If you haven’t heard of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund (SCMF), it’s a government-sponsored programme that pays Irish journalists to travel the world and tell us about it.
In international-news sections filled with articles about Trump and America, bombs tearing apart Afghanistan, refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, the anti-gay pogrom in Chechnya and a great silence about Africa and Latin America, the SCMF stories stand out.
If you see a heartwarming story in Irish media about good people at a charity in Nigeria or India or Vietnam or some other place helping to improve local people’s lives, scan to the bottom and you’ll likely see a line saying it was supported by the SCMF.
So what’s wrong with that? Well, there are two things about it that bother me.
First, the SCMF is funded by Irish Aid, the government’s programme for overseas development, and its purpose is to give journalists money to write (generally) positive stories about overseas development.
It’s a bit more complicated than that, which I’ll get into later, but on the surface, it does not look like a set-up meant to produce rigorous, sceptical, independent journalism.
Second, the SCMF pays to send journalists to write about other countries in which there are plenty of skilled, talented journalists with a more nuanced, more in-depth understanding of their own countries than any drop-in outsider could have.
Maybe it’s time for some changes.
Simon Cumbers was a journalist from Navan, who travelled the world reporting until he was murdered at the age of 36 by Al-Qaeda gunman Adel al-Dhubaiti, while on assignment in Riyadh in 2004. Al-Dhubaiti was executed last year by Saudi Arabia.
The SCMF was set up in Cumbers’ memory in 2005 to “assist and promote more and better quality media coverage of development issues in the Irish media”, according to its website. Media organisations, professionals or students can apply for up to €10,000; the average grant in 2015 was €3,340, according to the SCMF.
“Projects must reflect the modern reality of life in developing countries in the context of international development; challenge stereotypes, and/or seek to portray positive developments, as well as exploring the challenges; explore themes of innovation, growth, and entrepreneurship,” spokesperson Joanne told me by email.
These stories do not have to be about Irish Aid-funded organisations, but applicants must “demonstrate the relevance of their project to some of the seven Irish Aid Priority Areas for Action,” said Joanne, whose email signature said “Simon Cumbers Media Fund c/o DHR Communications”, the latter being a public-relations firm.
The judging panel that chooses which proposals will be funded is made up of “media experts”, “development experts”, and representatives of Irish Aid and the Cumbers family. Once funding is granted, the SCMF does not tell the journalists how to report or write their articles.
“Beyond the guidelines, I’ve never received any editorial input from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund,” said journalist Ruairi Casey, whose 2016 trip to Kenya was funded by the SCMF.
But perhaps the guidelines are enough, framing the articles before they are written, so there is no need to shape them after they’ve been written. If that is the case, what is Irish Aid getting out of this? What might it want?
Its budget depends in a broad, long-term sense, on public support for the idea of spending Irish money on overseas development. And the SCMF helps to promote the idea that there’s a need for international development efforts, and that they can have positive impacts.
Now let me be clear: trying to maintain public support for the idea of helping the world’s neediest is not exactly an evil plot. It is a perfectly reasonable goal for Irish Aid to pursue, and quite laudable, and I’m not saying they should stop.
But there’s a conflict here between Irish Aid’s goal of using journalists to promote its (very nice) agenda, and the need for journalists both to stay independent from such influences, and be seen to stay independent from them.
If what we’re worried about is maintaining the shrinking sliver of trust that the public still has in the profession of journalism, then it’s not enough for us to know we are working independently and ethically. We have to make sure that’s what it looks like to the public too.
I am sure that SCMF-funded journalists have all stuck to the highest professional and ethical standards in their work, but it seems to me that the way the SCMF is set up could lead readers to have concerns about the independence of the reporting it funds.
In 2016, Michael Shiels McNamee travelled to Nicaragua with SCMF funding to report on “the emergence of women in the workplace and in public life in a country where machismo attitudes are still a major force in society”. His work was published in The Journal.
