Can citizen journalists grow – and still be seen as independent? The complex story of Bellingcat

Eliot Higgins is, in many respects, a poster child for citizen journalism. From his humble base in the East Midlands, this former obsessive computer gamer has made his voice heard in some of the most critical stories of our times, notably the wars in Syria and the Ukraine.

To his family he is Eliot, with one ‘l’ and one ’t’. But he came to public notice as an insightful if mysterious blogger called Brown Moses (after a Frank Zappa track) and is now best-known under the name Bellingcat, the investigative journalism site he founded two years ago and which this week took another signifcant step on its path to becoming a prominent news brand.

It has used online search tools to comb the plethora of YouTube videos of the Syrian conflict, to expose atrocities and highlight arms trails. It used geolocation techniques to pinpoint the ground on which Jihadi John and his Isis cohorts filmed beheadings.

Bellingcat was able to mark its second anniversary with a report at the weekend referencing new findings which appear to confirm the site’s claims, first made in November 2014, that a Russian Buk missile launcher was responsible for bringing down Malaysian airliner MH17 over Ukraine on 17 July 2014, two days after Bellingcat launched. The story, drawn from Google satellite imagery, videos and photos posted by witnesses online and material left by Russian soldiers on the VK social media site, has been Bellingcat’s most important and most controversial.

In the firing line

Higgins' successes have highlighted the potential impact a citizen journalist can have in scanning the internet by exploiting the online toolbox of open source investigation. But the hostility he attracts gives an indication of the obstacles faced by those who embark on such work. Trust in the mogul-owned mainstream media giants (or the “MSM” as it’s sometimes called online) might be at an all-time low, but lone wolves like Higgins are treated with no less suspicion, particularly if they elect to enter the politically contentious territories that he inhabits.

It means Bellingcat must contend with not only the powerful targets of its investigations – most obviously the regimes of president Vladimir Putin of Russia and president Bashar al-Assad of Syria – but a host of online critics, many of them anonymous, who are ready to subscribe to the theory that this 30-something English computer geek is in the pay of unseen forces. That notion is, of course, encouraged by propagandists acting for his powerful targets.

If it was tough at the outset, it will get harder still as Higgins pursues ambitions to grow Bellingcat into a much more substantial media force, hiring new specialist investigators and expanding into multiple language publication. For this growth, Higgins, a former payments officer at an underwear firm, needs the funding support of wealthy benefactors, inevitably prompting more conspiracy theories of hidden agendas.

All of which raises important questions for the future of journalism away from the big news organisations. How can the significant lone voices be heard in the atmosphere of deep mistrust that pervades online media? And can any citizen journalist grow and yet remain independent?

For all these challenges, Higgins is typically breezy in a phone interview during a family holiday in Turkey (hours before Friday’s coup against president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). He talks of "Bellingcat making that leap... from me and a few people to a professional organisation."

Clearly, Higgins is heartened by new research from the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in California, supporting Bellingcat’s earlier denunciation of the credibility of images released by the Russian Ministry of Defence suggesting that MH17 was actually downed by Ukrainian forces and not Russian separatists. The new study concluded that the Russian images had been so “heavily manipulated” that they lacked “any credibility as evidence”.

This was important for Bellingcat’s reputation because its own MH17 work has been questioned as well as lauded, with German professional image analyst Jens Kriese saying the site’s original investigation lacked sophistication and “achieved nothing besides raising awareness of Bellingcat”.

New journalism needs new backers

Others take a more respectful view of this new journalism. Bellingcat has been working with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Unit (OCCRP), which has played a key role in the Panama Papers offshore banking investigation.

Higgins’ site has also teamed up with the Washington DC-based Atlantic Council in producing reports on Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine (“Hiding in Plain Sight”) and Syria (“Distract, Deceive, Destroy”). Higgins says he is “quite active” with the Atlantic Council and that his work with this eminent transatlantic think tank is “taking up a huge amount of my time”. Higgins is a non-resident senior fellow for the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

The Atlantic Council is politically non-partisan but it has high-level connections to the American and Western European establishments. Rupert Murdoch sits on its International Advisory Board (as does Sir Martin Sorrell). As the latest MH17 research emerged this weekend, Higgins’ independence was again questioned from corners of the internet. “Welcome to my world for the last two years,” he tweeted to the MIIS team as it too came under fire.

As he expands, the sniping is likely to continue. Higgins wants Bellingcat to do more work in exposing global corruption and the site has hired an unnamed financial investigator who, like Higgins, will be based in Leicester. The idea is that Bellingcat will be able to provide a UK financial investigations arm for international organisations it has developed ties with, such as the OCCRP and Human Rights Watch. "This person we have hired has done a lot of financial investigations in their career and they can help when the money hops along to the UK," says Higgins.

The Bellingcat office in Leicester is a whitewashed box room with undecorated walls at the end of a corridor in an office block. Its epicentre, inevitably, is Higgins' computer. A single cupboard contains nothing but “a box of staples”, he told me when I visited.

Another new hire is Hadi al-Khatib, who will become Bellingcat's project leader for Middle East and North Africa projects, focusing initially on Syria. Bellingcat has applied for funding from the Google Digital News Innovation Fund, for creating an investigated archive of videos of the Syrian conflict, documenting such areas as the use of cluster bombs. Higgins has spent countless hours using Google search tools to investigate vast amounts of Syrian user-generated film, much of it posted to YouTube, also owned by Google (at whose events he has spoken). "The idea is we collect an archive of videos and photographs online and offline to preserve it," he says. "We do investigations on them and give it context. Because I can see in five or ten years' time the information will be out there but with no context and it's going to get lost very easily."

A business plan for citizen journalism

Bellingcat is about to launch a Russian-language version of its website, following the success of publishing a number of its stories in Russian. "Quite often they are more popular than the English language version and free Russian-language media tends to pick up on our Russian stuff very well." Again, the initiative requires funding and this time Higgins has turned to Open Society Foundations (OSF), a grant-making organisation founded by billionaire George Soros, to "build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable".

To Higgins' credit, his motivation is not to keep his expertise to himself but to help grow the international network of independent investigators through sharing specialist skills. His key Bellingcat partner Aric Toler (a German based in America who has done much of the Ukraine work) will be providing open source investigation training in Eastern Europe to Russian-speaking journalists. Higgins also lectures to students at King's College, London.

But Bellingcat's resources are limited. Higgins admits he becomes entrenched in seeking financial support, with few benefactors wanting to sponsor the back office costs of a growing news outlet. "Funding the boring stuff has been a real challenge," he says. "At the moment I handle absolutely everything – I do all my invoicing, my travel arrangements and all my taxes myself. As Bellingcat is growing I find myself doing that to the point where it is taking up most of my time."

To generate more funding, Bellingcat requires more trust in what it is and what it does. So it has turned to the Dutch-based Adessium Foundation (an organisation which "aspires to a society which encourages people to live in harmony") to pay for a consultant to help restructure Bellingcat and "turn it into a more professionalised organisation that is easier to run", says Higgins. "It helps to go to potential funders and say 'We have a business plan for Bellingcat', so they can know that you will be around for the next year and won’t disappear with their money."

The one sector that Bellingcat does not appear to be seeking money from is the MSM, despite the mainstream news media's need for specialist new journalism techniques such as open source investigation. Higgins says that taking an office in a big newsroom would "undermine" his site's abilities to work alongside multiple partners, inside and outside the field of journalism. "It would make Bellingcat fail as an organisation because it would put so many limits on what we could do."

The News Business column is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian Burrell on Twitter @iburrell

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