Sam Smyth of the Irish Independent and Sunday Tribune newspapers talks about the greatest threat to investigative reporting, and how he gets his stories.
1. Tell us about the defamation case you were involved in recently
Last month I won a landmark defamation case in the Irish High Court taken by a disgraced former government minister whom I had exposed as corrupt 16 years before.
Michael Lowry, the former minister, had sued me personally rather than the newspaper where I wrote the article or the television station where I made the allegedly libelous remarks.
The legal strategy was “personal” rather than “business”, according to my lawyers: if Lowry were successful in the courts, the legal action would impoverish me (costs could run to $500,000 or more) rather than enrich himself from awards against major media companies.
In 1996 I wrote a story in the Irish Independent saying that the country’s wealthiest family had paid (around $500,00) for the renovation of a government minister’s house.
The then-Minister for Communications, Michael Lowry, resigned three days after the story was published but he had also been responsible for the biggest contract the Irish state had ever awarded to a private company.
Dublin-born entrepreneur Denis O’Brien’s company Esat Digifone won a competition for the country’s second mobile phone license -- and I was one of a group of journalists deeply suspicious of the process used to award the license.
In 1997, the then Irish government established an inquiry with a High Court Judge, Mr Justice Michael Moriarty, as chairman: it was known as “The Payments To Politicians Tribunal”.
In March last year, the tribunal finally reported that Lowry had “secured the winning” of the mobile phone competition for Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone company.
The tribunal found that O’Brien had made two payments totaling £stg500,000 in 1996 and guaranteed a loan worth £stg420,000 in 1999. In a 2,348-page report Mr Justice Moriarty found that payments from O’Brien were “demonstrably referable to the acts and conduct of Mr Lowry” during the licensing process. In plain English, O’Brien gave nearly £stg1 million to Lowry who secured a government contract for him.
O’Brien is now a billionaire, the second wealthiest man in Ireland according to the Sunday Times Rich List. His lawyers have also has written threatening to take a defamation action against me personally for the same article and broadcast that Lowry sued me for – and lost.
O’Brien now owns more of the Irish media than any other individual or corporation: he is the largest shareholder in the Irish Independent group of newspapers (where I am employed) and his company owns a sting of radio stations – including Today FM which fired me last November.
He is also the country’s most prolific plaintiff in defamation actions.
Before the awarding of the mobile phone license in 1996, O’Brien also secretly donated money to the Fine Gael party, whose fundraiser was Minister Michael Lowry.
Fine Gael is back in government since last March and have since rehabilitated O’Brien: the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and other senior government ministers associating with him at government events. O’Brien supplied a jet to bring his friend, former US president Bill Clinton, to and from Ireland for a government-sponsored event last year.
2. What was the latest project you were involved in and what impact did it have?
My most recent investigative story was based on a secret government report criticizing the country’s most senior civil servant who retired in January.
The report criticized the policies shepherded by the state’s most influential advisor who served four governments through the boom-and-bust of the Irish economy.
I secured a copy of the report into the Secretary General to the Government from “human sources” – and it made the front-page splash in the Irish Independent.
3.What methods, techniques, and tools have served you best as an investigative journalist?
I have usually secured stories from human sources rather than electronic trawls although everything and anything is welcome bring home a story.
4. How has the increasing importance of digital and online media (especially the immediacy factor they emphasize) impacted the quality and practice of investigative journalism?
Online and digital media have had little impact on my work that tends to be less immediate and based on coaxing and cajoling information from obsessively secretive individuals and institutions.
5. Talk about your approach to stories. Is there anything unusual about the way you conduct your research or choose your themes?
I am nosey by nature, curious about how figures in authority use and abuse their patronage and power. And through the years have built up relationships with reliable contacts close to influential institutions and individuals.
Nearly every big story I have ever broken came from people who trusted me to tell it and protect them. Although I did get one great story from sheaf of documents delivered anonymously with an unsigned letter.
6. What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?
I have learned through the years that there are many more decent and honest people than knaves but that protecting people who go out on a limb to help you is paramount. A reporter’s trustworthiness and reputation for integrity is their greatest asset.
7. What is the biggest single threat to your investigative reporting and what advice can you give to others who might be facing the same obstacle?
The biggest threat to my continuing to do my job is that rich and powerful people can either purchase unscrupulous politicians to enable them or just buy the media.
8. What tips would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?
Happiness for me is breaking a big story that powerful vested interests had tried to bury. And the only advice I would be arrogant enough to offer a young journalist is: take pleasure from your work.