“You are definitely right that the fund is aimed at backing positive stories,” McNamee told me by email. “That is stated explicitly in the material and I was certainly aware of that fact when I was looking for projects that I would like to cover.”
But Ruairi Casey suggested that there might be a need to specifically commission positive stories. He went to Kenya to see what life was like for young refugees in the Kakuma refugee camp, and had two articles about his trip published in the Irish Times.
“Most coverage of underdeveloped regions in the Irish media will come from wire reports, and regarding regions like Africa will often focus on war, famine and corruption, so I can understand wanting more positive coverage to give a more rounded view,” he said by email.
And although the SCMF is looking for positive stories, that is not all it funds.
“I think funded work can be broader than the guidelines might suggest,” Casey said. “Neither my proposal nor my final articles were particularly positive, and I reported from Kenya, where Irish Aid is not even active.”
That’s a point journalist Darragh Murphy also made. “I’ve done three separate trips (producing seven pieces in the process for national media), to Tanzania, India and Vietnam, and of these only Tanzania is a beneficiary of Irish Aid funds,” he told me by email.
“My piece there was less than supportive of organisations in receipt of Irish Aid funds — e.g. Oxfam’s policy on Masai lifestyle. And the initial proposal that was funded was open-ended as to whether the help given to pastoral communities was a good thing for human rights, the environment etc.,” he said.
Both McNamee and Murphy rejected the idea that SCMF-funded articles are PR.
“It’s unfair to say that there is any PR element to the projects funded under the Simon Cumbers Media Fund,” Murphy said. “You’d want to be pretty stupid, or unconfident in your ability as a journalist, to think you were out there as a PR for Irish Aid.”
“I don’t think it is fair to make an inference that material produced for the fund leans towards being PR for Irish Aid,” McNamee said. “Once Simon Cumbers approves a project, they have no input after that point.”
I don’t mean to imply that there’s any problem with the quality of the work done by SCMF-funded journalists, or their professional ethics. The point I am trying to raise is that the source of the funding for their articles could raise questions in the minds of some readers.
If an op-ed about Apple’s tax arrangements has been commissioned by Apple, or an article about mortgages is sponsored by Bank of Ireland, or a story about overseas development is paid for by an overseas-development agency, as a reader, I immediately trust it a little less.
There’s also the second issue: why does the SCMF pay journalists to travel to cover development efforts overseas, instead of paying journalists who are already there to do it?
“I feel that’s a legitimate concern with foreign correspondence in general, and not something that can be put at the door of the SCMF,” says Casey.
I agree. But still, why not find a good local journalist, discuss with her which issues in her area Irish audiences would be interested in, and depend on her to do her job as a professional?
I taught journalism for two years to students at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; they were from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and South Korea. I also worked as a journalist in India for a couple of years.
Comparing the journalists I met in these countries with those I’ve met working in journalism in Ireland, I can tell you this: Irish journalists as a group are not smarter, better educated or better at journalism than journalists from these other countries.
I would trust reports from a good local journalist in any one of those countries over a report from a foreign correspondent who dropped in for a visit. They know the languages, the geography, the history, and the meanings of the winks, the nods, and the head wobbles.
(Yes, I see the irony of me, an American, writing about how foreigners who drop into a place to write about it can’t do as good a job as locals. But I’d argue that there’s an exception for foreigners who’ve been in a place for years — as compared to those who make brief visits.)
The View(s) from Kenya
Erick Oduor, the secretary general of the Kenya Union of Journalists, told me by email that this issue had been the “subject of discussion in Kenya for some time now”.
“There is feeling that visiting foreign journalists do not have a grasp of issues they are covering and end up delivering stories with a lot of inaccuracies,” Oduor told me by email. “Such stories are better told by Kenyan journalists so long as there is a clear brief from the editor on what it is expected.”
Moses Michira, a journalist with the Kenyan newspaper The Standard, was more open to visiting journalists.
