Canada’s National Observer: Critics say Ontario moving too slowly on old oil and gas wells

Norfolk County resident Paula Jongerden has been pushing the Ontario government for years to deal with old oil wells that spew water, gas and pollutants around her home. File photo by Nick Iwanyshyn.

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by Canada’s National Observer, was published on September 9, 2022.

The Ontario government is in the “early stages” of developing a strategy to deal with old oil and gas wells in the wake of recent disasters, including an explosion last summer that decimated downtown Wheatley and injured 20 people.

Natural Resources spokesperson Anita Tamrazi said via email that the ministry will work with other governments, stakeholders and Indigenous communities on “a long-term strategy and take action to manage and mitigate the risks posed by legacy wells and subsurface gas migration.”

Critics say the government is not acting fast enough.

“It’s a ticking time bomb, literally,” said Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner. “I don’t understand why the government isn’t operating with a strong sense of urgency, especially after what happened in Wheatley.”

The explosion in the small southwestern Ontario community that levelled several buildings is believed to have come from an old, forgotten well underneath the town. Investigations have since detected four more wells that municipal officials were previously unaware of.

An August 2021 explosion in Wheatley, Ont., is believed to have come from an old well underneath the town. Twenty people were injured and the area is still under evacuation. Photo courtesy of the Municipality of Chatham-Kent.
An August 2021 explosion in Wheatley, Ont., is believed to have come from an old well underneath the town. Twenty people were injured and the area is still under evacuation. Photo courtesy of the Municipality of Chatham-Kent.

A blast the previous summer on Marentette Beach Road southeast of Windsor that killed a couple may have come from an old well on their property. The damage was so severe that the Office of the Fire Marshal could not determine the cause, but residents in the area report smelling gas and fear there could be other wells posing danger to the community.

In nearby Norfolk County, residents have long been pushing the province to deal with a series of old wells that belch pollution into waterways and forests.

An old well in Norfolk County has been spewing water and pollutants for several years, creating what one resident called "our own Chernobyl." File photo by Nick Iwanyshyn.
An old well in Norfolk County has been spewing water and pollutants for several years, creating what one resident called “our own Chernobyl.” File photo by Nick Iwanyshyn.

Under provincial regulations, landowners are responsible for plugging old wells if the original operator is no longer around. That’s the case for most of Ontario’s 27,000 old wells, many of which date back to the 1800s when an oil boom gripped the province.

But landowners argue they lack the resources — costs can range from tens of thousands of dollars to millions — and the know-how to deal with a problem they had nothing to do with creating. And plugging individual wells can simply mean one begins bubbling elsewhere in a process analogous to the game of Whac-A-Mole.

Industry estimates put the number of potentially dangerous old wells at 4,400, along with “several thousand” more that might not be identified. The province’s Abandoned Works Program provides some funding to deal with high-risk wells, but only enough to plug 380 wells since 2005.

Schreiner called for an “aggressive strategy” to locate all old wells, followed by a sound plan to deal with them in a co-ordinated way to ensure plugging one doesn’t just move the problem elsewhere. The province should also, he said, do its utmost to recoup expenses for dealing with the wells from industry but acknowledged that in many cases, that will likely not be possible.

Sandy Shaw, environment critic for the official Opposition NDP, said most of the wells are in rural municipalities that already struggle with infrastructure costs and shouldn’t be expected to shoulder the burden of Ontario’s erstwhile oil industry.

“The government shouldn’t be dithering, they should be stepping in to help people,” said Shaw. “They shouldn’t be pointing fingers, deflecting responsibility… It’s like a hot potato, they just want to pass it around, they don’t want to own the problem. In the meantime, individual residents and municipalities suffer.”

Mary-Margaret McMahon, environment critic for the Ontario Liberals, said she will be pushing for a rapid governmental response to the issue.

“It’s a threat to the environment and to people’s lives,” said McMahon. “What happened in Wheatley can happen again — it will happen again. We need to act before someone gets injured. We cannot let it get to that point.”

The Narwhal: How a conservative U.S. network undermined Indigenous energy rights in Canada

Land defenders fortify a blockade near the Wedzin Kwa (Morice) River as RCMP units advance deeper into Wet’suwet’en territory in 2021. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal.

This story is a collaboration between Floodlight, The Narwhal and the Guardian.

A U.S.-based libertarian coalition has spent years pressuring the Canadian government to limit how much Indigenous communities can push back on energy development on their own land, newly reviewed strategy documents reveal.

The Atlas Network partnered with an Ottawa-based think tank — the Macdonald-Laurier Institute — which enlisted pro-industry Indigenous representatives in its campaign to provide “a shield against opponents.”

Atlas, which has deep ties to conservative politicians and oil and gas producers, claimed success in reports in 2018 and 2020, arguing its partner was able to discourage the Canadian government from supporting a United Nations declaration that would ensure greater involvement by Indigenous communities.

The Canadian Parliament did eventually pass the legislation to begin implementing the declaration in 2021, but observers say the government has made little progress to move it forward.

Meanwhile, Indigenous groups linked to the Macdonald-Laurier Institutes’s campaign — including the Indian Resource Council — continue to appear at conferences, testify to federal committees and get quoted in major media outlets to push the view that Indigenous prosperity is virtually impossible without oil and gas.

Hayden King, executive director of the Toronto-based Indigenous public policy think tank Yellowhead Institute, called the campaign “a contemporary expression of the type of imperialism that Indigenous peoples have been dealing with here for many, many years.”

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute directed questions about the reports to the Atlas Network, which did not respond to requests for comment.

The Atlas Network calls itself a “worldwide freedom movement” and has nearly 500 partners, including think tanks like the Manhattan Institute. Other powerful partners include the Cato Institute, a think tank co-founded by Charles Koch in 1977, as well as the Heritage Foundation, which hosted a keynote speech by Donald Trump in April. Their influence on U.S. politics includes leading campaigns to make Americans doubt if human-caused climate change is real.

Atlas members have helped influence the views of Republican politicians, including George W. Bush. The Arlington, Virginia-based organization — which received more than US$1 million from the oil company ExxonMobil through 2012 and US$745,000 from foundations linked to the Koch brothers through 2018, according to watchdog groups — has also exerted significant influence on conservative politics in the U.K. and Latin America.

Bob Neubauer, a researcher with a Canadian oil and gas watchdog organization known as the Corporate Mapping Project, said Atlas includes “a very significant number of the most influential right-wing think tanks and advocacy organizations on the planet.”

“It should make people nervous,” he added.

Atlas and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute have for years been pushing back against attempts by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to align Canadian laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a declaration Canada endorsed more than a decade ago. That could have codified Indigenous rights to reject pipelines or drilling, the Atlas Network feared, according to their strategy documents, which were shared with Floodlight by an investigative climate research organization called DeSmog.

That’s because the treaty contains clauses affirming Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty over territories they’ve lived on for thousands of years. Implementing it would potentially make it harder for extraction companies to operate on those territories. At stake, the report explains, were Canada’s “monumental reserves of natural gas, hydroelectricity, potash, uranium, oil and other natural resources.”

In recent years the Atlas Network has deepened its connections to Canada, setting up a Center for U.S. and Canada that “works with local civil society organizations on both sides of the border to create positive perceptions of the role of free enterprise and individual liberty,” according to its website.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is one of roughly a dozen Atlas Network partner organizations in Canada. It’s a relatively new organization, formed only in 2010, but its board members and advisors come from some of the top lobbying, legal and financial firms in the country.

In 2018, the Atlas Network created a 13-page “think tank impact case study” report about a campaign being led by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute called the “Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy Project.” Atlas wanted to highlight this project at a training academy for its partners around the world.

The report is no longer accessible on the Atlas Network website but was recovered by DeSmog on an internet archive called the Wayback Machine.

“The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, its staff, and the authors affiliated with the Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy project were the only entities that worked on that project,” institute spokesperson Brett Byers wrote in an email.

“Questions regarding the content, nature or interpretation of a report published by the Atlas Network are better directed toward the Atlas Network,” he added. The Atlas Network didn’t respond to a detailed list of questions about its involvement.

The report claims that this project was started “at the behest of the Assembly of First Nations,” a national advocacy group for Canada’s Indigenous peoples, which “saw potential in the natural resource economy as a major driver of transformation in Indigenous opportunity.” The Assembly didn’t respond to a media request asking if this is accurate.

The Atlas report notes that a prime objective of this collaboration was removing barriers to the production of fossil fuels. It explains that as political momentum began building in 2016 for Canada to implement the UN declaration, this “concerned the team” at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

That was because the UN declaration contains a clause stating that Indigenous peoples have the right to give “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” before governments make decisions that could have a large material impact on their traditional territories.

Some legal experts see this as a reasonable way to ensure that Indigenous communities are equal partners in decision-making. But the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Atlas Network appeared to interpret this to mean that those communities could effectively veto new oil pipelines, fracking operations and other resource extraction projects.

“This provision, while well-intended, would have allowed even the most fringe groups to veto improvement projects at the expense of whole communities,” Atlas argued.

“It is difficult to overstate the legal and economic disruptions that may have followed from such a step,” the report continued.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute with the support of Atlas embarked on “a sophisticated communications and outreach strategy to persuade the government, businesses, and Aboriginal communities on the dangers involved with fully adopting UNDRIP,” the report says.

Early success came that November, when then-Canadian minister of justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, “offered her support to [the institute’s] view.” The report was referring to a 2016 speech where she said that fully implementing UNDRIP would be “unworkable,” creating doubt about the government’s commitment.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s “experts are always in regular communication with MPs, ministers and government officials,” Byers wrote. Wilson-Raybould didn’t respond to a media request.

Meanwhile, an opposition party member introduced a new bill meant to enshrine UNDRIP in law. This effort slowly gained momentum and political support, but when the bill ended up before Canada’s Senate for approval in 2019, a Macdonald-Laurier Institute scholar named Dwight Newman submitted written comments suggesting that the way the courts might interpret “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” could “have enormous implications for Canada.”

He said the bill pursued “laudable aims,” and that various amendments could improve it. But the outcome was that the bill was not implemented.

