Charities' response to safeguarding scandal was poor, journalists claim

Journalists who worked on stories about Oxfam and Save the Children say they received bland responses or legal threats

Sean O'Neill (centre) and Manveen Rana (right) with chair, the PR expert Judy Smith (left)
Sean O'Neill (centre) and Manveen Rana (right) with chair, the PR expert Judy Smith (left)

Journalists reporting on the safeguarding scandals at Oxfam and Save the Children felt the charities’ responses to media enquiries were poor and exacerbated the crises. 

Speaking in London this morning at Third Sector’s breakfast briefing on crisis planning and response, Sean O’Neill, chief reporter at The Times and the journalist who broke the Oxfam Haiti story, said the responses he received from Oxfam about his initial inquiries were so bad it made him believe that a "cover-up" was underway.

He said he had been working on the story about Oxfam for about eight months, and had multiple documents and sources to back up the allegations about sexual misconduct in the charity’s Haiti programme.

But when he approached Oxfam, he found the organisation released bland statements about the scandal rather than answering his questions about what had gone on.

"I expected more of a response than I got," said O’Neill. "I went to Oxfam two or three times saying ‘listen guys, this isn’t good enough – you’re Oxfam, it needs to be better than this’.

"Right up to the night before publication we were asking very specific, detailed questions that I had asked weeks before, and not getting specific answers to them."

He also said his feeling was that senior management took over the organisation’s response to the media with the intention of protecting the charity’s reputation and not engaging properly with the journalist’s questions.

Also speaking at the event, Manveen Rana, senior broadcast reporter at the BBC who worked on the Save the Children story about allegations of sexual misconduct by senior executives at the charity, said the charity’s response had been to send letters threatening legal action rather than dealing with the issues at hand.

"We were getting constant lawyers’ letters to the point where you had people [from the charity] standing up saying we welcome the intention of the story because it is important and we welcome the journalists and reporters, while sending lawyers’ letters to try to stop it," Rana said.

She said a few months later, the BBC had interviewed the head of Save the Children International about the scandal, which was very positive and showed that the charity was trying to deal with the safeguarding crisis.

"If they had just done that in the first week or two, come out and said ‘I personally am appalled at this and want to fix it’, it probably would have gone away," Rana said. "So just fess up. Approach it in a way that makes people have confidence in you again.

"If your approach to a scandal at home isn’t to say ‘that’s appalling’ and try to do something about it – if there’s still some cover-up or they set lawyers on you if you try to tell the world about it – then it doesn’t reflect well on your culture."

Rana said many charity press teams had a "1990s Downing Street spin" approach to PR, which included not returning calls and employing delaying tactics to keep stories from going on air.

"Most journalists, we point out these elements because we want you to be better – we want charities to be better, we want you to be doing a better job," she said. "We are willing to engage. Fess up, for a start – don’t try to hide stuff."

Sean Ryan, media director at Save the Children UK, said: "I’d be happy to engage with Manveen as I have with Sean O’Neill. I’ve asked her to have a coffee."

Oxfam declined to comment.  

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