Sunday, October 16, 2011

Exposing Dirty Media Tricks: "It helps that Murdoch is a bastard"

Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who broke the phone hacking scandal in Britain, described a remarkably simple technique for doing good journalism as he addressed a room full of investigative reporters in Kiev yesterday.

He calls it the "hang on a minute" moment. It's the act of identifying and then doggedly investigating the part of a story that just doesn't seem to add up.

Davies had one of those moments when he thought about the phone hacking prosecution in 2007 of a reporter for News of the World. The newspaper's royal correspondent, along with a private investigator, were charged with hacking into the messages of royal family members. The Murdoch-owned newspaper said it was an isolated practice. 

During the investigation, police had seized material from the investigator. Davies wanted to know exactly what that was, and whether it went beyond the case at hand. He asked to know how many cell phone pin-codes had been found in the private investigator's possession. After months of stonewalling, authorities finally provided an answer: 91. 

That told Davies the hacking was widespread, and it was the start of dozens of stories revealing dirty tricks and unethical practices that were known at the highest levels of the Murdoch empire, he said. 

There was another interesting technique Davies used in his investigation. He convinced a number of the victims to sue, in the hopes of getting further disclosures as a result of the court cases. That's exactly what happened, and it provided Davies with proof that senior editorial bosses were involved in the practice. 

Davies is the author of Flat Earth News, in which he critiques modern journalism as "churnalism" that repeats public relations lies and generally does not serve readers' interests. He blames cutbacks and commercialism that have forced reporters to churn out far too many stories a day, leaving them no time to check for the truth, and making them prey to corporate and government spin doctors. 

There is also a chapter in his book on the "dark arts" used by many British media institutions. These include phone hacking, adopting identities to misappropriate other people's personal information, conducting questionable sting operations, hunting through garbage bins, and generally doing whatever it takes to find a scoop.

Davies was unrestrained in his criticism of Rupert Murdoch as he addressed delegates to the Global Investigative Journalism Conference.  "Murdoch's people lie for a living," he said. "You cannot become as rich and powerful as Rupert Murdoch unless you are greedy," and leave a trail of enemies in your wake. That provided plenty of disaffected people for Davies to interview. "It certainly helps that Murdoch is a bastard."

Murdoch's power extends right into the prime minister's office, and Davies noted that a series of administrations have been in thrall to the media baron's influence. "You can't govern Britain unless Rupert says you can."

Davies continues to get tips about other dirty tricks in the newspaper business. Last week, he broke a story about how the Murdoch empire was using a scam to inflate circulation figures for it's Wall Street Journal in Europe. 

David Leigh, investigations editor at the Guardian, said Davies was instrumental in staying on the story and bringing it to its historic conclusion. "He has done something none of us thought was possible. He has shaken the media empire of Rupert Murdoch."

Davies said arguably the best skill a reporter can develop is mastering the office politics of bargaining for sufficient time to work on important stories. Time is crucial for good reporting, and avoiding the imperative of churning out volume over quality is crucial. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Working with WikiLeaks -- the Rewards and the Frustrations

   "I personally would not work with Julian Assange or WikiLeaks ever again."

   That was the blunt judgment of David Leigh, investigations editor at The Guardian and one of the original mainstream media partners with the whistleblowing website. "He is impossible to work with. Hackers and journalists don't really mix."

   Leigh was one of four journalists who described their techniques, strategies and frustrations in dealing with WikiLeaks during a fascinating panel discussion Thursday at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Kiev.

   Journalists at the New York Times, the Guardian, Oslo's Aftenposten and Nigeria's Next newspaper were all involved in trying to analyze and verify thousands of documents dealing with U.S. diplomatic traffic and war reports. It forced all of them to develop new methods so they could make sense of such a massive dump of raw information.

   "For an old man like me, having to deal with all that data was something new," said Leigh. The Guardian was handed four massive datasets, and one of the newspaper's first steps was to build a searchable database of the documents.

   The newspaper quickly realized that there were many important revelations, but that not everything in the documents was true. Verifying, analyzing and weighing the evidence became the most important exercise. It turned out that some of the documents labelled Secret or designated as not for foreign eyes were less interesting than cables merely coded as confidential.

   "The old skills of journalism I learned as a young man are still relevant," Leigh added, noting that follow-up freedom of information requests were important in verifying some of the stories. 

   The original five media partners working with WikiLeaks weren't unanimous in their assessment of the cables. Leigh said Bill Keller of the New York Times accused the Guardian of being too focused on stories dealing the war dead because of its left-wing leanings.

