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Investigations: Journalists can be heroes

Two films released in the UK this year, writes Jon Slattery, highlight the way brilliant investigative journalism requires strong editors and publishers, teams of dedicated reporters, time and resources.

By Jon Slattery

Spotlight tells how the investigative team at the Boston Globe revealed widespread child abuse by Catholic priests in Boston. The film won the Best Picture award at this year’s Oscars. Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime shows how the Sunday Times editor and his investigative team won justice for the families of children born with birth defects due to the drug Thalidomide. Both films could give journalism its most positive image boost since All The President’s Men in 1976 showed Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, of the Washington Post, uncovering the Watergate scandal and bringing down President Nixon.

The impact of the internet may have left some journalists trapped in news factories feeding the web with recycled celebrity clickbait stories, but there are plenty of recent examples of successful investigative journalism in the UK. The British media has exposed scandals in international football, athletics and tennis; tax evasion schemes by a major bank; hard sell tactics used by charities; politicians offering access for cash; electoral fraud and corruption in local government; mismanagement at a charity for children; and mistreatment of young offenders. Many of the organisations investigated have their own regulators and standards committees that have been shown to be hopelessly ineffective.

There are some innovative new trends in investigative journalism, including collaborations between news organisations, in print, digital and broadcasting media. This has involved working across international borders, making it more difficult to shut down investigations by legal action in any one country. Journalists are now skilled at analysing large amounts of data for investigative stories. Also encouraging, at a time when established newspapers like the Independent are cutting staff and dropping print editions, is that new players like BuzzFeed News, Vice News, Quicksilver Media and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism were among the nominees in the British Journalism Awards. In a sign of intent, BuzzFeed recruited Hedia Blake from the Sunday Times’ Insight team to lead its new UK investigative journalism unit.

Forget the clickbait; here is some of the best investigative journalism over the last year or so:

HSBC Files

The HSBC files investigation, exposing the use of tax havens, is an example of news organisations working together across borders. The files were obtained and published through an international collaboration of news outlets, including the Guardian, Le Monde, BBC Panorama and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The HSBC files were the biggest leak in Swiss banking history after data on over 100,000 clients and 20,000 offshore companies was disclosed by software engineer turned whistleblower Hervé Falciani, who was based at HSBC’s private bank in Geneva. Over 130 journalists in more than 40 countries worked on investigations into the leaked data. It won Investigation of the Year for Juliette Garside, James Ball, David Leigh and David Pegg of the Guardian at the British Journalism Awards.

Kids Company

In contrast to the number of journalists working on the HSBC files, the exposure of charity Kids Company began with a lone journalist, Miles Goslett, writing in the Spectator raising questions about the charity’s financial management. After the story was taken up by Newsnight, BuzzFeed News and others, Kids Company spectacularly folded in August 2015. Alan Yentob stepped down as BBC creative director, saying that his role as chairman of the board of trustees at Kids Company was a "serious distraction”. A report by the Commons’ public administration committee in February called for a radical change in charity regulation to prevent a repeat of the “extraordinary catalogue of failures of governance and control” that led to the collapse of Kids Company. Goslett commented: "Until February 2015, when the Spectator published my article on Kids Company, not a single bad word about it or its chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh had appeared in the mainstream media.”

Charities hard sell

Undercover investigations by the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday last summer exposed how Britain’s biggest charities including Oxfam, Cancer Research UK and the RSPCA used a call centre where staff were trained to squeeze cash from potential donors, including the elderly and vulnerable. The Mail on Sunday’s Simon Murphy was named New Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards, for his undercover work at the call centre. A report by MPs on the public administration committee said the Mail's investigation reached the “highest standards of ethical investigative reporting” and, in particular, praised the Mail’s investigations editor, Katherine Faulkner.

Town Hall fraud

In April last year, the mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, was debarred from standing for elected office until 2021 after being found guilty of electoral fraud. A number of journalists had investigated Rahman, including Andrew Gilligan in the Daily Telegraph, John Ware for Panorama, Tim Minogue in Private Eye and local journalist Ted Jeory who highlighted allegations of corruption on his blog despite legal threats from the council. The Daily Mail commented: "Journalists rather than police or officials exposed Lutfur Rahman’s corruption – often at personal risk."

