Bellingcat: Truth In A Post-Truth World

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Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Bellingcat: Truth In A Post-Truth World
"This is the fascinating tale of the rise of two trends – the citizen journalist, and open-source journalism."

In an age of fake news and media manipulation, who you gonna call? Nul points if you said, "The mainstream media", where journalism, according to one expert in journalistic ethics – interviewed for documentary Bellingcat – is in a perilous state, lacking money, training and with less and less time and resource to devote to real investigation. On the other hand, if you said, "Bellingcat"...

This is the fascinating tale of the rise of two trends – the citizen journalist, and open-source journalism, coming together in an organisation that calls itself Bellingcat. And yes, it really is named after a child's tale of how the mice, in despair at the depredations of the local cat, came together to add a bell to its collar so that they would forever more know when it was near.

Copy picture

Although the focus of this tale is not so much on the importance of early warning as how a “good idea is no good if no-one will do it”.

Bellingcat is thus the story of those who went above and beyond grumbling about fake news and went out and did something about it. They sat down and, when big news presented them with a big picture that didn't quite add up, they gathered in all the seemingly random bits and pieces they could find on the internet to make sense and discover, as best they could, the truth.

Anything and everything is grist to their mill, from blog posts and pictures on social media to YouTube clips and detailed images produced by Google Earth. By taking time and looking for patterns – in one case, a pattern of moles on the neck of a violent far right demonstrator, in another, a pattern of bumps and dents on a Russian missile launcher – they are able to create a convincing and evidenced narrative that appears to come as close as anything can to truth in our post-truth world.

Presented as new and different, the thing that struck me about the “revelations” in this documentary is just how old-fashioned – once you get past the fact they are using open-source material for research – this all is. Take out the gee-whizzery about their use of open-source internet material and this is just journalism the way it should be done. Is journalism, films like All the President's Men tell us, as it is done.

Except, if you have worked in news organisations over the past decade or so, as I have, you will know that the issues raised around resources and training are at critical mass. Traditional news is dying on its feet, because at a time when there is pressure as never before to keep the new news coming, budgets are being cut and there is less and less money, people, time for basic fact-checking of what is served up by establishment sources – let alone generating original stuff.

Nor is there anything especially new about citizen journalism. As a journalist, some of the best stories I have laid my hands on have come wholly unsolicited: from contacts I have known; and sometimes from people I did not. People with a little expertise or luck or even an obsession with a particular subject, doing a bit of digging, joining the dots and spotting where the official account did not add up.

One of the most (in)famous instances of this was a nationwide conversation between schoolteacher Diana Gould and Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, on the subject of whether the Belgrano – a ship that Thatcher had ordered sunk with major loss of life during the war with Argentina – had been heading towards British Forces or away. Gould had done her homework: knew that the ship was headed away. Thatcher was outraged that a mere member of the public should dare challenge the official version. Her version!

Who is Bellingcat? On the evidence of this documentary, it is everyman – and yes, the emphasis on “man” is apt. A bunch of guys from every walk of life. Journalism and teaching and, in one case, a former Stasi analyst, now working on the side of the angels. They are not naturally gregarious, a couple hint at being the odd one out in class. Shy. Geeky. Nerdy. Not at their best in social situations. At the same time, assiduous, diligent and inventive in the way they seek out new evidence and put it together.

Because it overlaps with my own day job, I loved the insight into this work. It echoes investigations I have done: even more, it echoes the approach of a former partner who was – who likely still is – one of the best at carrying out this sort of jigsaw investigation I have ever come across. I shall be suggesting that she checks out Bellingcat.

There are successes: in respect of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, their meticulous investigation identified the most likely perpetrators some two years before the official investigation did. The importance of their work can be gauged both from the fact that the official investigation, after a brief “what-the?” moment, realised that work done by Bellingcat was worth taking note of. Also, the fact that Russia Today went out of its way to paint Bellingcat as unreliable speaks volumes.

Great insights into how Bellingcat works, positive stories as to how it is changing investigative journalism. The one question not quite answered – there to be picked up on by some follow-up programme – is what happens when it goes wrong? Because it will.

As the team itself admits at one point, the identification of one player in the MH17 story was based on circumstantial evidence. That is risky. The advantage of being Bellingcat is the freedom from legal oversight commonplace at major new organisations. And that, too, is the risk.

They will get it wrong. And when they do, those they have investigated will crawl out of the woodwork to denounce everything they have ever done.

For now, though, this is worthy (and fairly traditional) effort by writer and director Hans Pool to provide an insight into a new way of doing investigating.

Reviewed on: 31 May 2019
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Bellingcat: Truth In A Post-Truth World packshot
Looking at open-source investigation and the world of the 'citizen investigative journalist' collective Bellingcat.

Festivals:

Human Rights 2019

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