He read Casey’s articles about life in the Kakuma refugee camp and thought they were “very good in the narration though a little shy on content … The storytelling benefits a lot from being told by an outsider who is able to capture issues that a local would otherwise consider as usual.”
Pairing a Kenyan reporter with a visiting one would be best, Michira said. “It would be great to have African reporters tell the story but I would highly recommend pairing with an Irish reporter – just to be sure that the story addresses the needs of the target audience,” he said.
Sophie Mbugua, who writes from Kenya for Reuters, also suggested a team approach.
“For a well-balanced, investigated feature that’s inclusive of all the players, invest in an African journalist or pair up a foreign journalist with local journalists. Both have to be willing to learn from each other,” she said by email.
Views from Nicaragua and Vietnam
Josué Garay, a journalist with Nicaragua’s La Prensa newspaper, made the same point about teaming a foreign correspondent with a local reporter.
“I think those who need international media articles or news reports on Nicaragua have two options: 1) hiring the services of Nicaraguan journalists to be their correspondents in the country given the knowledge and experience they already have; 2) if they want to send a foreign journalist … contact a Nicaraguan journalist who can collaborate.”
McNamee, who got SCMF funding to travel to to Nicaragua, seems to support the second approach.
“While I definitely think it is best to allow people from a culture to tell their own story, it is also worth mentioning that these stories are being aimed at an Irish audience,” he said. “My suggestion for this might be that as part of the application process candidates have to outline how the plan to work with local or national media in their destination country.”
Pham Chi Dung, chairman of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, said he is in favour of foreign journalists visiting Vietnam to write about the human-rights situation there, which is poor, according to Human Rights Watch.
Murphy, who travelled there with SCMF funding, and wrote for the Irish Times about it, said that sometimes it is easier for outsiders to tackle tough subjects.
“The piece I did from Vietnam was, on the whole, going against the Vietnam party line, which often says that the science behind Agent Orange and disabilities is settled,” he said. “Would a Vietnamese journalist be comfortable in doing this, bearing in mind that Vietnam ranks about the same as Zimbabwe in terms of press freedom?”
Still, Pham recommended that visiting journalists team up with locals, and offered to work with visitors himself.
“I think that every journalist has his own operational methods. Yet when in a strange country where he does not understand the situation, he can seek the help of local journalists for information,” he wrote.
In his defence of the SCMF, Murphy also argued that Irish journalists are better able to connect with Irish readers.
“Irish journalists are chosen because they know how to present particular issues to grab the attention of the Irish public,” he said. “And if the projects aim to explain the developing world to Irish audiences, then it makes sense that Irish journalists deliver it.”
Time for Some Changes?
Irish media regularly publish articles from British or American news sources, and Irish people are voracious consumers of TV, film and literature from these countries. So it’s not that foreigners can’t explain things to Irish audiences, or grab the attention of the Irish public.
I’d say it’s a matter of trust. Irish editors and readers are more likely to trust a British journalist than a Kenyan or Vietnamese or Nicaraguan one. One reason for this might be racism, but I don’t really think that’s it — or at least not all of it. I think it’s more about brand familiarity.
We know Reuters and the New York Times and the Guardian, and there’s a certain level of trust associated with them. So editors are comfortable pulling news from those sources, and readers reading it, whatever the race of the journalist writing it.
All this is to say that I think that foreign writers can write for Irish readers, and that Irish readers are plenty ready to listen. So perhaps the SCMF should heed the journalists who suggest that that the best approach would be teamwork.
As it is, the SCMF “encourages” collaboration with locals. I think it’s time for the fund to start requiring this.
A local knows their home-place better than a visitor, but a visitor has a fresh perspective that can help the local see their home anew. Both sides can learn through collaboration; together they will produce better work.
There may also be some things that the SCMF could do to shake off the slight scent of public-relations. A good start would be to take the Irish Aid representative off of the judging panel.