“The bill was ultimately defeated,” Atlas explains on its website.

“There could be some truth to that,” said King, who is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation. “The bill died in the Senate because Conservative senators delayed and basically filibustered the legislation.” And one of the senators accused of filibustering, Don Plett, quoted at length from a Macdonald-Laurier Institute report during a Senate debate about UNDRIP.

This was seen as a major victory by Atlas, which appears to have provided funding for the campaign. “Atlas Network supported this initiative with a Poverty & Freedom grant,” notes a 2020 document on the Atlas website. That document also identified First Nations allies “working directly” on the campaign, such as the Indian Resource Council and the First Nations Major Projects Coalition.

“That is inaccurate,” wrote a spokesperson for the First Nations Major Projects Coalition, referencing 2018 testimony its vice-chair gave in support of UNDRIP.

When the Trudeau government made yet another attempt to implement the UN declaration in 2021, Indian Resource Council president Stephen Buffalo told a standing senate committee that there should be language in the legislation preventing “special-interest groups” from being able to “weaponize” the declaration to block new pipelines.

“Whether or not you support the oil and gas industry, it is the right of the 131 nations of the Indian Resource Council of Canada to develop their resources as they see fit,” he said. The organization didn’t respond to a media request.

The Trudeau government successfully passed a bill starting the implementation of the declaration in June 2021. But it’s been a slow process since then. “There’s very little progress,” King said. “It’s bogged down in administrative morass.”

The Atlas Network appears to be moving into a new phase of advocacy. At a conference in Guatemala earlier this year, leaders “from freedom-minded organizations, many of them Atlas Network partners,” gathered to “sharpen their plans for the coming year.”

At this invitation-only event, Macdonald-Laurier Institute “workshopped a project to improve opportunities for native populations,” according to an Atlas Network write-up of the conference.

Macdonald-Laurier Institute wanted to apply what it has learned in Canada globally. “The goal of the project would be to promote Indigenous economic development across the world,” Byers wrote.

The Narwhal: ‘Scared into silence’: former workers allege abuse, safety issues at B.C. environmental organization

Illustration: Eryn Lougheed/The Narwhal.

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Narwhal, was published on June 20, 2022.

Breathtaking photos. Adventurous boat trips. A mission to save the planet. Young people were drawn to Pacific Wild, but many describe a work culture of bullying and harassment.

At first, Andrea’s experience with Pacific Wild Alliance was “amazing,” she says. She got to see beautiful places while working as a deckhand on photography and film shoots on B.C.’s central coast.

Andrea, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, worked with the B.C.-based environmental non-profit for the first time in 2014. She worked with the organization’s co-founder, Ian McAllister — one of the province’s most prominent wildlife photographers — and felt lucky to experience the Great Bear Rainforest, a region where eagles fly above old-growth forest, wolves roam the beach and humpback whales breach in ocean inlets.

But the serene natural environment didn’t mirror the work environment onboard Ian’s catamaran, Habitat, she says. There, she says, she witnessed verbal harassment and what she describes as “dangerous” boating practices by Ian, now in his 50s, who was executive director of Pacific Wild at the time. She also says he would drink alcohol consistently after hours and while operating the boat.

By 2020, she says the situation had become its “worst.” She says Ian neglected safety protocols on multiple occasions. That year, she decided not to work with Pacific Wild again.

“He put us all in danger,” she says.

Andrea is not alone. The Narwhal spoke to more than a dozen contractors and employees who worked with Pacific Wild over the years. Many say they were put in positions beyond their marine experience. More than that, they say they witnessed a wide range of what they considered to be inappropriate behaviour, including verbal and emotional abuse and Ian frequently drinking on the job, including while captaining his boat. In September 2020, Ian publicly admitted he used a seal carcass to attract wolves.

The Narwhal was also alerted to an alleged sexual relationship Ian had with a woman who reported directly to him, which spanned roughly two years. Internal emails show that rumours of the relationship were brought to the organization’s attention in 2019. The woman resigned a year later. When contacted by The Narwhal, she said she could not provide comment.

The Narwhal reviewed an email she sent to Pacific Wild board members and the McAllisters at the time of her resignation in 2020, in which she alleged Ian drank at work and exhibited “anger,” “manipulation” and “emotional abuse.” She said there was a “lack of accountability at Pacific Wild.”

“Because of the lack of policies, and the conflict of interest in leadership, I did not know who to go to for help,” she wrote.

“I am hurt by the fact that I trusted all of you, and the system, to protect me in my work environment, and that didn’t happen.”

“The combination of the power, the shame, the manipulation, and the various levels of isolation, kept me silent, but I will not be silent anymore,” she wrote.

Prior to 2021, Ian was the long-standing executive director and his wife Karen was the organization’s conservation director, making them the two primary managers of staff.

They founded Pacific Wild together in 2008 and have been prominent conservation advocates for decades. Pacific Wild is known, in part, for pushing for the protection of the Great Bear Rainforest, a 64,000-square-kilometre area that hugs the shoreline of B.C.’s north and central coast. Stewarded by First Nations for millennia, the region is famous for the iconic spirit bear, a black bear with a recessive gene that makes it glow white against the mossy forest floor.

A white kermode bear, or spirit bear, in the Great Bear Rainforest. Photo: TJ Watt.
A white kermode bear, or spirit bear, in the Great Bear Rainforest. Photo: TJ Watt.

As a non-profit organization, Pacific Wild is technically governed by a board of directors. But Ian and Karen both sat on the board from 2008 to 2019 while also leading the organization, so some workers had little faith their concerns would be meaningfully addressed. Workers say it wasn’t always clear who was on the board, partly because the organization does not list board directors on its website.

Despite these concerns, The Narwhal has learned that Pacific Wild board members were alerted to Ian’s conduct at least twice from 2015 to 2020. One worker says the board failed to sufficiently act on her warnings in 2015, and that unsafe practices continued. The Narwhal reached out to board members from this period to find out how they responded to allegations but did not receive comment.

Ian stepped down as executive director on Aug. 16, 2021, with a statement from him at the time saying, “It’s time for me to step away for personal and professional reasons and for a new executive director to take the organization forward.”  Ian remains a conservation advisor, listed on Pacific Wild’s staff page, and his photographs continue to be shared regularly by the organization.

His wife Karen, who sat as the secretary and treasurer of the board of directors until late 2020, took over the position and remains executive director today.

For more than a year, The Narwhal has been investigating allegations of poor governance and abuse of power within the organization, and how workers’ safety may have been put at risk. Some people who spoke to The Narwhal say they had a positive experience and did not witness any inappropriate conduct at Pacific Wild. But more than a dozen former workers’ experiences, as well as documents and emails, align in painting a picture of a tumultuous workplace where people regularly felt unsafe and overworked but feared speaking out.

The names of workers who are concerned about the impact of speaking out on their personal and professional lives have been changed. Some of these workers have close personal relationships with one another, which have not been disclosed to protect their identities.

“I’d rather be doing anything than coming forward with this story,” Madelyn, who worked with Pacific Wild for more than a year, says. “But it feels really important to talk about this experience. Because I do feel like it’s a public danger to have these people in positions of power who have escalating patterns of abuse towards the people around them, who are so protected by these organizations and the people around them.”

“I feel like it’s hugely disrupted and damaged so many lives, and the lives of so many up-and-coming conservationists and people who are wanting to do good in the industry.”

Max Bakken, who worked for Pacific Wild for three years, pictured doing field work in the Great Bear Rainforest. He spent a lot of time installing camera and hydrophone equipment. Photo: Peter Thicke.
Max Bakken, who worked for Pacific Wild for three years, pictured doing field work in the Great Bear Rainforest. He spent a lot of time installing camera and hydrophone equipment. Photo: Peter Thicke.

Over the course of several weeks, The Narwhal tried repeatedly to speak with Ian, Karen or current or former Pacific Wild board directors, and sent a detailed list of questions outlining the allegations in this story. They did not respond directly — instead, we received an emailed statement from Kirsten Mihailides Public Relations.

“Pacific Wild Alliance does not comment on personnel matters but observes that all organizations face challenges as they renew and grow,” the statement says.

“Ian McAllister led Pacific Wild during its first chapter. While he no longer has any operational or leadership role with the organization, Pacific Wild is energized under its new leadership and focused on continuing its efforts in wildlife habitat protection.”

Over the years, Pacific Wild has brought in millions of dollars for the organization’s advocacy — even receiving endorsement from the likes of Miley Cyrus and Ryan Reynolds. Beyond pushing to partially protect the Great Bear Rainforest, some of its self-proclaimed successes include getting trophy hunting of grizzly bears banned in B.C. and campaigning for the cancellation of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, a multibillion-dollar proposal that was scrapped in 2016.

Many sources say Pacific Wild had an ability to share beautiful images that inspire people to care about the region. But former workers question the trade off between compelling conservation campaigns and the toxic environment they say they were exposed to.

“There’s no denying that those images are powerful. But I think for a long time, those beautiful images have been the justification for a lot of the harm that goes on behind the scenes,” one former worker says.

June 2014
Denny Island, B.C.
Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) territory

In 2014, when Madelyn began as a volunteer with Pacific Wild, the then-22-year-old diver dreamed of becoming a wildlife photographer. She thought photography was a form of storytelling that could “change people’s hearts and minds.” She was passionate about protecting wildlife in the face of climate change.

Madelyn travelled some 300 kilometres from Vancouver Island to Denny Island, B.C., Haíɫzaqv territory, to volunteer for the organization. She was excited to help wildlife, as well as learn about photography from Ian.

“It just seemed really fun,” she says. “Until it wasn’t.”

On its surface, the work entailed going on trips to see awe-inspiring wildlife and then sharing those images to promote conservation. When she arrived, she got a sense the rules were casual. The staff seemed cool and young. She says it seemed like a “conservation party.”

She lived on Denny Island in a small cabin with her co-workers, a short distance from the McAllisters’ home where they lived with their two children. The sparsely populated island adjacent to Bella Bella houses about 100 people. Staff and contractors say they worked in close quarters with each other and Ian, often living together on boats, and in isolated areas without signal, sometimes for weeks at a time. They say they largely relied on each other for company and safety.

