An entirely avoidable argument with Rob Crilly

Rob Crilly has a bee in his bonnet about a story I wrote on Darfur in July 2007.

In response to the Abu Sharati saga on Wronging Rights he wrote:

“[Steve] has reported on “reports” that “foreign” Arabs moved into land once home to African tribes two years ago. There was no independent verification of those reports and investigations by researchers at Tufts Uni published this year have shown that those reports were not true. Yet because they agreed with the lopsided analysis, the black and white view of Darfur that we have all swallowed, these unsubstantiated rumours (spread by the side of the conflict that we have decided are innocent victims) appeared in print in 2007.”

He then followed this up with a couple of tweets:


And then mentioned it again in a post of his own on Sharati:

“…dubious claims and rumours that support the accepted wisdom are often offered as news, without any checking and which later turned out to not be true, such as areport in The Independent which claimed that foreign Arabs were moving on to land cleared by the Janjaweed.

To be fair to Rob at least on this occasion he was willing to say: “I don’t blame the reporters involved. I’ve done it too.”

Before I get into why I think Rob is wrong, here are the first three paragraphs of the story in question:

Arabs from Chad and Niger are crossing into Darfur in “unprecedented” numbers, prompting claims that the Sudanese government is trying systematically to repopulate the war- ravaged region.

An internal UN report, obtained by The Independent, shows that up to 30,000 Arabs have crossed the border in the past two months. Most arrived with all their belongings and large flocks. They were greeted by Sudanese Arabs who took them to empty villages cleared by government and janjaweed forces.

One UN official said the process “appeared to have been well planned”. The official continued: “This movement is very large. We have not seen such numbers come into west Darfur before.”

Rob accuses me of having “no independent verification”, printing “unsubstantiated rumours” and writing “without any checking”. As the story makes clear in the intro this is based on an official internal UNHCR report which a contact had passed onto me. Having re-checked my notes I can confirm that I spoke to two other aid officials in the region who also believed the story was true.

For the past year I have been working on a book about football while Rob has been working on a book about Darfur. My Darfur contacts certainly aren’t as good as they used to be. I hadn’t heard of the subsequent Tufts University research he refers to but I have no reason to doubt that it is accurate. I believe the original story was fair and based on strong sources. Since it now appears, two years later, to have not been true I would be happy to recommend that The Independent runs a clarification based on the Tufts University research.

However,  I completely disagree with Rob’s assessment that this was an “unsubstantiated rumour” written with “no independent verification” and “without any checking”. It’s unfortunate that Rob didn’t do any checking of his own and ask me about this before he launched into his criticism.


2 responses to “An entirely avoidable argument with Rob Crilly

  1. I used this story as an example of the systematic bias in Western coverage of the conflict in Darfur. It ran alongside another example – the bombing of Shegeg Karo – to illustrate my thoughts on how a number of news providers gave credence to a rebel mouthpiece using the name Abu Sharati.

    I was making the point that in the case of Darfur, inaccurate stories do not occur randomly as the result purely of tight deadlines or cuts in journalism, as you had argued, but tend to operate in one direction – usually marking a failure of the reporter to scrutinise one side of the argument rather than the other. In this case, claims made by IDPs, their representatives or the Darfur rebels are often accepted in a way that claims made by the Khartoum government never would be.

    I chose an example that I knew you would be familiar with and one that I was also familiar with, as I had subjected the claims of the UN report to rather greater scrutiny than you had. In my research I spoke to several aid workers and UN officials who all told me they were familiar with reports that “foreigners” were moving on to land recently vacated under pressure from the Janjaweed and/or government troops. However, none had actually laid eyes on these foreigners, or could tell me of any colleagues who had. One also pointed out that many Arab tribes with their roots outside Darfur are often referred to as “foreigners” despite having been in the country for generations. Given that the UN report you quoted reported “reports” rather than hard evidence, I figured the story needed more detail before I was prepared to run it.

    One of my former editors was found of shooting down stories in conference with a scathing: “Well, that might be what they say, but is it true?”

    Newspapers are full of people saying things which are not true. On some occasions these stories are acceptable on the basis of who the person is that is saying these things. Other times – and I’d argue this is one – we have a responsibility to check that the reports are true or likely to be true.

    Simply getting confirmation that such reports exist, or that more than one person has heard the same rumour, is not enough.

    In the case of Darfur, unfair reporting of the Arab tribes is one of the features that is holding back the chance of peace. I have made the same error in the past but am trying to address the issue in order to improve my reporting.

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