong commitment to doing that kind of project, much as it may be needed and though the outcomes may be positive.”

— Brigid Janssen, communications lead at Adam Smith International

“We had already had difficulties earlier in the year and we had voluntarily withdrawn from the DFID market, and this meant there was a delay on our opportunity to come back into the DFID market. It meant an impact on our partners, on associates who come in to work on our projects, other clients, other donors, all of that hanging out there … It puts a hold on absolutely everything,” she said.

She added that smaller, nonprofit organizations faced with the same burdens of proof and legal costs may not stand a chance.

Now, months later — as her former employer Oxfam and other organizations confront sector-wide problems with sexual abuse — Janssen said she worries about groups becoming trapped by previous mistakes; that reputational damage, regardless of veracity, is doomed to repeat itself in a churning media cycle, where even legitimate failings in the aid sector uncovered by the media may come to be used as political weapons.

“It’s the bigger perspective of media attacks on aid more broadly and finding those lightning rods. ASI has certainly played that role in spades of being a lightning rod for attacks on the commitment to the 0.7 [percent], and the whole private sector delivery of aid as well,” she said.

As a result, Janssen said she’s already observing a reticence in the sector — among donors and delivery partners alike — to pursue more innovative programs.

“I’m not saying it’s entirely because of media attacks, but that absolutely has to be one of the elements that goes into it,” she said. “Donors start to feel much more concerned, they feel under scrutiny, unfair scrutiny in some cases, so that means a less strong commitment to doing that kind of project, much as it may be needed and though the outcomes may be positive.”

The ‘Daily Mail effect’

Janssen isn’t the only one who has observed a “cooling” among aid donors and organizations toward certain activities as a result of negative media attention. Coined the “Daily Mail effect,” anecdotal evidence suggests that aid groups are beginning to anticipate such attention, and to shape policy and practice around it.

“Looking good can end up taking priority over doing good.”

— Martin Scott, senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia

“There’s a growing body of concern in academia about how the idea of looking good shapes the kind of doing good that you do,” Martin Scott, senior lecturer in media and development at the University of East Anglia, told Devex. “In the end that means looking good can end up taking priority over doing good,” he said.

As Janssen pointed out, this may manifest as an aversion to certain types of programs — easily spun investments in shopping malls or tourist development, for example — but others pointed out that perhaps the greater threat to transparency and aid effectiveness is how donors and aid organizations engage — or refuse to engage meaningfully — with the media.

“My personal view in general of the way the U.K. government communicates with the media [is that] it’s very difficult to get something useful from them,” Alberto Nardelli, Europe editor of Buzzfeed U.K., told Devex. “They’re not doing themselves any favours because it makes it harder for people to report things properly, to report things well, and you don’t have that problem as much with other governments in Europe,” he said.

Nardelli said the responses he receives from U.K. government spokespeople — usually consisting of a quote that “doesn’t answer the question,” and “additional background that is completely useless” — typically amounts little more than “empty waffle.”

One U.K. charity executive who asked to remain anonymous said that, following a tabloid attack on aid in recent years, he was dismayed that DFID officials suggested the organizations involved take the same evasive tack.

“The advice from DFID when this [tabloid attack] blew up was, ‘don’t respond, keep your head down, it’s a hit but let it pass.’”

— Anonymous U.K. charity executive

He was “surprised that the advice from DFID when this blew up was, ‘don’t respond, keep your head down, it’s a hit but let it pass and they won’t run it the second day or the third day’ or whatever,” he said. The charity executive told Devex he felt the advice went “contrary to instincts and the team’s instincts, especially because there were clear factual inaccuracies” in the story.

In part, the “flight” response seems reflexive. Under financial strain and pressure from a donor, an organization is less likely to challenge factual inaccuracies, encouraged to dismiss claims in particular from certain segments of the media. But that can become destructive, the executive suggested.

“In the short term, in each of those cases it does seem like the right answer to get you through to the next day, but the cumulative effect of that is that the narrative is always being driven by the other side,” he said. “And I think that’s something that has to change.”

Others agreed that donors shouldn’t interfere with a charity’s communications strategy in the wake of a crisis, but also questioned whether they could do more to defend their delivery partners, instead of lying low.

“It isn’t the donor’s role to protect or insulate an organization from negative press, nor should it be. The primary responsibility rests with the charity itself,” according to Martin Cottingham, director of external relations and advocacy at Islamic Relief Worldwide.

“Having said that, it can be tremendously encouraging and helpful for an organization when well-informed supporters with a positive outlook weigh in with their views in the media and social media debate.”

Others argue that the “flight” mindset originates from the top of the organization, and reflects antiquated thinking about defensive communications.

“I spent four years trying to get a good media engagement strategy set up when I worked at a small refugee charity, but the culture was that everyone is frightened of reporters and wants to have nothing to do with them,” one communications professional told Devex under condition of anonymity.

“I tried everything I could think of to change that, so I set up meetings across the sector with reporters from the Guardian, Buzzfeed and the Independent, ran seminars for colleagues on how the press worked, even wrote a report about making the most of the news cycles. But to be honest, I didn’t really get very far,” he said. He was even challenged when stories about the charity appeared in the Daily Mail or Sunday Times, asked “why we were fraternizing with the enemy,” he said.

As a result, he said, the “culture” of disengagement continues to grow.

Read more stories from the U.K. Media Series and the role of the media in global development here.

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About the author

  • Molly%2520anders%2520cropped

    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.