The McAllisters and some workers lived on Denny Island, B.C., and did field work and photo shoots around B.C.’s central coast. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal.
The McAllisters and some workers lived on Denny Island, B.C., and did field work and photo shoots around B.C.’s central coast. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal.

But working with Ian was different than she expected. She says he seemed cynical and fulfilled a “moody” artist archetype. She discovered the workplace was disorganized, with staff often lacking clear instructions and working in chaotic and demanding conditions.

“Every day, you were just working on something as if it was an emergency,” she says.

To Madelyn, it seemed everyone around Ian accepted that he was dysfunctional and erratic because of his talent as a photographer. Despite his moodiness, she and Ian got along well at first, she says.

“There would be a lot of camaraderie and fun and silliness,” she recalls.

But soon Ian began making negative comments about her work ethic and personality. She says he got angry with her just months into her time there, and things got progressively worse.

Ian would drink on the boat to the point Madelyn was concerned about his ability to meet his responsibilities as captain. She felt Ian would often breach safety norms, including not having appropriate safety equipment or working with unreliable equipment. Other workers had similar experiences in the following years.

Madelyn said the work environment began to take a toll on her mental health, but there was pressure to stay “committed to the cause.” In the face of Ian’s criticism, she worried about “not being good enough.” In hindsight, she sees his comments as gaslighting.

“You just felt like you were doing such important work,” she recalls. Despite the chaos, she joined Pacific Wild as a staff member in 2015 after volunteering for about six months.

Madelyn says Ian showed up at the staff cabin more than once, appearing to be drunk, and yelled at her in front of her co-workers for not working hard enough.

“I could see all the problems, but I could see them through a lens of empathy rather than red flags … like this person’s really angry because I made them angry. I just need to support them more and do better,” she says.

The staff cabin where workers stayed, a short distance from where Ian and Karen McAllister used to live. Photo: Peter Thicke.
The staff cabin where workers stayed, a short distance from where Ian and Karen McAllister used to live. Photo: Peter Thicke.

Another former worker The Narwhal spoke with is Taylor, who worked with Pacific Wild for a year. She says environmentalists often feel they can’t “air dirty laundry” because it will “undermine our achievements and goals.” But she says that mindset is hypocritical.

“We can’t be committed to being honest and speaking truth to power about the ways we’re destroying the planet, and turn a blind eye at the ways we might be harming each other in the process,” Taylor says.

“I want those young people who are idealistic conservationists, who are dreaming of making a big difference in the world, to know that if they see something wrong, they should speak up.”

While Pacific Wild did not speak to any specific allegations, its statement includes a description of the workplace.

“The daily operations of Pacific Wild Alliance are run by a group of nearly 20 dedicated staff who care deeply about conservation and the protection of wildlife habitat. The board provides long-term vision to the organization through volunteer directors who generally serve with terms staggered for continuity. The directors work diligently to meet organizational challenges and provide long-term direction. The staff work diligently to develop and carry out conservation initiatives. Working collaboratively, the members of the Pacific Wild team have helped the organization achieve many meaningful victories for the environment and therefore the public interest,” it reads.

Summer 2015
Denny Island, B.C.
Haíɫzaqv territory

Max Bakken, who worked at Pacific Wild for about three years, says he felt professional boundaries were being crossed on multiple occasions. On one occasion, he recalls installing monitoring equipment on remote offshore rocks, called Gosling Rocks, about 40 kilometres southwest of Bella Bella with two coworkers.

“There’s nothing between us and the Pacific Ocean,” he remembers. It was exposed and windy.

Ian, he says, showed up on a paddleboard, with no life jacket, and began criticizing the work they’d done. He wanted them to redo it. Bakken says it seemed Ian had been drinking. One of his coworkers, a woman, tried to defend their work.

“They’re literally yelling at each other … out on this rock in the middle of nowhere,” Bakken says. Meanwhile, he was “racing” to get the work done to allow two hours to return home before darkness set in.

Sometimes, the lax rules meant freedom, which was perfect for an adventurous spirit like Bakken, who has spent his life working on the water and in the woods, and today works as a log salvager. He says he climbed trees alone, 100 feet into the air, while working at Pacific Wild. He enjoyed the adventure. At other times, it felt dangerous.

Max Bakken, pictured installing field equipment, says part of Pacific Wild’s appeal was the freedom it offered — but he also witnessed verbal harassment and “irresponsible seamanship.” Photo: Peter Thicke.
Max Bakken, pictured installing field equipment, says part of Pacific Wild’s appeal was the freedom it offered — but he also witnessed verbal harassment and “irresponsible seamanship.” Photo: Peter Thicke.

Madelyn says she was often asked to do things beyond her marine skill level — she worried she might have to take charge of the boat when Ian was drinking alcohol, but didn’t have the expertise required if anything went wrong. She also remembers Ian asking her to navigate tumultuous water alone in a small inflatable dinghy in 2015.

Midway through, she began struggling to follow directions and navigate the small boat, she says.

Bakken remembers seeing Madelyn arrive in Bella Bella that day and being shocked to hear she travelled about 30 kilometres alone. Bakken says he grew up on boats, has done marine emergency training and has a small vessel operator certificate. He spent years commercial fishing and deckhanding. He says Madelyn crossed choppy water that he would “never cross in a small boat,” and calls it “very irresponsible seamanship.”

“As a captain of a boat, [Ian’s] in charge,” he says. “He sent her out across a body of water that easily could have flipped the boat.” Another former worker tells The Narwhal Ian asked them to navigate a dinghy alone in rough conditions years later, and they feared colliding with rocks, and felt “extremely unsafe.”

Back on land, Madelyn constantly felt pressured to work late into the night. Bakken remembers Ian coming to the cabin in a “rage,” appearing to be drunk, banging on the door and calling for Madelyn before storming away. Peter Thicke, who worked at Pacific Wild for more than a year, witnessed a similar incident that summer in which Ian entered the cabin in the evening, asking Madelyn why she wasn’t working, in a “raised voice and very aggressive tone.”

“I remember kind of just being shocked,” Thicke says.

Thicke also loves photography, and he lives and works in Tofino as a city planner today. He thinks boundaries were blurred in the isolated and intimate workplace, and unprofessional and hostile behaviour was normalized. But the workers were passionate about the work they were doing and committed to doing it.

“The workplace, at times, was horrible,” he says. “There’s also times where it, maybe, was one of the most meaningful places you’ve ever been.”

Pacific Wild workers were often in small teams, relying on each other in remote locations out of signal, taking in the beauty of the Great Bear Rainforest. Photo: Peter Thicke.
Pacific Wild workers were often in small teams, relying on each other in remote locations out of signal, taking in the beauty of the Great Bear Rainforest. Photo: Peter Thicke.

Thicke emphasized the job could be fun and adventurous, and so could Ian. Other workers also recalled the freedom of exploring land and waters, seeing incredible wildlife and getting to know each other while eating sushi at the dock or going to the local pub.

In the moment, Thicke says he rationalized Ian’s behaviour to himself. Only with hindsight did he begin to see the juxtaposition between the good times he had with Ian and the work he was proud of, and the treatment he witnessed.

“[There’s] some interesting conflicts between whatever good that somebody does, versus the harm that they’ve done,” he says.

Meanwhile in 2015, Ian released one of his many books, called The Wild in You, and his famous photo of a wolf peering through the surface of the water was named one of National Geographic’s top pictures of the year.

October 2015
Denny Island, B.C.
Haíɫzaqv territory

Madelyn was thinking about leaving Pacific Wild.

At the time, they were actively campaigning to end B.C. ‘s wolf cull — a program that involves government contractors shooting wolves from helicopters in a controversial attempt to protect endangered caribou. The campaign garnered a lot of attention, including from pop star Miley Cyrus, who at the last minute joined Pacific Wild for one of their trips, along with her brother Braison Cyrus. Madelyn says she was the only crew member working with Ian on this trip and, once again, she was put in a position beyond her marine experience.

On the first night she says he effectively left her in charge while he stayed up late with Miley and Braison.

“This was, like, two or three in the morning, and I remember Ian, Miley and her brother were being so loud and just partying on the back deck,” she says.

Miley Cyrus did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for comment. The other guests on the boat — ecologist Carl Safina and wolf biologists John and Mary Theberge — went to bed early and say they didn’t see or hear Ian up late drinking with the pop star and her brother. They also say they didn’t witness any inappropriate conduct.

“I didn’t see anything that struck me as disrespectful,” Safina says. He has donated to Pacific Wild over the years. “Ian has done a lot for publicizing the coast and its nature and the importance of it. And I always had a high regard for all of that.”

“It was not a party atmosphere,” John Theberge says, adding “we have a lot of respect for Pacific Wild.”

Madelyn says she was awake, working, and experienced it very differently. It was stormy, she recalls, and she didn’t trust Ian would be able to intervene if something went wrong.

“I just remember being really scared about the boat dragging anchor or something happening, and Ian being too drunk and high to do anything,” she says.

Illustration: Eryn Lougheed / The Narwhal.
Illustration: Eryn Lougheed / The Narwhal.

With the pressure of Miley’s celebrity status, Madelyn says that when they returned to land Ian pushed her to work late into the night to get a video and press release out for the next morning. She says he came to the cabin and banged on the door again, yelling.

“I was in physical agony from sleep deprivation and overwork,” she says. “I remember crying, sitting at my computer, sobbing.”

Madelyn was feeling burnt out and wrestled with difficult questions: was Pacific Wild helping wildlife or were they building a portfolio of beautiful images? Were they raising money for conservation or were they raising money for their own campaigns?

A couple weeks after the Miley Cyrus trip, Ian was away on a shoot and Madelyn was going through photos when she found a series from 2013 that she says made her heart stop. There was a seal carcass hanging by a rope from a tree. A salmon on the forest floor. Followed by pictures of a wolf looking into the trees, at the seal just out of frame.

Baiting, she thought.

