Come clean about scandal before you are found out, Oxfam exposé journalist warns

Sean O'Neill, chief reporter at The Times newspaper, says skeletons in the cupboard 'have a habit of finding their way out'

The Times story that broke the news
The Times story that broke the news

All major charities are probably sitting on their own versions of the Oxfam Haiti scandal and should come clean before they are found out, the journalist who broke the original story has said.

Sean O’Neill, chief reporter at The Times newspaper, told Third Sector he believed big charities could win back public trust only if they were prepared to be totally transparent about their failings.

He made the comments in the wake of the publication of the Charity Commission’s report on Oxfam’s safeguarding

The inquiry was prompted by O’Neill’s story in February last year about Oxfam staff in Haiti sexually exploiting beneficiaries in Haiti in 2011, which sparked a deluge of other stories about international aid organisations failing to deal with sexual exploitation and abuse committed by staff against their colleagues and beneficiaries. 

The report highlighted a culture of tolerating poor behaviour and putting the organisation’s reputation ahead of the safety of victims, and a failure to be fully transparent about what had happened.

O’Neill said he honestly had not expected the story to take off in the way it did and he was surprised to discover that it was not an isolated issue but a widespread problem across the aid sector.

As a member of the public, he said, he now preferred to give to smaller charities, which he felt were more accountable.

He said would like to see all charities "do enough to regain the confidence of the public so we all feel OK to be giving money to good causes again", and transparency was key.

"I don’t think Oxfam is alone in this," he said. "I think probably every one of the big charities has a Haiti scandal in its cupboard, and I think they should all be very up front about that and tell people ‘we have made this mistake’."

The transparency needed to go beyond giving out information about the number of safeguarding incidents, O'Neill said, instead including detailed information about what had happened, what the charity had done in response at the time and how it would respond now.

"All the charities need to be up front and frank and apologetic," he said.

"If you keep skeletons in the cupboard they just have a habit of finding their way out eventually, and then it looks worse. I think you protect your reputation better by being transparent and honest.

"There’s a big question of what damaged Oxfam more. Was it what happened, which was pretty horrific, or was it the fact that they kept it hidden? It’s probably a combination of both."

He said Oxfam, Save the Children and other aid organisations had "made an awful lot of mistakes" in their handling of the negative coverage, and Oxfam’s initial attempts to claim it had been transparent about the incidents in Haiti had "fuelled the fire".

O'Neill added: "I felt they’re very good at transmitting their message about their work and their advocacy and campaigning, and to raise money, but they didn’t seem to know how to deal with journalists whose interest was scrutinising the organisation itself."

He acknowledged that a lot of work had been done over the past 14 months to improve vetting and referencing for employees and that there was "a lot of will and a lot of intention" to change.

But he added: "We know that you can have fine words and fine policies and fine intentions, but they don’t always translate into action."

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