Dec 11 2013

10 things (so far) that organisations say when they are criticised by journalists and don’t want to deal with the issues raised

panoramaThe BBC Panorama on charities was not a devastating deconstruction of the sector. It showed that a few (big name) charities are not entirely as ethical as they pretend; that they tend to be rather generous to departing staff (something the BBC should know about); they are potentially swayed by corporate donors; and are not entirely transparent about their investments in guns, drugs and booze. There were real issues raised, but it was hardly on a par with pension mis-selling or phone-hacking. So how did the organisations involved respond to the legitimate criticisms?

Some of the charities engaged with the criticism on screen, Comic Relief did not, thought it promised to review its finances. So there was definitely a case to answer, which is exactly what journalism is supposed to do.

More revealing about the sector, however,  was the defensive tweeting by several charity executives who felt that any criticism was unjustified. They were, of course, saying the same things that everyone says when they are subjected to journalistic attention. Bankers, politicians, football managers, even newspaper editors and, ahem, universities. But it seems a few people who work in the ‘ethical’ sector feel that because they do something ‘good’ they should not be questioned. They are not alone. Here’s a handy cut-out-and-keep guide – you may have further examples.

10 things that people say whenever they are criticised by journalists and don’t want to deal with the issues raised

1. ‘Don’t look at that, look over there!’ You are criticising us for this one bad thing but look at all the good stuff we do…

2. Variation of above: ‘Look at the rest of what we do, this is a tiny part of our activities.’ (The Police/Media organisation metaphor for this syndrome is: ‘bad apples’)

3. ‘This report is sensationalist’ – i.e. you have made a programme that people might want to watch

4. ‘Why aren’t you reporting on the other much worse evils in the world?’ This is a strange one. So all journalists should only ever investigate the few very worst things in the world? I guess, plague, famine, war and rape? Well, there goes local news, to start with.*

5. ‘You have an agenda’. This means, ‘you have actually thought this one through and realised that the problem is systematic’

6. ‘Your source has an agenda’. (see above – it means, how dare you take someone seriously who thinks differently from us about our work)

7. ‘Why do you always focus on the bad news?’ Where does one start? How about, because that’s what audiences care about. Because good news would take 500 times longer to list. When things go wrong, people are let down. That’s why it matters. It’s the exception, but then so is journalism.

8. ‘We will review this’. Good response, actually. Let’s hope the journalists will have the time to come back in a year to see if you’ve changed in practice.

9. ‘We believe in accountability, that’s why we have all these systems in place. Have a look at our glossy annual report’.  Again, good response. That’s great. Then why not look at the criticisms and respond to them? Why not publish everything in that report?

*10. The BBC-related version of this is – ‘why waste licence fee payers’ money on investigating people trying to do good?’ The answer is that the BBC gives charities like Save The Children, Amnesty, Comic Relief etc vast amounts of free air-time – usually entirely uncritically – so to spend 30 minutes once a year on a programme that makes a few criticisms seems like the very least they could do to maintain their own credibility.

More excuses to all to the list welcome.


Good piece from NGO marketing expert Matthew Sherrington on the realities of brand reputation management here

Duncan Green from Oxfam reminds us of the five standard UK civil service excuses as explained here by Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister!. As usual funny but true.

See Comments below for some crackers already.

Also these from Twitter from people too lazy to post a comment on the blog :)

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 09.14.32

And thanks to the wonderful @MonaChalabi at the Guardian’s data desk for this outstanding piece of graphic visualisation:


This entry was posted in Development, Director's Commentary, Journalism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to 10 things (so far) that organisations say when they are criticised by journalists and don’t want to deal with the issues raised

  1. 10. ‘Think of the children!’ (iow ‘Our ends justify all our means’ -including, sometimes, making children suffer for their own good, so to speak)

    11. ‘You’re evil!’ (a nostalgic thought of the times when charities were able to roam free of scrutiny)

  2. Duncan says:

    12. You will damage the case for aid and give succour to the bad guys

  3. Tom says:

    ‘You are approaching this from a metropolitan, London-centric position which completely fails to take account of the local conditions faced by our heroic people on the ground…’

  4. adil says:

    I did not watch the programme, but I have an issue with charities.
    I have often thought that very important concerns such as homelessness, cancer etc are universally considered to be vital in which case should they not be funded by government? Perhaps there could be a model of charities acting more as agencies to bring important issues to Government attention (why this should be necessary for elected representatives that in principle voice the concerns of their citizens is not clear to me at the moment). At that point they charity can disband having done its job.
    As it stands they are acting almost as quasi-government organisations. In the case of Africa it is very sad to see the good intentions of charity-givers being squandered to support the failing governments (unintentionally I hasten to add).
    But, perhaps I am misguided.

    • I pretty much concur with Adil. Charities should always be given a disband-by date, instead we’re getting centres of micro- and sometimes macro-power completely independent from any democratic control.

      The fact they think they are doing to make the world a better place doesn’t protect any of them from actually practicing abuse, sometimes of massive proportion, as detailed in this Monde Diplomatique story of a few years ago:

  5. Charlie Beckett says:

    Thanks for the additions. I have just remembered a favourite from the Blair/Campbell years, that I am pretty sure Alastair refers to in his diaries – and is certainly a tactic described by former Gordon Brown spinner Damian McBride in his book Power Trip:
    “You’re going to look stupid if you run with this. It’s not a big deal/it’s been done before. You should run with this other nice story instead”

    • andy says:


      Do you think that the allegations in and of themselves warranted a Panorama episode? The whole piece felt like they didn’t really have a hook, so they puffed up a bunch of slightly slapdash oversights into a overarching conspiracy theory about the whole sector.

      The most reasonable defence in each case was “we were probably a bit confused/busy/careless at the time, so we overlooked something. We’d like to explain why we thought that and what we do when that happens.” Amnesty’s own evaluation into its own Ball is far harsher than anything on TV last night.

      There’s definitely an interesting and important film to be made that looks into the role charities now play in the world, and asks genuinely difficult questions. But this wasn’t it.

      But if charities can’t effectively defend themselves against these reasonably mild attacks, what happens when they have to account for something substantial?

  6. Anna F says:

    If the “really, you’re running that old story?” line doesn’t work, try boring the journalist to death with lots and lots of earnest details provided helpfully and frequently throughout the day, especially in the lead up to deadline. Usually does the trick.

  7. Antony says:

    The reply I love to any criticism of any organisation is:
    “Yes there were a few items we needed to review. Of course your report is 5 milliseconds out of date, and since then we have completely transformed our procedures, so what’s the issue!”

  8. Yong Jong says:

    Well, sometimes, especially if you work for a small news organization, you are not answered at all. Or, even worse, the PR office calls your boss and try to convince him not to run the story.

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