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Unsettling journalism from Panorama

2013 December 6
tags: , ,
by Paul Vallely

There was a rather unsettling piece of journalism from Panorama this week. But, unlike that programme’s best offerings, it unsettled for the wrong reasons. Where’s Our Aid Money Gone? was very shaky journalism. It was pegged to a fund-raising meeting of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria in Washington on Tuesday which aimed to raise $15 billion to support its work for the next three years. The British government has already pledged $1bn of that.

The central premise of the programme was that something was seriously amiss at the Global Fund. It made allegations of fraud and suggested the Fund’s chief inspector had been sacked because he was too diligent in uncovering corruption.  The trouble was that it failed to establish either of these facts but threw a lot of mud in the process.

The first sign that something was wrong came with reporter Richard Bilton’s criticism of the model of international donors using local organisations to deliver services.  This, he pointed out, came with risks – because money might go astray. True. But what he didn’t says is that the opposite model, bringing in expats to do everything, brings the far greater risk that gains on the ground are not sustainable once the foreigners have gone.

Next it failed to set its report in a proper context. One of Panorama’s own expert witnesses, Amanda Glassman of the Centre for Global Development think-tank, had to resort to a blog to point out that in the programme’s prime example, in Cambodia, “the total amount of misused funds was modest – $431,567 out of $86.9 million” the Fund dispersed in that country.

Then Mr Bilton compared a draft report into the alleged fraud, by the Fund’s own investigators, with the final report the Fund published. A number of serious allegations were dropped in the published version. This was clearly a cover-up, Panorama suggested.  Perhaps it was.

Or perhaps it was simply that senior Fund officials and lawyers found that the investigators’ allegations were not backed by sufficient evidence – a process familiar enough to any reporter whose editor pronounces that the facts are too thin to print a putative story.

The irony was that the primary evidence against the Global Fund was information which had been turned up by its own internal monitoring processes.  The Fund has suspended two companies for paying improper commissions and increased scrutiny in Cambodia.

Panorama’s criticisms of Fund investigations elsewhere could only be that they were taking too long to conduct – despite the fact that in the country at the top of the list of inquiries, Niger, is at war. Again as Ms Glassman concluded: “The Global Fund’s continued commitment to open investigations and reporting should be praised, not slammed, and improvements should be encouraged”.

The most egregious fault of the documentary was naiveté.  Money does go astray in aid operations and it is an important function of journalism to investigate that. But responsible journalism sets that in proportion. This programme opened with ad hominem attacks on the Global Fund’s chief promoters, the rock star Bono and the politician Tony Blair, and with the curious suggestion that the Fund has “only” saved four to five million lives not the 8.7m claimed by the World Health organisation.

Its tabloid title Where’s Our Aid Money Gone? invited viewers to generalise from the particular which, as a visit to Twitter revealed, a number did. “Panorama makes me seriously doubt that money given to charities ever gets there,” said one Twit. “Corruption damages trust,” Mr Bilton concluded. So does dubious journalism.

Paul Vallely is a Senior Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester.

from The Church Times


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