Behind the (Campaign) Scenes: GetUp!’s Investigative Journalism Role

Manus Island Regional Processing Centre

Manus Island Regional Processing Centre

Last week we learned that the ever controversial Manus Island Regional Processing (detention) Centre is set to close after Papua New Guinea’s supreme court ruled it illegal and unconstitutional.

The announcement took me back to a Friday in late February 2013 when I was tasked with putting together a briefing document and confirming travel arrangements for three GetUp! staff who were due to board a plane to PNG the following Tuesday. The trio, including the then national director, Sam McLean, and two senior campaigners, were travelling to PNG alongside Leila Druery – the former campaign coordinator of ChilOut.

GetUp! and ChilOut had launched a joint campaign to have the detention centre shut down and the staff had lined up interviews with key informants and even planned to meet with some detainees.  For this campaign, the strategy – or ‘theory of change’ as it’s often referred to by new online activist organisations that incorporate the philosophies and practices of traditional community organising – was to:

1. Travel to Manus Island

2. Expose the camp’s deplorable conditions

3. Generate enough shock at these conditions to create a big enough public outcry that the Australian government would be forced to close the offshore centre and (hopefully) allow refugees and asylum seekers to live onshore, in the community, while their claims were being processed.

Things did not, however, go as planned. A few days later I learned that the GetUp! and ChilOut staff members had, at very late notice, being prevented from travelling to PNG. A ban had been issued on all international NGOs – and most media – wishing to visit the centre and this would remain in place for the foreseeable future.

In response, the organisations created Out Of Sight – a collaborative effort to raise awareness about the plight of Manus Island detainees through testimonial videos, letters and drawings. This is an excellent example of how the Internet and social media enable new online political activist groups to be nimble and tactically adaptive when setbacks – often the result of changes in the political landscape within which campaigners work – disrupt their initial strategic campaign pathways. However, this is not the only function of these organisations.

Generally, we think of groups like GetUp! (and Avaaz, MoveOn, 38Degrees and Fair Agenda to name but a few), as organisations that try to raise awareness about political issues, which mobilise people around a range of ‘progressive’ causes, and provide a vehicle for action (yes, signing an online petition counts as a political act!).

What goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated by most people – myself included, prior to my time spent in the GetUp! office carrying out fieldwork – is that a huge amount of what is essentially investigative journalism goes on in virtually every campaign. On my days volunteering in the GetUp! office I sat in on team meetings, did some basic office admin, and helped out with data entry. This was all as I had expected. However, the amount of investigative research undertaken by, GetUp! on a daily basis, was a huge surprise.

It might seem obvious that, as a large (in membership terms), well known non-government organisation in receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of donations every year, you would need to have your facts straight, dotted all your i’s and crossed all your t’s, and that you really, really know what you’re talking about before you launch a potentially high profile, controversial political campaign. But GetUp! doesn’t (or at least didn’t in early 2013) have the kind of resources and capacity of an Amnesty International or Oxfam.

When I was doing my fieldwork between 2013 and 2014 GetUp! had staff numbers of around fifteen, and more than half of those were part time or casuals. As Sam McLean, the then National Director told me when I interviewed him in May 2014: “…people think that we are a big organisation, but we actually have very few staff and they have to be across every issue”.

At the time, my preliminary research indicated that members valued GetUp! because it provided them with what they described as independent, trustworthy and reliable ‘news’. When I later asked Sam about his vision for where the organisation was headed over the coming two years, his response seemed to confirm this initial finding about the central importance of independent research for this model of activism and advocacy:

“The pool of journalists in Australia is shrinking, issues like asylum seekers are really hard to report on, aren’t getting coverage, and journalism on those issues is really important. This year GetUp members have crowd funded money to employ investigative journalists to write about Narua and Manus Island, so in a couple of years we should have a much stronger, ongoing ability to support quality journalism … but we want to have [journalists] at arms length, I don’t want journalists to be reporting to me, I want them to be writing without fear or favour… we want to support journalism … that seems to be going really well”.

My aim here is to question how we think about groups like GetUp! and their place in the political and media landscape of Australia. This includes, what their role should be given our nation’s uniquely high concentration of media ownership and the severe cuts to public broadcasting, which have resulted in a huge decline in the level of trust that the public has in mainstream media outlets.

My research indicates that this so called ‘trust deficit’ – in relation to political news – is, in part, being filled by the slick, tech-savvy, youngster-led organisations that were not so long ago dismissed and criticised for creating a generation of ‘slacktivists’. In fact, I would argue that the current and future significance of GetUp! (and similar groups) for Australia’s civil society and public sphere has, to date, been seriously underestimated.

Penelope Bowyer-Pont is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University in Sydney