Papers are too quick to accept NGO reports

Why do the media back claims by non-governmental organisations with their own agendas?

Few regions in the world are as closely monitored by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as Israel and the Palestinian territories. Almost every aspect of Israel's behaviour comes under scrutiny, from the medical care for Palestinians seeking treatment in Israel to food supplies in Gaza and the peace process.
The presence of so many such groups in the region is a compliment to the pluralism of Israeli democracy.

But the veneer of respectability which NGO status confers is also a gift to the Western media. It allows the press to quote findings as if they were holy writ when NGOs often have a political agenda of their own. Some of the best-funded NGOs which bring attitudes to issues are actually paid for by subvention from the Western democracies.

A full-page article in the Independent by Donald Macintyre, the paper's Jerusalem correspondent, pointed out shortcomings of the current peace process sponsored by the Quartet powers of the US, EU, United Nations and Russia, accusing them a "vacuum of leadership" - something with which it may be difficult to disagree.

But most of the article was based on the findings of one of the UN agencies, the Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and the work of unidentified NGOs. The report claims that some 65 per cent of the main routes to the most populous areas in the West Bank are blocked or controlled by Israeli military checkpoints. This despite claims by Tony Blair's office - he is the Quartet representative in the region - that "key" checkpoints and roadblocks have been lifted.

The report acknowledges some successes for Blair, such as the release of money by Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, for a sewage project in Gaza. But it also notes "scant progress" on measures designed to improve the lives of ordinary people in Gaza.

It also raises concern about "heavy-handed" policing and "documented human-rights abuses" by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. The article backs up its arguments by quoting from reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The reporting in the Independent was a balanced view of the situation on the ground. But what is dispiriting is the willingness of reporters to accept NGO reports without asking the relevant questions. Who funds the NGO concerned? What is its role and agenda in the region? Is it run by people with a view of what the final shape of a comprehensive Middle East settlement may look like?

The monitoring group Honest Reporting recently investigated reports on the BBC, in the Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent based on information provided by the NGO Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which claimed Palestinians seeking medical treatment in Israel have been pressured by the Israel security forces to become informants. What was never explained in these reports was that PHR-I, funded by European governments, has a history of demonising Israel.

Concerns about the integrity and financing of NGOs led to the creation of NGO Monitor, dedicated to holding accountable "human-rights NGOs in the Arab-Israeli conflict". Its most recent bulletin, notes Amnesty International, has condemned Israel for military responses to terror - without any of the condemnations being based on original research. It also, says NGO Monitor, put out a "misleading" press release, picked up by Western media outlets, relating to the death of a Reuters cameraman in Gaza.

There is worrying lack of transparency about the funding and research methods of NGOs in the Middle East. Yet correspondents willingly quote their findings, often giving spurious authority to hostile reporting.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail.

    Last updated: 12:56pm, October 2 2008