   Leigh eventually fell out with Assange over disagreements about how the material was handled and Assange's objections to the Guardian's coverage of sexual assault allegations in Sweden, among other things.

   Andy Lehren, one of the key New York Times journalists working on the material, said his initial assignment was to analyze the documents and look at a one-day story.  The newspaper ultimately formed a large, secret team to make sense of the material, much of which constituted single-source stories and incomplete accounts, he said.

   The Times brought in other datasets, such as a database of private security contractors, to  compare to the WikiLeaks documents. In some cases,  a single cable told an entire story, but in many other instances it was necessary to do considerably more analysis and reporting.

   Lehren said the diplomatic cables continue to live on, providing more insight as new world developments take place. He still spends time sifting through and reading them regularly.

   Jan Gunnar Furuly, with Oslo's Aftenposten, said his newspaper managed to get the full set of diplomatic cables without entering into a formal relationship with WikiLeaks. "Thanks to a genius guy in our IT department" the newspaper had a searchable database operating within short order, enabling journalists to search for relevant documents.

   The newspaper then formed a coalition with about 75 European journalists so the material could spread as widely as possible. Aftenposten printed important stories that the major WikiLeaks partners hadn't yet touched.

   Musikilu Mojeed, of Nigeria's Next newspaper, received exclusive access to the Nigeria-related WikiLeaks cables in February of this year. He said they adopted a cautious and skeptical approach, treating the cables not as gospel truth but as the basis for further research and interviews. Providing additional context was an important objective for each report.

   Though the leaks led to several major scoops and revelations, Mojeed acknowledged that they blundered by reporting a claim from a cable that their president had voted four times in the 2007 election. This subsequently turned out to be false, and the newspaper had to cover its face in shame for the error, he said.

   Leigh and Lehren both said pressure from the U.S. State department and other government officials did not force them to back down on printing any important stories. While both were careful to protect identities of sources named in the documents, they didn't suppress pertinent information only because it was embarrassing to some.

   Leigh said the newspaper was asked not to publish anything on the situation in Yemen because of the sensitive state of affairs there, but he paid no heed. Mojeed added that some officials in the Nigerian administration wanted inside information on the contents of the documents, even offering to pay for it.

   Despite the treasure-trove of information, and weeks of exclusive reports filed by all the newspapers, there were many strained relationships along the way. Leigh left no doubt about his disdain for Assange's tactics and ethics.

"He tried to double cross us over and over again."

More than 500 journalists are at the conference. Assange was invited, but did not attend.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

WikiLeaks Latest

If you are having trouble following the twists and turns of the latest WikiLeaks controversy, this article provides a good summary.

Paperback Edition Released

Oxford University Press has released the paperback edition of Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigate Journalism in Canada.

Oxford University Press


Monday, May 23, 2011

Canada's History - Isolation Article

Canada's History - News

From the Workshop to the Real World -- Teaching Investigative Journalism

Teaching students the fundamentals of investigative journalism is important, but putting those principles into practice is the real test of an educational program.

The journalism school at King’s College in Halifax gets full marks on this front. Over the years, students have produced some impressive examples of investigative work. This year the school was honoured with an award at the annual Canadian Association of Journalists conference.

Students looked into Nova Scotia’s gaming strategy and found that people continue to be driven to financial ruin and addiction by VLT’s, despite government promises to address the problem. The investigation found that half the VLT losses come from people with gambling problems. Since the machines were introduced to the province, problem gamblers have lost more than $1 billion.

Part of the series looked at the gambling profits garnered by First Nations communities. While gambling has brought economic gains for the Membertou and Millbrook First Nations, the stories showed that gambling addictions occur five times as often on reserves as in other communities.

The series was published by the school on its own website, and was also featured in The Coast under the title Terminal Disease.

King’s investigative workshop is guided by assistant professor Fred Vallance-Jones, who has extensive experience in both broadcast and print journalism. Other investigations he has overseen at King’s include an examination of a pulp mill’s toxic legacy, and a computer-assisted look at Halifax police response calls.

The success at creating investigative projects may be one reason King’s College, in conjunction with Dalhousie University, is offering a new Master’s program in journalism that allows for a specialization in investigative work. The 10-month program allows students to choose either an investigative reporting stream, or a “new ventures” stream that will focus on freelancing or new journalistic enterprises.

The investigative stream provides in-depth instruction in public records analysis. It also focuses on data visualization, geocoding and specialized interviewing. A substantial part of the program involves a professional investigative reporting project.

