UK media and the great aid debate

The U.K. media and the great aid debate. Via YouTube

LONDON — For more than a year, Devex has been digging into the relationship between U.K. aid and the British media. Comprising more than 200 hours of interviews, this reporting project brings together the perspectives of dozens of journalists, as well as charity executives, advocacy professionals, sociologists, government and elected officials, frontline aid workers, members of the British public, and others.

What do these perspectives share, exactly, when it comes to understanding the sometimes truthful, sometimes inventive, often antagonistic dynamic between the aid sector and the British press, the conservative press in particular? Not a whole lot, it turns out. As one might expect, there are facts on both sides, as well as hefty doses of delusion. Among the U.K. media, there is fake news and biased reporting, as well as laudable investigative journalism. On the aid side, there is a sincere desire to help more people, to innovate, to correct inequality, and yet also sometimes a persistent inability or unwillingness to engage with some uncomfortable truths.

The stakes are high. Not because the aid industry is a hundreds-year old institution and an agent in many ways of the public conscience. They are high because of beneficiaries, and surprisingly both the aid industry and those segments of the media attacking it seem to agree about this. Some media claim to campaign, investigate, and politicize because the aid system isn’t yet good enough for the people who need help. And some in the aid sector claim to advocate, fundraise, and fiercely guard their reputations because the aid system isn’t yet good enough for the people who need help.

Over three articles, this series seeks to reveal the true impact of this dynamic. From the latest Oxfam sex abuse scandal, to the rise of private contractors, to the decision of the U.K. to leave the European Union, to the decision to spend more aid through other government departments, how is aid changing under the influence of the media? Is conservative media destroying public trust in aid? Are antiaid campaigns working, and how are nonprofit and for-profit communications strategies evolving as a result? What recourse do aid organizations have when negative press coverage turns political? Who speaks for aid?

In the first piece, Devex presents new data and insights on public attitudes toward aid. How does the public process often slanted or biased reporting about aid? Are the lines between distorted reporting and real news blurring in the eyes of the public? Do legitimate grievances — like those related to sex abuse in the industry — give public weight to the political campaigns against aid? Have the public truly lost faith in the institutions that deliver aid? Could Brexit accelerate the growth of antiaid sentiment?

In the second piece, Devex explores how media coverage is affecting aid work. What are the financial and operational implications for an organization that finds itself the subject of a Daily Mail expose, whether it is hard-hitting reporting or full of cherry-picked facts? What do beneficiaries think? How do institutional donors respond? Can fake news hinder humanitarian response? How are budgets for “defensive communications” changing?

In the final piece, Devex looks at solutions. The media and the aid sector seem caught in a destructive loop: The media believe the mandate of aid and its evolving business models make it unaccountable, corrupt, and sanctimonious in the face of public scrutiny. Unfortunately, the aid sector’s public response in the wake of a scandal sometimes reflects that image. Until recently, organizations were encouraged to “keep a low profile” in the wake of allegations, but is that approach wrong? What current initiatives are underway to improve the image of aid among skeptical populations, both by organizations and donors such as the Department for International Development? How can advocacy better reflect the way the public responds to certain images, certain spokespeople, even certain phrases?

Pose your own questions, and join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and on over the next four weeks as Devex shines a light on the media’s influence on U.K. aid. 

About the author

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    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.