Putting out food runs the risk of habituating wolves to humans. Madelyn had already noticed that wolves Ian frequently photographed on a remote island near Bella Bella seemed habituated to humans. Habituation increases the risk of wolves being shot: either by hunters, because they are less likely to run away from humans, or by conservation officers who deem them a threat to humans. Other people utilize the area too, like local First Nations and kayakers. But these photos appeared to confirm her worst fears — that Pacific Wild was risking the well-being of the wolves it purported to protect.

Illustration: Eryn Lougheed / The Narwhal.
Illustration: Eryn Lougheed / The Narwhal.

“All the abuse that I’ve been taking has been for a lie,” she remembers thinking. Those wolves had been put in harm’s way for “professional gain.”

“The veil was really lifted for me that day,” she says.

She emailed Ian on Oct. 17, 2015, asking him to explain what she was seeing. He admitted to hanging the seal, but he said he thought the tide would take the carcass away and he wanted to ensure the wolves had access to prey and to see if there were wolf pups. He maintained photography “was the least of it.”

“I should have left it alone but I put [it] in the tree to see what would happen,” Ian responded in an email reviewed by The Narwhal.

“I could have let the carcass go into the water or could have brought it further up. In this case it was way further up,” he wrote an hour later. “ I think if you were with me you would have agreed to it.”

He went on to say they had done something similar together when they pulled a sea lion up a beach the summer before. Madelyn maintains she saw him move the sea lion, but didn’t participate.

“I would like to think that you know my history with those wolves enough to know that I would not do something to knowingly put them at risk,” Ian wrote.

“Conducting wildlife research, film photography in a non-invasive way has always been a priority and in this case I don’t believe I caused harm but it was a really dumb move.”

Madelyn spent days agonizing before she quit. She wanted to resign immediately, so she retained a lawyer pro bono to get her out of her contract.

Her lawyer wrote a letter on her behalf to the McAllisters and some Pacific Wild board members. The letter outlined the baiting of wolves, safety concerns, consumption of alcohol in the workplace and what she considered harassment. She says she never heard back from the board directly, and The Narwhal was not able to confirm how board members responded. Instead, she received a letter from a lawyer representing Pacific Wild and Ian, who stated her letter was defamatory. Despite this accusation, Pacific Wild’s lawyer proposed a settlement with a confidentiality clause and a non-disparagement clause, which she refused to sign.

“It isn’t defamatory if it’s true,” she wrote in a Nov. 20 email.

“These problems are way bigger than me. My going away will not fix them.”

Still, Madelyn worried that she would be sued if she talked about her experience.

“I was totally scared into silence,” she says.

In emails a couple of months after she quit, Ian told Madelyn to focus on the “positive” and “be proud of all the good work that you have done and will continue to do and try not to be so judgemental.”

“There is so much important work to be done,” he wrote. “This constant criticism of me is draining and takes away from work that I know you care about.”

In 2016, Pacific Wild partnered with another organization to launch a judicial review into the province’s wolf cull. In 2017, Ian published another book, Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest. That September, Pacific Wild released a song tribute from Miley Cyrus about grizzly bears.

November 2020

Years later, in 2020, Madelyn heard from Pacific Wild workers that issues with the work environment continued after she left, and she felt a responsibility to speak out. In emails reviewed by The Narwhal, she reported Ian to the B.C. Conservation Officer Service for baiting.

The conservation officer service says it cannot confirm or deny whether an investigation into Ian McAllister is underway.

Scott Norris, an inspector with the conservation officer service, tells The Narwhal this is to adhere to privacy laws and to avoid jeopardizing an investigation if it does exist.

He says the service rarely receives reports about baiting, in its colloquial sense — using food to attract wildlife for any purpose. But in the Wildlife Act, the word baiting is specifically associated with hunting.

According to B.C.’s Wildlife Act, a person must not “intentionally feed or attempt to feed dangerous wildlife” or place an attractant “with the intent of attracting dangerous wildlife.”

The minimum fine for placing attractants is $345, Norris says, but it can go much higher — a B.C. wildlife tour company was fined $35,000 in 2019 for attracting black bears with food.

Norris says attracting wildlife causes animals to “develop dependence on humans.” Speaking to wildlife photographers generally, he says he wants people to understand the impact they can have on wildlife, whether they are flying drones over animals or placing attractants.

“They start to learn when that boat pulls up on the beach, for example, that ‘oh, the boat pulled up, that means food’s coming,’ ” he says.“If you’re gonna start doing this stuff, those animals are gonna develop that dependency on you, unsuspecting or not.”

Mist hangs over trees in the southern range of the Great Bear Rainforest. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal.
Mist hangs over trees in the southern range of the Great Bear Rainforest. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal.

Ian emailed Madelyn after he found out she had reported him. He said a complaint would hurt Pacific Wild’s ongoing court challenge of the annual wolf cull.

“I expect you are aware how this complaint will be used against our collective efforts by government, trophy hunters and all those that oppose our wildlife conservation work,” he wrote on May 21, 2021. “It stands a chance of destroying years of hard work that came with a significant financial investment both on the pending legal front and the public campaign front.”

In September 2020, nearly six years after Madelyn discovered the photos, Ian posted publicly on Instagram about hanging the seal. He admitted he profited from the images — an image was included in his 2014 book Great Bear Wild. With hindsight, he said he should have deleted the image or fully described how it was captured.

“I can say that this is the only image that I have ever taken in over 30 years of photography and film work that could be described in the ‘baited’ category other than throwing tuna in the water to take pictures of sharks,” he wrote.

April 2019

According to people who worked with Pacific Wild in the years after Madelyn left, Ian continued to bully staff and contractors and drink on the job, and many still felt there was not an avenue to report or address the situation.

In 2018, Rebecca was hired for a short contract with Pacific Wild. She recalls being asked by Ian to navigate Habitat in a rocky, “super narrow” channel, despite making it clear ahead of time she was not experienced enough to navigate in challenging conditions. The boat hit a mud bottom. At first she thought they were stuck, she says, but was relieved when she and a coworker were able to reverse out without issue. Still her mind went to what could have happened — if they had hit a rock, it could have punctured a hole; if they lurched more, someone could go overboard.

She also recalls Ian drinking in the evenings to the point it made her “uncomfortable.” She only spent two weeks with Pacific Wild and never worked with them again. She says she felt ostracized by Ian and the crew throughout her experience.

“Coming out of it, I just felt shattered,” she says. “I held Pacific Wild in really high regard … I felt like everything I believed was a lie.”

Two Pacific Wild workers working in the field installing camera equipment. Photo: Peter Thicke.
Two Pacific Wild workers working in the field installing camera equipment. Photo: Peter Thicke.

Taylor joined Pacific Wild shortly after, and she too was idealistic about helping the environment. Like many of her peers, she says it didn’t take long for her to see the workplace was dysfunctional.

On a week-long shoot in spring 2019, Taylor says Ian was regularly drinking at what she considered “inappropriate times.” She heard him chastise a first-time deckhand, Katie, who was not an employee.

“He was being so forceful and unreasonably loud,” she recalls. “I was really appalled.”

Katie had been excited at the opportunity, but found Ian intimidating almost immediately. She says he gave no direct instructions, but would then be upset if things weren’t done how he wanted them to be.

One night he got mad at her in the galley and, Katie says, she broke down crying. It was such a beautiful place, but the experience was “tainted,” she says.

“I felt attacked,” she says. “I was pissed that that happened. But I was also mostly disheartened … [I] had idolized Pacific Wild and their work so much.” She never worked for Pacific Wild again.

Taylor reflects on her time at Pacific Wild as complicated. She was travelling to beautiful places and making good friends, and she says Ian “could be very charming and complimentary.” But the good was overpowered by the moments she felt unsafe and witnessed what she considered bullying. She began to feel anxious working there. She says one night she began “crying uncontrollably” while trying to talk about work with her partner.

“He was like, ‘if this is how work makes you feel, you need to quit your job,’ ” she says. She left shortly after.

February 2019
Victoria, B.C.
Lekwungen territory

Ian spent years directing an IMAX film about the Great Bear Rainforest, which premiered in February 2019. The film was distributed by MacGillivray Freeman Films and funded by Seaspan, which runs three shipyards along with ferry, tug and barge transportation, and Destination BC, the provincial government’s tourism corporation.

Narrated by Ryan Reynolds, the film features sweeping drone footage of waterfalls and rivers, bringing viewers close up to spirit bears, seals and wolves. High-definition footage of the trees immerses the viewer in the forest.

Throughout 2019, Pacific Wild and Ian promoted the IMAX film. It received many positive reviews, but also drew criticisms.

Jess Housty, a Haíɫzaqv writer and community organizer, thought the movie exacerbated the colonial misconception of untouched wilderness, which ignores Indigenous Peoples.

“I made it official folks so can you please stop calling Haíɫzaqv territory ‘untouched’ now,” she said sarcastically in a tweet accompanied by a photo of her touching her hand to a beach.

In an article by The Tyee, Ian said he worked hard to include “caring, smart young leaders who care deeply about where they are living” from the Gitga’at, Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Haíɫzaqv nations.

On the film’s website, Ian said “it was always essential to us to have the First Nations deeply involved … It was important to us to talk sincerely with the local communities, so we went to each of them and explained what we were hoping to do with the film and then we took their advice and direction.”

William Housty, conservation manager for Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department and Jess’s brother, says this didn’t happen in practice. He says he was disappointed with the framing of the movie and wanted to see more of a Haíɫzaqv perspective.

Multiple people who worked with Pacific Wild say its’ reputation of working with Indigenous Peoples was a big part of why they wanted to work with the non-profit. But William says non-governmental organizations still have a lot of room for improvement in how they work with First Nations.

Non-governmental organizations “still operate as though they think they know what’s best for the First Nations,” often campaigning “at the expense of the nations or their territories,” he says.

William also says he felt “betrayed” when he found out about Ian hanging the seal from a tree because the nation had invested “a lot of time and effort” in its relationship with Pacific Wild. He says baiting is “dangerous” for animals and humans.