Recognizing the need for students to be multi-skilled, both streams will include training in multimedia reporting skills.

For anyone interested in the future of investigative journalism in Canada, it’s exciting to see a university offer a specialized course of instruction in the field. And it’s an added bonus that the university already has a track record of guiding students to create meaningful investigative work.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

When Investigative Journalism Turns into Breaking News

Long-form investigative journalism faces the problem frequently: An investigation encourages one of the players in the story to go public, forcing the media outlet to break some or all of its story before the scheduled rollout date.

It happened with the CBC earlier this year, when a long-term investigation by the fifth estate on the Vancouver Olympics had to be rushed to air when elements of the story were leaked to competitors. And more recently, it occurred when the Aboriginal People’s Television Network investigated the affairs of Bruce Carson, a former aide to the prime minister.

The network was looking into the alleged lobbying efforts of Carson. Following APTN’s questions to the prime minister’s office, Harper’s staff sent letters to the RCMP, the ethics commissioner and the lobbying commissioner asking them all to investigate the allegations.

The story has produced some lurid details, with photos of Carson shown alongside those of his girlfriend, a former escort who may stand to profit from his lobbying efforts. It is alleged that promises of privileged access were made in relation to a water filtration project on first nations communities.

The PMO’s actions meant APTN had to scramble to release a version of its story immediately. More details have since emerged, and APTN promises the full details in the coming week.

The possibility of an unscheduled release of details relating to an investigation is troublesome for investigative journalists. It means months of digging can be scooped by competitors in a matter of minutes, or spun by the targets of the investigation.

As a result, journalists often strategize carefully about the best timing to use to approach different players in an investigation. More than once, for instance, Health Canada has deliberately foiled journalistic investigations by changing its regulations or releasing information upon hearing that a news outlet is looking into a specific matter under its purview.

All this leads to the question: when should the target of an investigation, or a key player, be approached for a comment?

There is no precise answer, as everything depends on the specific circumstances of the story. Responsible journalism demands that all affected parties be given the opportunity to respond to allegations. And there are elements of proportionality to consider. A six-month investigation by journalists who deman a response from a party in less than 24 hours may be problematic.

But some public relations agencies and advisors can manipulate the situation. Sometimes, without ever refusing an interview, they constantly delay and obstruct the process, all the while trying to gather more information and figure out how to maneuver. Other times they demand specific questions in advance, a request that many news organizations will not honour. It’s also not uncommon for detailed written statements to be delivered to the news organization within hours of publication or broadcast, throwing the journalists into a panic over how best to incorporate the comments at the last moment.

The best practice is for journalists to be fully prepared to publish their findings as soon as they approach key players for comments. In today’s world, a single Tweet can start the ball rolling on a media frenzy. As APTN discovered, a good story can and should trigger immediate action, even if the action comes before the story itself is released.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Secrets, Strategies and Whistleblowers

Earlier this month I took part in a discussion at the University of Manitoba about the ethics of Wikileaks. During the debate, I thought it was important to outline how investigative reports – particularly those that involve whistleblower allegations – are often greeted by the targets of the investigation.

The first reaction is often silence. By refusing to comment, some people hope the report won’t be picked up by other media outlets and will just fade away. Luckily for many targets of investigations, media rivalries often work in their favour. If one newspaper or broadcast outlet gets a scoop, others may try to ignore it. And if no one seems interested, the original media outlet may get discouraged. The story ends up having no legs, and a potentially important investigation may get curtailed.

A second strategy is often a studied indifference. The investigation is labelled old news, or it is disparaged as not really revealing anything of consequence. The strategy once again is to convince other media outlets, and news consumers, that there is nothing to the report. If it is in the power of the target to create a distraction, or a competing announcement, this can also serve to divert attention from the report.

Strategy Number Three involves attacking the messenger. The whistleblower who provided the media with information is labelled evil, corrupt, perhaps even mentally ill. As for the media outlet itself, it is called a dupe of the whistleblower, perhaps part of a conspiracy to smear the targets of the investigation. This strategy can get nasty. Whistleblowers can be slapped with lawsuits, and reporters can be thrown in jail for refusing to reveal sources, or for inducing sources to smear their former employers. If you have seen the movie The Insider, about allegations against Big Tobacco, you know the strategy well.

Of course in some countries, it can get more extreme. Journalists can get shot, even murdered. It has happened around the world. Call it Strategy Number Four, the ultimate one.

