Transformation: Opinion

Don’t shoot the messenger

We got aggressive legal threats from Save the Children. Today’s damning report vindicates the whistleblowers, but wider lessons must be learned

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald Michael Edwards
5 March 2020
Flickr/Shawn. CC BY-SA-NC 2.0.

Is there anything more discombobulating than an expensive lawyers’ letter threatening you with dire consequences for publishing the truth?

Neither of us are ‘snowflakes’, but when openDemocracy receives such letters, we know that the consequences could bankrupt any small nonprofit or media group if a case goes to court.

Often, these threats come couched as efforts to “correct errors and misconceptions” – as if there weren’t less threatening and expensive means of doing so. (Ever heard of picking up the phone?)

We all know the game. The brute force of a formal missive, delivered by a high-powered legal team, encourages confrontation or surrender. They have – and are intended to have – a chilling effect on free speech, and are there to serve and protect the powerful. They are, or should be, a last resort.

Yet in the last few years openDemocracy has received countless such letters from highly-paid lawyers. Many of their clients are the types you’d expect. Dodgy businessmen. Politicians. Vain, rich people.

But today’s damning Charity Commission report on Save the Children (STC-UK) is a powerful reminder that this power can also be abused by those claiming to do good – even by those who say they support whistleblowers, journalists and an independent media.

In 2018, openDemocracy was one of the outlets that published whistleblowers’ allegations of serious bullying and harassment at STC-UK. For our trouble, we were also one of the many recipients of voluminous legal threats, which the charity "scattered" across the media like “confetti" according to Times reporter Sean O'Neill – even as it claimed to owe a “debt of gratitude” to the media for “turning a spotlight on things that need to be addressed.”

STC-UK, via the pricey Messrs Harbottle and Lewis, demanded an apology which would have been used to discredit our entire story. We refused to make one, but we did spend many days wrangling over an additional statement which they demanded we include. We also, to our frustration, had to remove some details in order to protect the confidentiality of our sources, always a painful decision for an editor. And one which means that, to this day, the full story has not been told.

Now the Charity Commission has concluded, after a major two-year investigation, that a number of the supposedly “false and defamatory allegations” made by whistleblowers (including ours) were true. That not only were there “serious failures and mismanagement” at Save the Children, but that “further failures in the charity’s public response at that time, damaged public trust and confidence in STC UK.”

It adds: “The way in which the charity responded to the media reports about the allegations was at times unduly defensive. While the Inquiry accepts that the charity’s leadership was motivated by what they saw as correcting inaccuracies and protecting the charity’s reputation, their actions at the time created the impression, both to those who had raised concerns and to the Charity Commission, that the charity was seeking to downplay the seriousness of the allegations and was not dealing responsibly and openly with the issues.”

“Furthermore, inconsistencies between the information being given to the Charity Commission, and that reflected in public statements resulted in a warning to the charity about the accuracy and integrity of its assurances to complainants and of some of its public statements.”

The report recognises the progress the Commission believes has been made on the charity’s internal culture. Nevertheless, the implication in relation to its dealings with the media is clear:

“Charities should ensure that their press statements are fair, complete and accurate and that a concern to engage in reputation management does not in fact harm the reputation of the charity concerned and charity generally.”

In other words, don’t shoot the messenger.

So what can be done to address this hypocrisy, and to ensure that important stories continue to be covered in the public interest without fear or favour?

As we now know from the Charity Commission report, the whistleblowers’ claims were substantively correct, even if some of the details involved were contested. In retrospect, it would have been much better for the charity to engage openly with media outlets and the whistleblowers who had contacted them, so that everyone involved could have shared in a process that was dedicated to hearing different voices and moving towards a transparent resolution.

Instead, STC-UK blew over £100,000 of cash on legal threats which could otherwise have gone to helping children in need. All of which turned out to make the situation even worse. As a result, the charity has now lost a large proportion of its income and probably even more of its reputation.

What happened at Save the Children, both the sexual harassment and bullying and the culture of impunity surrounding it, are symptoms of so many wider problems in society which urgently need addressing. The women who have spoken up are the real heroes of this story, not the men who have had the ‘courage’ to admit their mistakes.

But one immediate thing is clear: the cynical, commonplace habit of deploying expensive lawyers to silence critical reporting has to stop. Yes, people caught in the crosshairs of the media need protection and recourse under the law, if that reporting is distorted or inaccurate. But there also must be consequences for the rich and powerful who try to tip the scales unfairly in their favour. It cannot be right that small publishers have no redress if the threats and claims against them turn out to be false, while those deploying pricey lawyers to shut down public interest journalism and censor whistleblowers get to walk away scot free.

Today Save the Children’s CEO Kevin Watkins, who presided over STC-UK’s aggressive pursuit of the media, rejected calls for his resignation. He said: “Our leadership team and board have apologised unreservedly to the women affected by the behaviour of these two senior executives. We have made progress on our workplace culture, but still have work to do to strengthen our organisation. We are determined that all our staff should live by the values of respect, compassion and integrity on which Save the Children was founded.”

If you think journalism should expose wrongdoing without fear or favour, please consider supporting our work today. Thank you.

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