William Housty, conservation manager for Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department, at a snare to collect grizzly bear hair for research in Haíɫzaqv territory. Photo: Morgan Hocking / Heiltsuk Nation.
William Housty, conservation manager for Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department, at a snare to collect grizzly bear hair for research in Haíɫzaqv territory. Photo: Morgan Hocking / Heiltsuk Nation.

“We are open to working with people that have good projects in mind, and they want to build relationships and build trust,” he says. “We don’t want to be burned. We don’t deserve to be burned because we’re just trying to do good.”

He says the Nation’s relationship with Pacific Wild has “dropped off” in recent years.

Pacific Wild did not respond to The Narwhal’s request to comment on what we heard from William by deadline.

Summer 2007
Denny Island, B.C.
Haíɫzaqv territory 

Pacific Wild isn’t the first workplace where Ian has come into conflict with his peers.

The McAllisters founded Pacific Wild after leaving the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in 2007. Ian and his father, Peter McAllister, helped co-found Raincoast, a registered charity which conducts advocacy as well as peer-reviewed research of habitat and wildlife. But Ian had a falling out with the other leaders, and Raincoast sued Ian in 2007 for theft of equipment and for using photos that Raincoast said belonged to the foundation.

In the court documents, Raincoast says it conducted the first-ever study of coastal mainland wolves, and the foundation is “the owner of all right, title and interest” of photographs and other materials gathered as part of the project, including photographs taken by Ian. Ian was slated to use some of these photographs in a book without Raincoast, leading the organization to sue him for general damages and profits from copyright infringement.

“[Ian] McAllister admitted on or about May 27, 2007, in writing, that [Raincoast] is the owner of the intellectual property rights … but has refused to pay [Raincoast] a reasonable royalty for his reproduction,” the documents read.

“It’s surprising and disappointing that Raincoast is wasting precious charity dollars on a frivolous lawsuit,” Ian told the Victoria Times Colonist at the time. The dispute was then settled out of court.

The Narwhal asked Raincoast for an interview about Ian’s time at the foundation and the court case but was told “Raincoast can’t speak to any of Ian McAllister’s employment history.”

Aug. 12, 2020
MakeWay office, Vancouver, B.C.
Xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ territories

When Madelyn left Pacific Wild in 2015, she says she was too scared to speak out.

But when she heard from workers years later describing a hostile workplace, she says “it just become so clear to me that it wasn’t going to stop.” She says she knew it wasn’t her fault, but she still struggled with feeling accountable.

“I felt really responsible for not speaking out about it,” she says.

On Aug. 12, 2020, Madelyn filed a complaint with the MakeWay Foundation outlining her experience. MakeWay had a Pacific Wild Fund between 2007 and 2019 to support conservation activities identified by Pacific Wild, which included the Great Bear Education and Research Project, known as GBear.

MakeWay partnered with Pacific Wild on GBear from 2008 to 2019 to collaborate on conservation programming on topics such as oceans, salmon and coasts, according to Alison Henning, director of communications at MakeWay. The foundation officially stopped funding or working with Pacific Wild by the end of 2020. In the time it was active, $2.8 million was dedicated to the GBear project, she wrote in an email.

GBear project workers were employed by MakeWay but some sources tell The Narwhal they effectively worked for Pacific Wild, reporting directly to the McAllisters. Henning says the GBear project also employed Ian between 2013 and 2019.

“MakeWay takes allegations of abusive behaviour and the well-being of our staff very seriously,” Henning tells The Narwhal. The 2020 complaint “was the first time these concerns had been brought to our attention,” she says. However, since MakeWay did not employ anyone at Pacific Wild when the complaint was filed, there was little they could do.

“As we had no formal employer relationship at the time, and were limited in our jurisdiction and ability to take recourse, we were not able to take on a fulsome investigation as we would have if an issue like this arose with current employees,” Henning says. “Despite this, our team held interviews and provided emotional support and coaching.”

Henning says the GBear project was cut because it was “no longer sustainable” financially.

Illustration: Eryn Lougheed / The Narwhal.
Illustration: Eryn Lougheed / The Narwhal.

Joanna Kerr, president and CEO of MakeWay, spoke to former workers about their complaints.

“Not only does every person deserve to work in a place free of harm, but work environments should be safe and empowering. Leaders in this sector need to ensure this,” she wrote in an email to The Narwhal.

Pacific Wild Alliance, its full legal name, is a registered society in B.C., which has a board of directors. It registered as a charity federally in Canada in 2019. It is also registered as a charity in the U.S., and that chapter of Pacific Wild has its own board.

Boards of directors are meant to be an arms-length governance structure that provides fiduciary oversight and generally oversees the executive director. Board members are expected to act in good faith and “in the best interest of the corporation,” Tim Richardson, senior manager of the standards program at Imagine Canada, says in an interview. Imagine Canada provides programs and resources to charities and non-profits, which can get accredited by Imagine Canada if they meet its rigorous national standard for best practices. Richardson does not work directly with Pacific Wild as the charity is not accredited through Imagine Canada.

Ian and Karen both sat on the B.C. society board until Ian left the board in 2019.

Richardson says it’s fairly common for an organization’s most senior staff person to sit on the board, but that it’s not best practice. Imagine Canada’s standards program stipulates “no employee may be a [board] director.” He says they will sometimes make exceptions, and it’s possible for an executive director to recuse themselves from discussions about their performance, but that “it’s not advisable.”

“That can create a bit of a contradiction because one of the board’s roles is to supervise the executive director,” he says. “If you are a board member, you’re kind of supervising yourself. You’re providing oversight to your own performance.”

Richardson says it’s likely that Ian left the board because Pacific Wild was trying to get charitable status, and sometimes organizations won’t get approved if the executive director is on the board. In December 2020, Karen also left the board, followed by two other board members. Two new board members were brought in, and the board introduced a conflict of interest clause to Pacific Wild’s bylaws, which had not existed before.

Ian’s catamaran, Habitat, where many of the experiences The Narwhal heard about took place. Photos: Max Bakken.
Ian’s catamaran, Habitat, where many of the experiences The Narwhal heard about took place. Photos: Max Bakken.

When Ian resigned as executive director on Aug. 16, 2021, he didn’t give details as to why he was stepping down. According to the most recent tax return available, from 2019, Ian is listed as the chairman of Pacific Wild Alliance’s U.S. board, but The Narwhal was not able to confirm if he still sits on that board.

“For over 30 years I have been passionately dedicated to conservation and protecting wildlife and their habitat. For the past 12 years, I have been particularly proud of what we have accomplished at Pacific Wild, and of the incredibly talented and dedicated team we have,” he said in a statement.

“I am very excited about the future and direction of Pacific Wild and know that we have built a very strong foundation to continue being a leading voice for wildlife conservation.”

In its 2021 strategic plan, Pacific Wild identifies organizational resilience and accountability as one of its foundational goals.

It says some of its objectives are “diversity and accountability” in its governance structures, as well as policies to support “onboarding, succession planning and resilience.”

Its second goal is respectful relationships with Indigenous communities, with intentions to “uplift the voices of Indigenous communities,” improve protocols and “unlearn” colonial assumptions.

Spring 2022
Victoria, B.C.
Lekwungen territory

Max Bakken bikes by the new Pacific Wild office in Victoria and peeks inside. He’s moved on to a new career. He doesn’t follow what the organization is doing anymore.

He says the conservation world gets less scrutiny because of the assumption everyone is doing “good work.” He hopes former workers sharing their stories will change that.

“If you’re out there saving whales and trying to protect wolf habitat and trying to save animals, I think we have a bit of moral blindness about that. We just assume that those people are inherently good,” he says.

But people doing “good work” aren’t immune to the same failures seen in other industries, he says. People want so badly to be a part of the non-profit sector, they put up with treatment they wouldn’t otherwise, Bakken says.

People need to receive “a living wage and be treated well in that position, not like you’re just replaceable,” he adds. “That’s what I would like to see change.”

He encourages people interviewing for new jobs to ask about the structure of the organization they’re applying for, including who is on the board.

Illustration: Eryn Lougheed / The Narwhal.
Illustration: Eryn Lougheed / The Narwhal.

Madelyn has moved on to a new career as well. But she still wants to see a change.

“When something like this carries on and is enabled by the board of directors and all people in the organization, it just contributes to a culture where this is happening everywhere,” she says.

“I felt silenced in a lot of ways … I was silent for a long time,” she says. “Other people got hurt as a consequence.”

“I would risk a lot to stop that from happening again.”

Editor’s note: A member of The Narwhal’s board of directors, Lauren Eckert, is a Raincoast conservation fellow. As per The Narwhal’s Code of Ethics, the board of directors is not involved in day-to-day news operations.

The Narwhal has received funding through MakeWay Foundation, previously known as Tides Canada, including for reporting on the Great Bear Rainforest. As per our donor transparency policy, all of The Narwhal’s funding is disclosed annually.

Free Press Unlimited: One year since the fall of Kabul: a detailed account of the evacuation

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by Free Press Unlimited, was first published on September 13, 2022.

When the Taliban gained more and more territory, eventually entered Kabul, and took control over Afghanistan, it was pure chaos. For Free Press Unlimited it was an unprecedented crisis situation as well, that required our emergency team to work day and night to help keep journalists and fixers safe. We did not do that alone.

The emergency team collaborated with many other organisations and individuals with contacts in either Afghanistan or Pakistan who could assist with the evacuation. One of these pivotal liaisons was journalist Tahir Imran. Tahir worked for BBC Urdu that is part of BBC World Service until 2020 and works as a freelancer ever since. In this interview we speak to him about his role during the evacuation.

What is your relation with the situation in Afghanistan?

I have done all sorts of journalism, but one of the things I was really keen on and had huge interest in, was aviation. This is something which accidentally brought me to Afghanistan. As an aviation journalist you are connected to airlines and have contacts among airline executives and officials. After the Taliban took Kabul, a friend of mine, who works for Free Press Unlimited now, approached me and asked if I could help with evacuating a group of LGBTQI members from Afghanistan, and after that I started helping to evacuate journalists as well.