So in many ways, what has happened with the Wikileaks story is not altogether surprising, though the scope of the revelations and the ferocity of the reactions verge on the unprecedented.

Wikileaks has been around since 2006, but despite many fascinating early revelations, Strategy Number One was in place. It was largely ignored, and many people never heard of the website until 2010, when the disclosures really started ramping up.

Then came the revelations last fall about the Iraq war, showing evidence of 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths in Iraq. The U.S. and Britain were saying up to this point that there were no official counts of casualties in Iraq. The documents instead showed meticulous records and an exact toll of 66,081 non-combatant deaths over a five-year period.

So Strategy Number 2 kicked in. A Pentagon spokesman called the release of these documents “mundane”, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that they contained nothing new.

But that couldn’t hold up for long, especially when the UN chief investigator on torture said: "In relation to what now has been revealed by WikiLeaks, it confirms what we have heard about the brutality and the torture that were systematically practiced by Iraqi security forces and irregular militias.” And another top United Nations official called on the Obama administration to investigate the role of U.S. forces in human rights abuses in Iraq.

Things have escalated exponentially since then, of course. Arguably, Strategy Nunber 3 is in place. Now there’s talk of charging Assange under the Espionage Act in the US, and there have even been a few calls, joking and otherwise, for his assassination.

It is useful to compare the entire Wikileaks saga with the Pentagon Papers, as it reveals a number of similarities in strategy.

Daniel Ellsberg was a US establishment insider. He worked for the Pentagon, then the State Department, and then for a think tank analyzing the Vietnam War. He decided to leak an exhaustive internal analysis of that war. His aim was to bring an end to the war.

This was in 1971, and Richard Nixon was president. Interestingly, Nixon at first wanted to take the indifferent approach. The revelations went up to 1967, and mostly concerned Democratic presidents. But the US was so fearful of a culture of continued leaks that it chose to ramp up the strategy to the next level: smears and threats.

The most colourful part of the strategy, of course, was the creation of a secret unit called The Plumbers, a covert team that broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in an attempt to get files that would discredit him. This is where G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt and other shadowy characters made their first appearance. All of this was subsequently revealed, and became part and parcel of the scandal that eventually forced Nixon from office. But in the meantime the attack on Ellsberg continued.

Ellsberg provided the papers to the New York Times, which consulted its lawyers, who advised not to publish them. But the newspaper decided to proceed, amid risks of injunctions, lawsuits and threats of worse. Ellsberg was threatened with prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act, the same law Assange is being targeted for. He was eventually charged with theft and being in possession of secret documents. But the dirty tricks campaign, and other tainted evidence, led to the dismissal of all charges. On the question of whether the New York Times and other newspapers had the right to publish the material, the Supreme Court ultimately sided with the press. Here is what Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said:

“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people, and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. … The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.”

It’s interesting that many people who find fault with Assange have said they support the publication of the Pentagon Papers. At the time, though, Ellsberg and his media partners faced many of the same strategies and attacks that Wikileaks is now enduring.

How should investigative journalists assess the Wikileaks phenomenon? We can debate the sincerity or appropriateness of Julian Assange’s motivations, just as we can examine every aspect of his private life, down to the choices he makes or alleged improprieties he may commit in individual sexual encounters. It seems clear, though, that it is far more important to assess the value of the information he has helped to publicize. Does it help us get any closer to the truth of important issues? Does it assist us in holding powerful institutions to account? Those are the issues people in the U.S., Britain, Tunisia, Egypt and many other countries are grappling with today.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Media Law for Canadian Journalists

Dean Jobb's newly-revised book on media law is an invaluable tool for anyone practising journalism in Canada.

Jobb is an associate professor at King's College School of Journalism in Halifax. He has specialized in covering and studying the courts and legal issues. The second edition of Media Law for Canadian Journalists covers all the essential legal topics journalists need to know.

Keeping up with all the new decisions and nuances of media law can be a full-time job. But the author carefully tracks the developments and puts them into context for reporters. From using Twitter inside a courtroom to avoiding defamatory remarks on Facebook, Jobb also provides useful advice on handling social media tools in a legally responsible manner.

Because Jobb has extensive reporting experience, he has a good appreciation of the often blurry boundaries between ethics, law and good taste. His book has a separate chapter on ethics and professional responsibility, and he isn't afraid to offer his opinion on the propriety of different types of reporting.

This is an important book, and whether you're a professional journalist or an occasional blogger, you won't regret getting a copy. It is published by Emond Montgomery Publications.