Q&A: The importance of being adversarial

News Stories, 25 January 2011

© Philippa Gedge Photography
Private Eye editor, Ian Hislop, congratulates Clare Sambrook on winning the Paul Foot Award last year.

LONDON, United Kingdom, January 20 (UNHCR) ¬- Last year, Clare Sambrook won two of Britain's top investigative journalism awards for a series of stories highlighting the plight of child asylum-seekers in the United Kingdom. Her journalism is rooted in End Child Detention Now, an unfunded citizens' campaign launched in October 2009 to end child detention by the UK immigration authorities. The coalition government has pledged to end child detention by May this year. Sambrook discussed her media campaign in an e-mail exchange with UNHCR External Relations Associate Laura Padoan. Excerpts:

What got you interested in the issue of children in detention?

Good friends of mine work as volunteers among asylum-seekers in York. One night in June 2009, a distressed Kurdish family men, women and children -banged on their door. A young relative had been detained by the immigration authorities, leaving her two-year-old son parentless for four days; his father had already been locked up for eight months. Regardless of their rights of appeal, they were due to be deported within days.

My friends got the family a solicitor at the 31st attempt. I contacted local press and radio. Hundreds of people wrote letters urging the Home Office to stall the family's removal and hear their appeal. The removal was stopped and the family was released after 26 harrowing days in Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre, eventually winning leave to remain. There had never been any need to detain them.

The six of us felt ashamed that our country had behaved so shoddily towards this little family and that it had detained between 1,000 and 2,000 children every year in conditions known to harm their mental health. In October 2009, we launched End Child Detention Now with Member of Parliament Chris Mullin's motion calling on the government to stop detaining families for immigration purposes.

Can you tell us how the campaign was run?

We had no funding and no grand plan. We worked intuitively, fast and very, very hard. The six of us communicated by e-mail and did not hold a single team meeting. We used Mullin's parliamentary motion as the campaign's focus. Hundreds of people met or wrote to their members of parliament. We contacted every single MP and 121 signed up.

We got a series of letters into the national press signed by leading church people, by dozens of much-loved children's writers among them Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman, and by actors including Colin Firth and Emma Thompson.

We held vigils and demos and collaborated with other feisty campaign groups. All the fight on this has come from those furthest from power. We prompted questions in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the Scottish Parliament, and in six months we drew 5,000 signatories to our on-line petition.

We researched and wrote our own journalism, gave stories away to reporters and bloggers, directly generating coverage in the media, including the satirical weekly, Private Eye, openDemocracy, an e-zine and discussion forum, and national newspapers The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent.

[Others to run articles are Community Care, Big Issue In The North, Morning Star, Counterfire, Nursery World, Manchester Mule, Baptist Times, Cumberland Herald, Cumberland News, Quaker Asylum & Refugee Network, Independent Catholic News, New Londoners, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants Bulletin and other campaigning blogs.]

Are you satisfied with the steps taken to end child detention?

Absolutely not. The government said it would end child detention by last Summer. Now it says this will happen by May 2011. That's not true either. Detention hasn't ended. It's been reduced and rebranded.

Last year you won both the Paul Foot Award and the Bevins Prize. What did that mean for your work?

There's been a huge publicity boost and morale boost to the campaign as a whole, not just our little group. And more importantly, Britain's top two prizes for investigative journalism have been awarded for stories about the Home Office's burial of medical evidence that detention harms children, and stories about the cosy relationships between government, civil servants and the private contractors who run the detention centres for profit. That's given real oomph to the disclosures themselves.

What can be done to encourage more positive stories about asylum seekers and refugees in the UK media?

The media doesn't deal in positive stories. The tabloids don't deal in truth either, unless it suits them, and that's a particular problem for asylum-seekers, who are defamed most effectively every day in our biggest-selling newspapers. I think big campaign groups who have the resources should work on investigative stories, expose lies, invest in really strong research and then widely disseminate the results with as much force and clarity as possible.

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Why are some big organizations so scared of being adversarial? What are their well-paid press officers getting into the media? If the answer is "not much" or "tame stuff" then they're failing the public who fund them and failing the vulnerable people whose interests they are supposed to be championing.

What are your plans for the future?

We will fight on until child detention really ends.