Late on Friday night I received a message from a friend at Christian Aid who was considerably concerned about a Telegraph article that had just been published entitled Charity millions ‘going to Syrian terror groups’. The strap line under the headline reads: ‘People giving money to help millions of refugees from the civil war in Syria are inadvertently supporting terrorism, the charity watchdog has warned.’ It went on to say:
‘Some of their cash was “undoubtedly” going to extremist groups, said William Shawcross, the chairman of the Charity Commission.
‘The Charity Commission is so concerned that it has issued guidance to fund-raising bodies.
‘“There is a risk that funds raised in the name of ‘charity’ generally or under the name of a specific charity are misused to support terrorist activities, with or without the charity’s knowledge,” the commission said.
‘It warned that “individuals supporting terrorist activity might also claim to work for a charity and trade on its name and legitimacy to gain access to a region or community”.
‘Peter Clarke, a former head of anti-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police who sits on the board of the commission, said that donations could fall into the wrong hands once the money arrived in Syria or surrounding countries.
‘“Once you get into these very difficult, dangerous areas it is hugely difficult for charities to track the final destination of their funds,” he told The Telegraph.
As routine with these things the article was quickly regurgitated by other papers. The Daily Mail’s headline was Cash donated to Syrian refugee charities is ‘being used to fund terrorism’ and the Express used British charity money ‘going to Syrian terrorists’.
The problem is that the entire Telegraph article was not backed up by a single bit of evidence. It was based on a Charities Commission press release from the previous week that reminded charities working in areas of conflict to make sure they are aware of the risks that their funds may potentially be diverted for terrorist purposes and of their duty to report any suspicions to the police. It had issued advice for charities to help minimise risks of funds falling into the hands and being misused. This would appear to have been aimed at less established charities. Previously the Commission had recommended that the public should give money to experienced charities such as Oxfam, Tearfund, Cafod, Christian Aid and the other members of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) because of their established ability to deliver aid effectively.
Anyone reading the source statements and publications that the Telegraph cited would never have drawn the conclusions that the article reached. By adding some well-chosen (and probably well-edited) quotes from a couple of respectable sources who probably didn’t have all the facts at hand, the paper ended up producing a thoroughly and deliberately misleading piece that had an air of authenticity. Such was the worry that the article would damage the public’s confidence in giving and the charities’ reputations that a series of clarifications refuting the article’s content were hastily published as a damage limitation exercise within a few hours. Christian Aid’s statement read:
‘In Syria itself, as well as in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq, Christian Aid works through trusted partners.
‘We are entirely satisfied that they ensure that the aid we fund reaches the people for whom it is intended. We have rigorous monitoring and accountability measures in place which gives us this confidence.
‘Within Syria we are funding the work of one organisation to provide for shelter, food, hygiene kits and blankets.
‘We have a strong financial trail for this money, through traceable bank accounts.
‘That organisation has good visibility of the work in Syria on the ground, as they have maintained monitoring trips into Syria from Lebanon throughout the conflict, through which they check that the monitoring procedures on the ground in Syria are working effectively.
‘In neighbouring countries Christian Aid funds existing partners who are operational themselves.
‘Christian Aid has full visibility of the work, as there are regular monitoring visits to those partners and locations.’
The DEC’s lengthy response included the line: “We are truly appalled that this story could mislead the British public who have been so generous in supporting our appeal and concerned that it may place the lives of aid workers in Syria at risk.”
There was also a strong rebuke by the Charity Commission who had been quoted in the original article:
‘We want to reassure the public that the established well-known charities working in difficult areas have robust systems in place to ensure their funds reach the intended beneficiaries and is not diverted to fund terror groups. The Disasters Emergency Committee has worked with us in preparing our guidance to charities working in high risk areas, precisely because their members have extensive experience of successfully protecting their charities from harm. William Shawcross says: “The Daily Telegraph’s suggestion that ‘millions’ are being diverted from well-known charities to fund terror groups is speculative and certainly does not represent what we know. Such allegations risk undermining the efforts made by charities to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable people in areas like Syria.’
Sometimes poor or thoughtless journalism can be a bit irritating. More often it is likely to cause upset and annoyance. It can lead to personal grievances as we’ve seen with the Ed Miliband/Daily Mail episode. At times it has the power to shape public opinion in a negative and counter-productive way. At its worst it can put lives at risk of harm. All of this more often than not is just for the sake of concocting an attention grabbing headline with little thought of what the consequences might be.
The public in this country is incredibly generous. The DEC alone has raised £20 million for the people of Syria who have been forced to leave their homes. Six million people are reported to need aid. Our charities and the DEC are working hard to put these donations to good use in challenging and sometimes dangerous circumstances. They deserve support and encouragement and to be trusted. Making unsubstantiated claims in order to undermine the work that is being done is wholly irresponsible and serves no good purpose at all.
Following a complaint from the DEC the Daily Telegraph have now updated the headline on this story to: Charity cash ‘going to Syrian terror groups’ . The DEC still considers the story to be ‘grossly misleading’. Those at the Telegraph responsible for this article should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.