Thursday, 23 July 2015

Guardian Masterclass on Investigative Journalism

Pic of Guardian and Observer window at entrance in Kings Place, London N1

Wikileaks, CIA secret flights, Qatar World Cup, Prince Charles's "black spider" memos, social housing scandals, chicken and horsemeat scandals, Serco, HSBC... The list reads like a summary of some of the best investigative journalism of recent years. Attendees at July's Guardian Masterclass were treated to inspiring guidance from the reporters behind these prominent news stories.

The four experts sharing their experiences of investigative reporting were none other than:

David Leigh, Investigations Executive Editor, The Guardian & City University
Felicity Lawrence, Special Correspondent & Investigative Reporter, The Guardian
RobertBooth, Senior Reporter, The Guardian

The audience was a mixture of aspiring and working journalists - as well the curious from a variety of backgrounds.

Basic reporting skills
Robert Booth began the day with a presentation on the basics. He described how various sources built the Prince Charles stories. An initial investigation can turn into a much bigger story - e.g. a migrant worker abuse story moved ever closer to the Qatar World Cup organising committee. Relatively little of weeks or months of work finds its way into the eventual story.

" Investigative journalism can be arduous,
but it creates some of the best reports"

Dogged determination
Felicity Lawrence's investigations have largely focused on food production. She described the dogged determination required to pursue a story against the politics of food, big brands, powerful lawyers and transnational companies. The latter can be more powerful than a State in the modern world.

Felicity described how to work with confidential sources and whistle-blowers. She stressed the importance of going to the companies concerned and asking questions in an appropriate manner. She prefers to make an initial contact by phone and then follow up with her questions in an email.  Felicity described her approach as working within her personality, i.e. not aggressive.

Legal threats
If the company decides to employ a top legal firm to warn you off the story, you know you are "on to something". Twelve-page legal letter? Time for high-fives.

Personal safety
Both Felicity and Robert emphasised the importance of having colleagues to share difficulties with. In Felicity's case, working with a team provided some protection when the story revealed organised crime.

"Great merit in being a middle-aged woman with grey hair.
When you walk in, no-one sees you"

Felicity stressed the strength of video in modern journalism and the role of undercover filming in the chicken news stories. The downside is that there is no room for nuance, subtleties or the denials required legally. Some people clam up on video. Others even find being confronted by a notebook intimidating. A combination of reporting methods is the ideal mix.

After Felicity's tales of dirty chicken, it was a relief to discover that the Guardian canteen had a fish and vegetarian menu. The canteen has a great view of the somewhat aptly named Battlebridge Basin.

pic of the canal and houseboats looking towards rear of Guardian's building
Guardian Canteen overlooks the canal and Battlebridge Basin

Freedom of Information
After lunch, Helen Darbishire gave a presentation entitled Your Right to Know: Legal Leaks. She is based in Spain, the country with the most recent Freedom of Information Act of 10 December 2014. From her historical presentation, it rather seemed that the UK is endeavouring to buck the trend for greater access.

Helen provided a wealth of information that could form its own entirely separate blog. She stressed how Freedom of Expression includes the Right of Access to Information. Her ten tips on how to request information and success stories should encourage all attendees to launch their own FOI requests in future. As she said in her final tip:

It’s your right: 
use it or lose it!

"The Enemies"
David Leigh's presentation Enemies of Investigative Journalism was the highlight at the end of a fascinating day. He described how 50% of the energy in any news story has to go into getting the story out and published.

Who are these alleged enemies? 

1. The journalists' own bosses who may not want to "tweak the cat's tail at this difficult time".

2. A subset of the intelligence services - especially if the story touches on their own activities as in the case of Snowden.

3. The Law - there are all sorts of legal hurdles. Top lawyers are paid to intimidate investigative journalists on behalf of high profile individuals. (There is no such protection for ordinary people). 

David carefully and dramatically uncovered these alleged enemies using the wording of the legal firms' own websites.

Libel law has journalists treading on eggshells. A libel case can cripple an NGO. A case is expensive whether you win or lose. An apology can be exacted for a trivial mistake, even if there is substantial evidence that a company has been "up to no good".

UK legal fees
A University of Oxford academic study compared legal fees for defamation proceedings across Europe. Fees in the UK under a conditional fee agreement are 140 times more costly than the average cost of the other countries (Source: International Bar Association). David explained The Reynolds Defence. The new UK Defamation Act of 2014 has reduced libel tourism.

The traditional newspaper business model is difficult to fund in the internet age. People want to save investigative journalism for the Nation. A story rarely ends well for a whistle-blower. Massive data leaks cannot be prevented. They will happen over and over again in the future.

Cross-border collaboration brings success today in investigative journalism.

"Rich and victorious time for investigative journalism"

I came away from the Guardian Masterclass inspired and full of admiration for the reporters who pursue news stories so doggedly. Investigative journalism and freedom of information make a difference in our world. The small organisation and "the little guy" stand a much better chance of being heard thanks to professional investigative reporters.

Karen Andrews, content writer
Karen Andrews runs
Anglicity Ltd. She is
an entrepreneurial
French to English
translator, editor,
content writer and
marketing consultant. 

for further information 
on Anglicity's services.

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