Help was needed with organising the flights at first, and then getting tickets or finding the right connections for flights. When I decided to help with that, I found the opportunity to organise special charters with the support of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). With this airline we evacuated journalists, but also human rights defenders, women’s rights defenders, authors, judges and police officials who were fleeing Afghanistan, in over 12 evacuation flights. So that’s how I accidentally became somebody who was helping in this crisis.

What obstacles did you encounter?

I think the biggest challenge at that time was that nobody knew what to do. There were many people who needed help, but the ways to offer help were limited. There were organisations who had money, but where and how to spend that money? For example, people needed visas, people needed support with fleeing the country, and people needed security advice via on the ground contacts. So I asked the CEO of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), Air Marshal Arshad Malik, if he could help with organising charter flights. With his active support and help we reached out to the Pakistani ambassador and the Pakistani government, requesting them to issue visas for people who were traveling with PIA. Without the help of PIA, CEO Air Marshal Arshad Malik, and its Public Affairs manager Abdullah Khan, I think we couldn’t have achieved anything. They were a source of rock solid support throughout this crisis.

A huge challenge was that, at that time, online visa applications were not available. So we had to find somebody in Kabul who could take the passports, and then take them to the Pakistani embassy for the application. A whole organic system was created. From August till Christmas, and even after that, we were just going through lists of people, coming from initially just two or three organisations, like Free Press Unlimited. Later on it grew and I have been in touch with over 50 organisations.

What was it like for you during this period?

It was very chaotic. I remember the first flight that we organised. I was so nervous. The flight was early in the morning and I couldn’t sleep the whole night. We were following the plane in the flight radar app and saw it taking off from Islamabad. Thats like a 45 minute flight. Then it landed in Kabul and the waiting started. People had to go to the check in, go through security. And then, finally, we received the first video of people sitting in the plane.

Things like this made it very heavy, intense work, and very emotional as well. There were many smaller incidents where people were crying, scared that they werent going to make it. If there was some kind of spelling mistake or something, the Taliban were not accepting papers. It was a lot of phone calls back and forth. But once the plane took off, we took a sigh of relief.

But then it just kept going. First we thought that it would be just one flight and that’s it. Then the planning for the second flight started, and the third and then fourth. A whole new challenge was moving money to Pakistan, because Pakistan is on the Financial Action Task Force grey list. There were a lot of hurdles to take in that regard. It was a crazy time.

How did you see the danger emerging for journalists specifically?

Before the Taliban, the media was flourishing, which meant that many journalists were well known, they were recognisable. Because of that, it was not easy for them to leave. Thanks to the Pakistani embassy and some other friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we could succeed. They ensured that these people could leave without being obstructed at the airport.

The journalists were really, really scared until the plane took off. We were continuously reassuring them that everything would be okay. It was all so uncertain. You don’t know what to expect because the Taliban themselves were not prepared at that time. Different groups of Taliban were controlling different parts of Kabul, like the airport, and controlling posts throughout the city. So you don’t know who to talk to if something goes wrong. It was a very messy situation. But fortunately it worked out most of the time. There were a couple of occasions where they refused someone to board, but in most occasions we didn’t have a problem.

What was it like to work with organisations like Free Press Unlimited in that chaotic first few months?

I think, in fairness, none of the organisations were prepared for this. Most organisations know how to help in a country where there is some kind of structure, there is some kind of a system. There are travel agents, there are flights going. But here, the whole bureaucracy, the whole government just completely disappeared. So you don’t know what to do.

Then there were organisations who had money, but lacked the will because they didn’t want to get into the unknown. Organisations like Free Press Unlimited, I have huge respect for, because they stepped up and they decided to take the bull by the horn and get into the unknown. And it’s a minefield. If you are sending money, you are helping somebody who might be on a hit list, who might be vulnerable, and you don’t know who you are dealing with. So it was a risk as well.

The best thing I found about working with Free Press Unlimited was that there was a humane touch in their work. The people I was dealing with, it was not just that they said they cared, you could see their care. They were always there, they were not off on the weekends or evenings, because it was a crisis situation. And I remember that Free Press Unlimited was one of the only organisations that brought these people from Kabul to Islamabad, and then kept supporting them for a long time, until they find that third country where they could go to.

Did you also hear about journalists who were determined to continue their work, in Afghanistan or from other countries?

Free Press Unlimiteds director Ruth Kronenburg said something very interesting during one of our meetings, in response to some suggestions who were saying that the journalists that fled Afghanistan could get a job in catering or delivery service or something else. She then made it very clearly that they could have done that in Afghanistan as well, they could start a restaurant or work somewhere else. But they left the country because they wanted to be committed to their profession. We need to be helping these people so they can continue their journalistic work, which is very important.

I think organisations like BBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Voices of Women, Deutsche Welle and others, need to step up and open up ways for these journalists to do their work in exile, provide them with a platform where they can pitch their work and then get their work published or broadcasted. And I know that in that case, if there is an equipment request or something, Free Press Unlimited and other organisations are there to help with that.

We are a year further now. Organisations like Free Press Unlimited are still working and lobbying for journalists and fixers to get evacuated or be offered a visa to leave the safe house in Pakistan. Do you have any insight into the current situation, where help is still needed?

There are two big challenges. Before people have gone through the process to receive verified documents, they have no visa and are illegal. That is a big obstacle. Creating some kind of temporary visa for these people, like a six months or one year resident permit, could be really helpful. Then, when the verification is done, they move on to the list of people who can go to a third country. Some of these third countries, especially the Netherlands, need to open more spaces for people who at least have a proven track record in journalism, even if they have not worked with Dutch media. Those should be considered as well.

Can you share any stories of people you have helped to evacuate?

There was a case of a woman who was a journalist and human rights activist, and her family. She had a young baby, and when the Taliban took control, they suddenly had to run away. She, her husband, and her son had passports. But the young daughter had no passport yet. This was around the time of the first flight that we were setting up. What to do?

There were no options available anymore to get a passport. And she had to leave because she was in real danger, a life or death situation. She managed to go to a safe place with the help of friends who brought her.

Fortunately, the Chilean government issued them a travel document. But that travel document was in Abu Dhabi, because Chile has no embassy in Pakistan. So how to take them to Dubai? Then with the help of PIA and some kind Pakistani officials somebody from Islamabad got on the plane and went to speak to the Taliban, tried to make sense to them by showing the documents. And I still dont know how exactly, but they were able to take the baby on the plane. But they had to stay at Islamabad airport for a few hours in transit because they didn’t have a visa for Pakistan. Then we arranged for their next flight from Islamabad to Dubai. Pakistan International Airlines spoke to the Dubai government and explained the situation to them, together with the Chilean government. They were able to go and get documents to travel to Santiago. Then the German government gave them approval to come to Germany.

I requested the donor organisation if they could fly via Amsterdam, so I could meet the girl and the family, which was so nice after being so involved.

Its interesting to witness so many embassies and governments helping, like Chile or Argentina. It must be very motivating to see that even in a horrible situation, there are good things.

You know, people sitting in an office in Berlin, Paris, New York or London, they might not hear these individual stories of people. But every single thing, even if you have just bought a ticket for somebody from Kabul to Islamabad, is life changing support. Even if it is a few hundred dollars, it is going to change the life of that individual or that family.

And these personal, individual stories, that is also why independent media, and a free press, is important. And the work that Free Press Unlimited does and the support that they provide is vital. Especially the emergency support. That emergency support is one of the catalysts for the continuation of the work of journalists who want to do right, who want to practice good journalism that creates an impact. Something that they are not able to do anymore in their own country, but with support they can continue it from somewhere else.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I think we are living in an age where journalism is going through a very difficult time. The challenges are not just physical, there are digital challenges as well. There is this whole campaign to discredit the free media and the rights of journalists. And that’s why the role of organisations that work to prevent that is very important. And whats really important is not just the financial support, but also the mental health support, the equipment support, the training support. All of these things help in its own way, in small fractions, in fulfilling the dream of a free, independent media.


About Free Press Unlimited

In our ideal world everyone has access to independent, reliable and timely information. People need that information to control their living conditions and to make the right decisions. To make this possible, Free Press Unlimited supports media and journalists worldwide. Our vision is short and to the point: “People deserve to know”. 

Free Press Unlimited (FPU) is an international press freedom organisation, based in Amsterdam with 70 passionate professionals. They work together with 120 partners worldwide to protect and promote press freedom and keep journalists safe.

Free Press Unlimited: Creating a safe space for women journalists in Kenya

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by Free Press Unlimited, was first published on September 13, 2022.

Kenya holds the not-so-honourable #1 position in sexual harassment of women journalists, according to a global media study involving 20 countries. Around 65% of women journalists surveyed in Kenya say they have faced physical or verbal harassment. The Association of Media Women in Kenya is working hard to address this issue.

Established in 1982, the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) has been working to amplify the voices of women for 40 years. In Kenya, for very many decades, women were not considered as people who deserve a voice. “Basically, we were not supposed to talk on our own behalf”, Judie Kaberia, Executive Director of AMWIK, says. “We have very few women in the media. Women journalists in Kenya face a lot of discrimination, and are seen as journalists who are not supposed to cover difficult topics.”

With Judie, and her colleague Lilian Museka (Programmes Officer), we discuss the issues that women journalists face in Kenya, and the peer to peer support groups that are starting with the support of Free Press Unlimited, providing a much needed safe space for women journalists to share their experiences.

What is AMWIK’s vision on the issues women in Kenya face, and women journalists specifically?

Judie: “In Kenya, women and girls struggle with a lot of challenges and cultural issues, including practices like female genital mutilation or underage marriages. These are issues that we have to grapple with. So our vision is a just society where rights of both men and women are respected, where issues are discussed and not undermined or made fun of. AMWIK is a membership organisation, with more than 300 women journalists as a member. This is a diverse group of journalists who are independent content producers, freelancers, editors working in newsrooms, and also university students who are in their final year of study.

From last year up until now, we have really been pushing to address sexual harassment in the media. And I can tell you, just by talking about sexual harassment, we face a lot of defiance and criticism. Fortunately, because of the power of some women who work as editors in media, we have been able to get coverage. And finally, we managed to get the discussion on the table. And now, for the first time, it is possible to talk about sexual harassment. We are also able to invite journalists to attend events about sexual harassment. Before, this was not possible.”

