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How To Be a Great Investigative Journalist

The first thing to keep in mind about investigative journalism is that it’s not glamorous. (We can blame television with its “undercover” reporters and “hidden cameras” for this mistaken image.) It’s actually hard, and often boring work.

The first thing to keep in mind about investigative journalism is that it’s not glamorous. (We can blame television with its “undercover” reporters and “hidden cameras” for this mistaken image.) It’s actually hard and often boring work. I have never pretended that I was anything other than a working reporter, nor chased a single guilty person down the street. But I did spend days poring over records in the House of Lords and devoted months trying to master the intricacies of accountancy, tax law and overseas trusts.

This was for the piece of investigative journalism of which I am most proud–the revelation that the Vesteys, one of Britain’s richest and most respected families, had been major tax avoiders to the tune of millions of pounds for more than 60 years.

That story conforms to my definition of what investigative journalism is all about. It should reveal a major injustice or scandal which has been there untouched for some time. The guilty parties should be people of substance. (“Don’t waste time exposing people who earn less than you do,” that great investigative reporter Paul Foot is credited with saying.) It should lead to setting matters right and then legal reform so that it won’t happen again. It should arouse indignation and yet be a good narrative read.

Where can fledgling investigative reporters find such stories? The Vestey investigation walked into my life off the street. This is why newspaper offices should be in the very centre of things and not stuck out in the suburbs — whistleblowers tend to act on impulse and might change their minds if they have too far to travel to start blowing their whistle. The man who brought me the idea of the Vestey story, an academic specializing in business affairs, was on a holiday in London when by chance he found himself outside the old Sunday Times building in Gray’s Inn Road and thought he would pop in and see if he could interest anyone in his research on the extent of the worldwide Vestey empire. It was lunchtime and I was the only reporter around, so don’t underestimate the role luck plays in big stories.

While waiting to get lucky, there’s always the telephone. Get dialling and ring friends, colleagues, contacts and countrymen. If you make enough calls, sooner or later someone will tell you something. I found that an approach on the lines of, “What’s the biggest scandal in your field you’d like to see exposed?” worked wonders.

Read the small news items in the papers and every now and then you’ll find something that sounds not quite kosher, downright odd, incomplete, or outrageous. Research it. One of the glories of a bureaucratic democracy is that most things are written down and filed somewhere. It’s just a matter of finding them.

But your biggest problem is going to be the accountants who now run newspapers and who do not consider investigative reporting to be cost effective. They think it is better to spend the money on give-away DVDs rather than on worthy investigations which will cost a lot and may or may not work out.

I’ve never thought I made a conscious decision to become an investigative journalist. It was a natural progression from journalism that simply reported what had happened to journalism that also explained why it had happened, to telling my readers what was really going on, as distinct from what those in power said was going on.

Lessons? One stands out. Don’t accept a refusal. Keep trying, coming back. I wrote to the British traitor Kim Philby in Moscow every year for 25 years asking for an interview and every year for 25 years he declined. Then in the 26th year he said yes.  I was on the next plane.

I spent six days with him. It was a world newspaper scoop and a major book. The lesson: Circumstances alter. People change their minds. No “no” is ever final.

ICIJ is dedicated to ensuring all reports we publish are accurate. If you believe you have found an inaccuracy let us know.