ON TUESDAY, I tuned in to watch Oxfam’s three top executives appear before a House of Commons Select Committee. They were answering questions about the scandal that has engulfed the charity since The Times exposed the fact that seven of its aid workers had used prostitutes during the relief operation after the earthquake in Haiti in 2011.
I thought they acquitted themselves reasonably well; but then I turned to the Times website to discover that the paper’s readers violently disagreed.
Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, I felt, struck the right note, repeatedly apologising for Oxfam’s failings, quietly pointing out what it had done right, and promising a series of measures to make good the deficit between the two.
But we see through the lens of our prejudice, it appears; for Times readers had witnessed a different performance. Their comments were scornful and withering.
How do we explain this gap in perception? Undoubtedly, my views are coloured by having visited numerous Oxfam projects as a journalist over the past 35 years. I have found them to be overwhelmingly positive and uplifting experiences. By contrast, Times readers have clearly been influenced by the more than 50 overwhelmingly critical articles that the newspaper had written about Oxfam over the past ten days.
The original exposé that The Times printed, on the unacceptable behaviour of seven Oxfam emergency-relief workers in Haiti, was a creditable piece of investigative journalism. It laid bare bullying, harassment, intimidation, the use of pornography, and sexual exploitation.
But what has followed appears to be a concerted attempt by the Murdoch paper to destroy the reputation of Britain’s leading overseas charity, which, in its campaigns over the decades, has repeatedly criticised the free-market world-view that Rupert Murdoch espouses.
Many in the aid world believe that Oxfam has been targeted specifically because its campaigns department often challenges political privilege and hypocrisy. “Oxfam hasn’t handled all this as well as it could have,” the head of another aid agency told me. “But this feels like an ideologically driven attack designed to undermine the moral authority which is what gives Oxfam its ability to campaign so effectively.”
If that sounds paranoid, then scrutinise the Times coverage. It has not only written a leading article calling for the Government to withhold Oxfam’s public funding in a way that can only damage the interests of the 18 million poor people whom Oxfam assists each year. It has also attempted to undermine the charity in ways more subtle and subliminal.
There have been lurid Max Clifford-style quotations about half-naked girls, running round in Oxfam T-shirts “like a full-on Caligula orgy”. There are sneering allusions to “barons of aid” and the “well-padded” aid budget. Rhetorical flourishes invite the inference that the exceptional is commonplace.
The paper wrote of “the first large donor to withdraw funds from Oxfam” when there was only the one, as if subtly inciting others to follow suit. It announced that John Lewis was threatening to cancel a £500,000 joint aid project when the John Lewis Foundation had specifically stated that funding for the project was not immediately threatened.
What began as a piece of legitimate journalism has sadly accelerated into a vindictive campaign. I have cancelled my subscription to the paper in protest.
Paul Vallely is visiting Professor of Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.