Women journalists in Kenya report the highest rates of sexual harassment in newsrooms, according to a study done by WAN-IFRA and the University of London. Do you recognise this from your work with AMWIK?

Judie: “I recognise it myself, having been a journalist in Kenya for around 16 years. It is very real and I’m very happy that this study was done, because for many years nobody in Kenya recognised that sexual harassment was an issue. There is a culture in newsrooms of violence against women, and it’s mostly coming from men in powerful positions.

Unfortunately, this issue is ignored because there are very few women at the decision making table. They don’t have the power to fire and hire, the men do. And because we live in a society where it is normal to objectify a woman, when these issues are reported to these men in power, they don’t take it seriously. So it is a dead end. That is the biggest issue that we are fighting with. There’s a lot of cover up because the people in power are the same men who have been perpetrators themselves.”

What are the consequences of this issue on the careers of women journalists in Kenya?

Judie: “They quit. I used to be a political reporter, and I also quit. The majority of women who face this are younger journalists, just starting their career, and sexual harassment is causing many to quit their journalism career early. A lot of women also decide to lay low. They try to hide and just survive to keep their job. Also because it is a rough economic time. But the vast majority leave the profession. We have fewer women journalists, and fewer of them at the decision making table because of this.”

The study also says that women journalists in general do not report the incidents in about 83% of cases. Why is that?

Judie: “These women fear to be victimized. They fear if they report it, everybody will start talking and say “this is the one who says she’s sexually harassed”. Also, a lot of times nothing happens. No action is taken. In fact, people tend to look at you in a way that says ‘what’s wrong with you?’ So there is a lack of action, a fear of discrimination, and even fear of losing their job. We have journalists who report sexual harassment and instead of getting help, they are fired. There is no confidentiality as well. As a result, women are afraid to report because they know what has happened to other women who did that.”

What can be done to lower that percentage of women who are afraid to report?

Judie: “Free Press Unlimited helped us see that it is important to focus on the victims who have gone through sexual harassment, instead of just documenting it and pursuing the perpetrators. We never gave the women a platform where they could talk about what they are going through. We were not able to give them psycho-social support.

Together with Free Press Unlimited we set up these peer to peer support groups. At first, I was not sure whether women journalists would be willing to come. Because they are generally so afraid. They did come, but they were asking, ‘can you assure us this is just going to stay here, so that I’m not going to lose my job?’.

We reassured them that it is a safe space, that we want to document these cases so that we know better what action we should take against it. We now want to organise this every quarter, to give women journalists a platform where they can come together and discuss issues that are affecting women in general, not just sexual harassment.”

What is the impact of these peer to peer support groups?

Judie: “For us this idea of a safe platform in the form of support groups, is a prayer answered. For so long we wanted to do something for these women, but did not know how. These support groups are going to help these women to reclaim their confidence. There is a journalist who will come to the next support group. She was raped at gunpoint by her editor and the editor was fired. So the persecution process was completed, but after that nobody cared about what she was feeling. And this is the first time she is getting psycho-social support, almost five years after the incident took place. The participants of these groups are very excellent journalists, who have been rendered useless because their rights are violated, and because they have lost confidence in themselves. They thought the world did not care about them. This project is a reassurance that hey are cared about.”

Lilian: “After we started the peer to peer support groups with Free Press Unlimited, we saw women asking for reporting mechanisms themselves. Following up on that, we developed our own monitoring tool. This helps us with reporting and documenting incidents, and monitoring the situation. Another wish we have is setting up a toll free line where people can report incidents anonymously.”

What is the role of men in addressing this issue?

Lilian: “One of the major things we do is involving men. We want to understand what goes on in their mind when they think of sexual harassment. Do they even understand what it is all about? So we have a programme called Man to Man Engagement. We are having conversations with them, and make them champions for women rights. Not just on sexual harassment, but on gender as a whole, to ensure there is a balance in media houses. So far we have about 60 male champions who are helping us to talk to their fellow men on why there is a need to address this issue. We made them more aware of the consequences by discussing it in our sessions, namely, that it is causing a lot of gender imbalances in the media houses, and that we are seeing women exiting the media space. We are happy to see that men are very engaged, talking about the issue on radio talk shows for example, trying to educate their fellow men.”

Is there any improvement in the visibility of this issue in the media itself?

Lilian:“Yes, during the group sessions we encourage journalists to write stories about sexual harassment and gender equality issues in general. Basically just write stories about women. Because now, most of the pages or most of the airtime in Kenya is taken up by male stories. And when media does take on women stories, they are always in the negative. So we are encouraging both male and female journalists to be gender responsive. To write stories on sexual harassment, the impact that it’s having on the industry, and how we can address it.

We have also provided journalists with training in conflict reporting and gender sensitive reporting. We did that in three counties, to about 65 journalists, and we really saw improvement in the writing of positive stories about women.”

And what is the future of the peer support groups?

Lilian: “This is our very first time doing this. The pilot has worked well, it has picked up. We also had a session with editors to see what their role is in protecting women journalists. Another session was with experts, including counselors, psychologists and representatives of the media, to help us understand how to better address some of these issues. This all went really well. Now we will continue organising more official peer to peer support groups, bringing together women journalists and help them get support. Once this is successful, we will replicate it in other areas of the country, not just in Nairobi.”

About Free Press Unlimited

In our ideal world everyone has access to independent, reliable and timely information. People need that information to control their living conditions and to make the right decisions. To make this possible, Free Press Unlimited supports media and journalists worldwide. Our vision is short and to the point: “People deserve to know”. 

Free Press Unlimited (FPU) is an international press freedom organisation, based in Amsterdam with 70 passionate professionals. They work together with 120 partners worldwide to protect and promote press freedom and keep journalists safe.

Free Press Unlimited: Journalism Matters. It is pivotal in protecting our democracies

What would the world look like without independent journalists? A question that can be answered by looking at countries where press freedom has been curtailed to a minimum and journalists have been gagged: Russia, China, North Korea. Countries where you can only speak in hushed tones, where all public publications pass through a very fine government filter and where, above all, a great deal remains hidden. Countries that provide people with blinkers, impenetrable tunnel visions and (enforced) docility with the status quo, that is determined by those in power.

In an ideal world, everyone has access to independent, reliable and timely information. This is a human right. It enables people to assess their own living conditions, influence them and make the right decisions. Press freedom is indispensable for this. 

Press freedom enables journalists to do their work freely and unhindered, which is vital for making and keeping reliable, independent information available to everyone. And this in turn is essential for sustainable growth and development in a society. Independent media fulfill an essential social role in holding power accountable and representing the voice of the people. 

Journalists are the guardians of democracy

Independent media and journalists are the fourth estate in society, that hold decision-makers and power holders accountable in the interest of the people. This is essential in a democracy. Therefore, a democratic society is not possible without journalists. Without independent journalism in all its aspects, control of government, parliament, judiciary and business is not possible.

If a “handbook for a dictatorship” existed, suppressing the free press would undoubtedly be very high on the action list. Besides eliminating parliament and controlling the military, silencing independent journalism is one of the most important goals for a budding dictator. What that can lead to we are now seeing in Europe, where Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship with its unprecedented suppression of the press has paved the way for a pointless war with Ukraine.

This, combined with an information war in which one’s own agenda is pushed as the truth, makes protecting freedom of the press and strong, independent journalism more important than ever. Everywhere in the world, including democratic countries.

Press freedom under pressure all over the world

In recent years, we have seen increasing pressure on press freedom worldwide, and especially on journalists personally. Psychological and physical threats are on the rise. This can also be seen in the large increase in the number of emergency aid requests that Free Press Unlimited has received over the past period. This year, Free Press Unlimited has already helped 2260 journalists with an emergency appeal, compared to over 750 in 2020. 

In more and more countries, human rights, democratic values, and with them press freedom, are under attack. The COVID-19 pandemic, the crises in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and the war in Ukraine have reinforced this. If press freedom was seen as a given in democratic countries, it is certainly no longer the case. The importance of journalism for the survival of our democratic rule of law must be put high on the agenda. 

Freedom of the press against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine 

The run-up to the war in Ukraine highlighted what the absence of a free press, and a state monopoly on information, can lead to. In Russia, the past 10-20 years have seen systematic efforts to reduce the free press in favor of an information system that has been brought under the complete control of state power. By giving the population only limited insight into what is happening in the world for years, a climate has slowly but surely developed in which a large part of the population supports the invasion of Ukraine. The fact that this has happened in Europe in the past 10 years makes it clear that press freedom is not (anymore) a given. A clear wake-up call. 

If democratic countries want to stop the spread of authoritarianism, they need to invest in good, reliable information flows to inform citizens. Which means investing in journalism. The answer is not to impose censorship, but to offer alternatives to propaganda. 

Journalists deserve our full support

Journalists deserve support and protection from everyone who stands for an open and democratic society. Communicating the importance of their work is extremely important. As many people as possible should understand that freedom of the press and independent journalism is something to defend and propagate together. Press freedom also has an impact on you. What would your world be like without press freedom? Closed, dangerous, uncertain. How can you continue to develop yourself without access to reliable information?

Free Press Unlimited stands firmly behind this and does so in its daily work worldwide. We keep journalists safe in Ukraine by relocating them to safe places or providing them with bulletproof vests through our Media Lifeline Ukraine initiative, we invest in and train investigative journalism in the Baltic countries, rebuild radio stations in communities in CAR, and facilitate knowledge exchange between journalists in Latin America and Central Europe. And much more.

We need to protect and nurture journalists, for a society where everyone has access to reliable information and where you as a citizen can trust the press as the watchdog of democracy. 

About Free Press Unlimited

In our ideal world everyone has access to independent, reliable and timely information. People need that information to control their living conditions and to make the right decisions. To make this possible, Free Press Unlimited supports media and journalists worldwide. Our vision is short and to the point: “People deserve to know”. 