Politicians ‘for hire’

The Daily Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches last year collaborated on a “cash for access” investigation which involved the undercover filming of Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind by journalists posing as representatives of a fictitious Chinese company offering them £5,000 a day for lobbying services. Straw claimed he operated “under the radar” to use his influence to change European Union rules on behalf of a commodity firm. Sir Malcolm told undercover reporters he could arrange “useful access” to ambassadors because of his status. They both denied any wrongdoing and were exonerated by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner who found “there was no breach of the rules on paid lobbying” after accepting assurances from Sir Malcolm and Straw that they were speaking “off the cuff” and were not intending to back up their words in meetings with actual actions. However, an investigation by Ofcom said the Channel 4 programme “did not unfairly represent the MPs as 'politicians for hire’, and allowed viewers to make their own minds up as to whether or not they thought the conduct shown fell short of public expectations for MPs’ conduct”. Ofcom concluded the investigation was a “serious piece of broadcast journalism and that there was a significant public interest in the programme-makers exploring the conduct of both Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Mr Straw.”

Tim Yeo

Last November, former MP Tim Yeo lost a libel case against the Sunday Times, which claimed its undercover investigation had shown he was prepared to act as a paid parliamentary advocate for a Far East solar energy company who would push for new laws and approach ministers and civil servants to benefit the business of a client. Yeo sued after being cleared by the Parliamentary Commission for Standards of breaking lobbying rules. But in a scathing judgment, Mr Justice Warby said Yeo had given evidence that was dishonest and unreliable on several points. He found that when still an MP in 2013, Yeo had been prepared to act in a way that was in breach of the Code of Conduct of the House of Commons. Martin Ivens, editor of the Sunday Times, described the decision as "a victory for investigative journalism" and said: "It vindicates the role of the press in exposing the clandestine advocacy by MPs for undisclosed interests.”

Jonathan Calvert

Another superb year for investigations by the Sunday Times, with continuing coverage of corruption within FIFA as well as the doping scandal in international athletics, culminated in the paper’s Insight team editor Jonathan Calvert being named Journalist of the Year in the British Journalism Awards. Calvert, his Insight colleagues and German documentary maker Hans-Joachim Seppelt exposed drug cheating by international athletes. The story was based on a database leaked by a whistle-blower concerned at the apparent failure of the International Association of Athletics Federations to clamp down on drug cheats. It provided data on the blood test results of 5,000 athletes showing that a third of medals, including 55 golds, have been won in Olympics and world championship endurance events by athletes who have recorded suspicious tests. As a result, the World Anti-Doping Agency and a parliamentary select committee launched investigations.

Tennis match fixing

In January, files exposing evidence of alleged match-fixing by players in world tennis were revealed by BuzzFeed News and the BBC.

The investigation was based on leaked files as well as original data analysis of the betting activity on 26,000 matches and interviews across three continents with gambling and match-fixing experts, tennis officials, and players. The files contain evidence of suspected match-fixing orchestrated by gambling syndicates. The investigation led tennis officials to launch an independent review of their anti-corruption measures. The Guardian also published allegations about corrupt tennis umpires.

Mistreatment of young offenders

An undercover investigation by BBC Panorama into the treatment of young offenders at the Medway Secure Training Centre exposed the use of unnecessary force, foul language and a cover-up. Security firm G4S apologised for the behaviour of staff. Four team leaders were sacked and the director resigned, and, at the end of February, the company announced that it was selling its children’s services businesses including the Medway unit.

Andrew Jennings and Andrew Norfolk

Sometimes it’s down to individual journalists to show good investigations can challenge the powerful and expose cover-ups. Andrew Jennings has spent years challenging FIFA officials over corruption. His Panorama programme, FIFA’s Dirty Secrets, broadcast on the eve of England’s bid to host the World Cup in November 2010, was attacked by the British media as unpatriotic – but he has been vindicated by events. The award-winning investigation by Andrew Norfolk of the Times into Asian grooming gangs uncovered the scandal that prompted the publication of a report confirming that at least 1,400 children in Rotherham had been abused over a period of fifteen years.

Jennings told the Washington Post: "This journalism business is easy, you know. You just find some disgraceful, disgustingly corrupt people and you work on it! You have to. That’s what we do.”

Long may they continue to do so, for the public’s sake and to prove journalists can be heroes rather than phone hacking villains.