Free Press Unlimited (FPU) is an international press freedom organisation, based in Amsterdam with 70 passionate professionals. They work together with 120 partners worldwide to protect and promote press freedom and keep journalists safe.

Dame Frances Cairncross for World News Day

Do you still buy a daily newspaper? Or perhaps a Sunday paper? If you do either, you are probably aged over 40, and in a dwindling minority in most parts of the world. You may well still look at the news on your phone, perhaps checking the “snippets” that Google News offers you for free. You may watch the news on television or listen to the radio. But you are much less likely to pay for news that your parents were – let alone your grandparents.

In one sense, this is a golden age for news. Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and of course Google all offer news stories. Facebook encourages friends and families to chat about it, and to compare notes on evolving local news. Why pay good money to buy a paper, or sign up for a subscription, when you can get the gist of the main stories for nothing?

The obvious answer is that none of those sites employs professional journalists, who understand how to grasp the essence of a story and package it for a large audience. Take the astonishing achievement of Robert Moore and his team of Britain’s ITV on January 6 2021. Having guessed that there might be trouble before the inauguration of Joe Biden, and suspecting that the Capitol might be involved, he made it into the building with a cameraman and a producer, the only group of journalists to breach the perimeter. Or take the shattering scoop by two journalists on the Financial Times, who in October 2021 took US intelligence by surprise with a story that China had tested a new hypersonic missile with devastating space capability. Both items of news took trained fulltime journalists – with specialised skills and luck on their side.

Television news survives on advertising – and vast amounts of advertising that once paid much of the cost of newsgathering has now migrated to Google and other online sites. Newspapers like the Financial Times need paying customers as well as ads. Many newspapers are now free online – even if they still charge for their paper version. But that cannot be a longterm business proposition. In 2019, I edited a report to the British government on “A Sustainable Future for Journalism”, which looked closely both at the plight of the news business and at possible ways forward. 

The Report argued that, while there was certainly not a case for blanket government subsidies for news, there were some kinds of news that were particularly important in preserving honest government and well-informed citizens. The report called that “public interest news”, and argued that it was especially important at a local level. Good government – and especially good local government – needs trained reporters, who follow not just local public-spending decisions, but the governance of schools and hospitals, and the verdicts in courts of law. Without coverage by trained reporters, these functions of local administration can suffer poor from management and wasteful or unfair spending decisions.

Any mechanism for giving financial help to news businesses needs to be designed with great care. But the best kind of financial help is the payment that citizens willingly make to subscribe to an online (or indeed a physical) source of news. Subscriptions are on the increase for quality news online – for The Economist, for instance, and The Guardian, both of which have increasing numbers of international readers. But the more populist news sources in the UK – the Mail, say, or the Sun – have hesitated to ask online readers to subscribe (although they still charge for their paper versions). This division is troubling, if only because publications like the Sun and the Mail have often deftly slipped serious news in amongst raunchier stories. They have been important sources of improving media literacy. And local papers have, down the years, been the glue that often holds communities together. The survival of these news sources matters even more for good government and watchful citizens than does the future of the upmarket press. 

About the author

Dame Frances Cairncross is a British economist, journalist and academic. She is author of The Cairncross Review: A Sustainable Future for Journalism. She is formerly a senior editor at The Economist and an economics columnist at the Guardian.

She is a Senior Fellow at the School of Public Policy, UCLA. She is a former chair of the Executive Committee of the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies. From 2004 to 2014, she was the Rector of Exeter College, Oxford.

David Walmsley: The convening power of independent journalism has never been more important

Making a positive difference to someone’s life is the greatest gift a journalist can give. Perhaps an individual is heard for the first time, or an injustice is settled. 

Those moments when a news editor picks up a phone to hear a scared voice say, ‘you are all I have left, I have nowhere else to turn’. The last stand between hope and defeat. 

It is a sacred contract, as old as journalism itself yet the tenor of our times would try to divide the people from the newsrooms. If those who attempt to turn journalists into the enemy are successful, the people’s right to independent access to information will be lost. And as we all know a world where people are blinded from facts is a dangerous one.  

During the global pandemic, record audience numbers were reported around the world as readers, viewers and listeners absorbed the news and information that saved lives. Nevertheless, an ever more vociferous minority pedalled a derogatory term, the so-called “mainstream media” – as if being together in a fact-based environment is a bad thing. 

That’s because the facts can sometimes be uncomfortable, and journalists have a big responsibility to get them right. 

We know that since World News Day began in 2018, the challenges facing the industry have only grown. We may better understand the commercial pressures and the ever-changing audience habits, but we still don’t do enough to explain ourselves. 

That means newsrooms have their work cut out. Explaining methodology and how facts are uncovered has become as important as the facts themselves.  

Those who are potential audience members consume most of their information in closed, fast-paced networks. We have seen examples time and again where small but active minority groups simply believe what they are told, often by powerful forces with something to hide. The journalist is used as bait in an attack against uncomfortable truths. As a result, the industry has to devote more time to reaching those who have already decided the facts even without possessing them. 

Walled environments exist across the Internet preventing plurality of thought and opinion, fact and reality from being shared. Amid the myriad challenges facing us all, certainty is one of the least attractive traits on display. 

World News Day, involving more than 500 newsrooms, is a global initiative aimed at improving media literacy and audience engagement. We include examples of how lives are improved when journalists tell a story. We showcase the efforts of small newsrooms as they represent the importance of community. We underpin all our work with the belief that access to information is a human right. 

The speed of change, and the dangers and risks in society sometimes seem only to go in one direction leading to a global audience that is both exhausted and saturated with information. We have constructive roles to play amid the extraordinary news developments.  

The convening power of independent journalism has never been more important, and sadly because of that hyper-relevance the risks and threats to journalists, your storytellers, only grows. The speed of polarization, an 18th century term used originally to identify the characteristics of light in photography, today makes agreement unfashionable. But as newsrooms around the world often say, we are all entitled to our opinions but we are not entitled to our own facts. 

War, economic uncertainty, a determination to run roughshod over generational practices at our institutions are the changes facing the world. Journalism at its best is in the middle of it all, with a role to sew not division but mutual understanding and transparency. 

World News Day exists to help the news industry to explain itself better, to involve the global audience in showcasing how accurate information makes life better.  

The US president, Joe Biden, was born closer to Abraham Lincoln’s presidency than his own. That perspective shows less the age of the man and more the opportunities and advances that have been taken in the past century, raising with urgency the questions of where we go from here. 

About the author 

David Walmsley is the Editor-in-Chief of The Globe and Mail and is the founder of World News Day.

Warren Fernandez: In times of crisis and change, journalists play a critical role in society

We live in bewildering times.

War is raging in the heart of Europe, with the senseless fighting expected to make for a long, hard winter.

Food and fuel prices have spiralled as a result, portending hunger and hardship, not least for vulnerable communities far flung from the conflict.

Rising tensions in East Asia, amid the rivalry between the United States and China, make Taiwan a tinderbox that could flare up into a major confrontation that no one wants, nor may be able to control once set off.

Against this backdrop, the welter of reports on extreme weather – sweeping floods, roaring fires and devastating droughts – across the world, raise alarms that the climate crisis is getting harder to address by the day.

Little wonder that audiences say they are exhausted by the news. People are anxious about present developments and where they might be heading.

Fake news and misinformation add to the malaise. Some of this is spread deliberately, to sway public opinion, but much is also shared innocently, even unthinkingly, on social media platforms. Yet, curbs to check the former could constrain legitimate interaction.

At times like these, World News Day, which we mark today, is of added significance. Today, we reflect on how journalism can make a difference, and why it is so important that it does. 

Journalists in professional newsrooms have a vital role to play in safeguarding the well-being of the communities they serve. Our democracies depend on them doing so, effectively and purposefully.

How best to do so?

To my mind, we need to focus on delivering information, insight and inspiration.

Credible information – fact-based, reliable, and timely – remains vital if we are to have reasoned, and reasonable, debates on how to tackle the challenges we face and figure out the ways forward.  While we might all be entitled to our opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts. Without any agreement on even basic facts, democratic discussions are reduced to a cacophony of assertion, where “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, as Yeats put it.

Fact-based journalism requires painstaking legwork by reporters, relentless cross-checking and quality control by editors, as well as authoritative analysis and interpretation by seasoned commentators. 

Not surprisingly, in this age of bewilderment, audiences are seeking out trusted voices, whom they can rely on to deliver reliable reports and insightful commentaries. Multiple studies show that apart from the news, audiences value explainers, backgrounders, analysis – whether online, on video or through newsletters.

Beyond this, faced with relentless waves of doom and gloom, people also want inspiration. They want to hear about possible solutions to the problems at hand, as well as of those who are stepping up to address them. So too content that seeks to shine a light in dark corners, and give voice to communities and subjects that are more often neglected or ignored.

Allow me to cite one example: a video series, titled ‘Invisible Asia’, in which my colleagues from The Straits Times cast a spotlight on people living in the shadows of their societies, largely unseen and unheard.

These include the ostracized burakumin or ‘untouchables’ in Japan, to the hardships endured by sewer cleaners in modern-day India and China’s silent army of odd-job migrant labourers, as well as the sense of isolation faced by unsuspecting brides drawn from abroad to marry men in Singapore.    

The series was awarded the top prize for investigative/enterprise video journalism at the global Editor & Publisher EPPY Awards 2021.

Many more examples of how journalism has made an impact can be found on the World News Day website. The old newsroom adage, “show, don’t tell”, applies here.

At a time when Orwellian “War-is-Peace”, Freedom-is-slavery” doublespeak and state-sponsored misinformation campaigns are rampant, it seems fitting to turn to that  journalistic sage, George Orwell, for inspiration on World News Day.

In his 1946 essay, Why I Write, Orwell argued that all writing, but perhaps especially journalistic endeavours, has a political purpose, as well as a quest for telling a good story well.

His words ring true today. He wrote: “My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

“But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience… I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style… 

“The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.”

So it was, and so it remains, especially today.

About the author

Warren Fernandez is President of the World Editors Forum, a network of editors under the World Association of News Publishers, and also Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times in Singapore.