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In remembrance: Phillip Knightley and David Donald

The journalism community lost two influential and well-respected members last week, with the passing of Phillip Knightley and David Donald.

The journalism community and ICIJ’s network lost two influential and highly-respected members last week, with the passing of investigative journalist Phillip Knightley and data guru David Donald.

Here they are remembered by their friends and colleagues:

Phillip Knightley (1929 – 2016)

By Charles Lewis

One of the most remarkable journalists of the past half-century, Phillip Knightley, died at the age of 87 in London on Thursday, Dec. 8. He helped to break some of the most significant international news stories of our time, such as holding manufacturers of the drug thalidomide accountable for the birth deformities their drug was causing to thousands of children in Europe and, years later, landing an exclusive interview in Moscow with the infamous British double agent Kim Philby who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1963.

According to the Sir Harold Evans, the respected editor of The Sunday Times from 1967-1981, Phillip “became the gold standard of public service journalism,” a stalwart presence on the newspaper’s famous Insight team. According to Evans, “In tennis, as in journalism, Phil was the coolest of men, known to Insight reporters as Mr. Understatement.” He wrote or co-wrote 12 books over a nearly 60-year career in journalism, and is one of only two people to win the British Press Award “Journalist of the Year” twice, in 1980 and 1988.

Elaine Potter, who co-authored a Sunday Times Insight Team book, Suffer the Children: The Story of Thalidomide (1979) with Phillip, told me, “I often felt he modeled himself on the spies he wrote so much about. We lived round the corner from each other in Notting Hill and he would frequently give me a lift home, never going quite the same route. He explained that he assumed he was being followed and that he would make it more difficult for watchers to predict when he would be where. He enjoyed the world of spies. He named his son Kim who in later years won a competition for an artwork for a Moscow calendar. He was also intermittently known as Boris!”

Phillip reportedly wrote letters to Kim Philby after he defected to the Soviet Union for 20 years before landing a world exclusive interview with him in Moscow, months before Philby died.

Elaine told me that she has “never seen a more orderly journalist. When preparing to write a story he would begin with a numbered list of what he needed to cover.  He would then proceed to go through his list building up the story paragraph by paragraph until he got to the end. I rarely saw any deviation or any drama and his copy needed little editing.  The renowned features editor Ron Hall called him ‘the best hack in the business’. He could always be relied on to deliver, an invaluable quality as you will know. Despite his calm, matter-of-fact approach he certainly got energized, even excited as a story came together.”

But hardly known at all about Phillip was his very important, inspirational role prior to the creation of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It is no coincidence that he agreed to serve as a member of the ICIJ Advisory Committee, representing Europe, since the Consortium began in October 1997.

Five years earlier, as the founder and executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, I met Phillip in September 1992 at an international investigative journalism conference in Moscow, organized by Victor Navasky, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine and two other co-sponsors, a Russian university and publication, just months after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attempted coup d’etat against Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin. The idea of muckrakers meeting in Moscow in such a precarious moment in history was audacious, surreal and exciting.  And as I later wrote in a 2005 publication, “Crossing Borders, Opening Doors,” about the ICIJ’s earliest days, “The journalist there whose global experience had the most compelling resonance for me was Phillip Knightley, the international renowned, London-based author and reporter who eloquently and indelibly stressed the paramount need for competitive, often paranoid, investigative reporters to help each other with information.”

Other invitees there included such accomplished journalists and authors as conference keynote speaker Carl Bernstein of Washington Post Watergate fame, Scott Armstrong (co-author of The Brethren with Bob Woodward), British journalist Anthony Sampson (author of over 20 books, including The Sovereign State: The Secret History of ITT and The Seven Sisters, about the largest oil companies). But their professional lives seemed almost pedestrian compared to the courageous muckrakers from Russia and other former Soviet republics, Asia, Africa and Latin America who had been arrested or imprisoned; seen their colleagues or sources murdered in the streets, and in one case, endured the bombing of her newspaper’s offices and home, where her sister was killed.

Back then, before the World Wide Web was in substantial use and daily practice, as Phillip eloquently observed to us all during the Moscow conference, a freelance reporter in London or anywhere else requesting advice or assistance from another journalist in the world could only communicate via a “snail-mail” letter or fax or a costly long-distance phone call. But with the imminent prospect of these new technologies and their great potential, he exhorted us all to be less competitive and squirrelly and loosen up and start cooperating and collaborating and sharing more information with each other across borders.

What he said and how he said it really resonated with me — indeed, it was an epiphany of what was suddenly possible, and I realized my small, scrappy Center for Public Integrity with only five full-time employees had an amazing opportunity as a well-intentioned, non-profit, muckraking entity with growing investigative credibility to not only collaborate with other journalists, but also become a convener of both quality substantive journalistic content and also the best and the brightest reporters in the world. It was a wild and crazy idea. One thing, though, was quite obvious to me – despite the technological advances, commercial news organizations generally would still be too competitive and parochial to company or country to think this way, or to initiate some sort of Kum ba ya content collaboration with muckrakers throughout the world.

After five long years of steeping the idea and the logistics required (E.g. securing sufficient funding) with the help of my friend and mentor, former New York Times bureau chief, Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor and Harvard University Nieman Foundation curator Bill Kovach and others, in 1996 I told the Center for Public Integrity’s Board of Directors, “I have become convinced that the Center can play a critically important convener or facilitator role to investigative journalists around the world, at practically no major expense. After literally years of fermentation, I believe we are finally positioned properly to take a significant step forward, into the international realm.” And the following year, the Center’s newest project, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, was born, and veteran journalist Maud Beelman, who had covered the reunification of Germany and the wars in the former Yugoslavia for the Associated Press, was hired to be the first ICIJ Director (1997-2003).

The rest, as they say, is history, the ICIJ have recently completed its 26th cross border investigation, the Panama Papers project the largest collaboration in the centuries old history of journalism itself.

Phillip, as you might imagine, was a real enthusiast of the ICIJ, and he attended and spoke at early ICIJ member meetings in the U.S., at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, at the Freedom Forum in Washington where Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh were the luncheon speakers on successive days, the infamous Watergate condo/apartment complex ironically visible across the Potomac River, and in late 2005 in London, where he spoke to ICIJ members for the last time. On a personal note, it was somewhat ironic and like bookends in a way that, having left the Center for Public Integrity the previous year (at some point the founder has to leave the building if his/her organization is to have a genuine chance to grow and become more institutional), I was presented with a “Founder” crystal glass award there and made an official “member” of the ICIJ. Phillip spoke afterwards on the stage as the keynote speaker of the evening.

Maud (who returned to the Associated Press) reflected upon the passing of our colleague, “I have such fond memories of Phillip, including one time when I was in London for ICIJ and he made special reservations at Princess Diana’s favorite restaurant and to have us seated at “her” table, all only because he thought I’d like it. I recall another time meeting him at his gentlemen’s club for evening cocktails. He was of another era and yet timeless. I will miss him.”

Bill Kovach, the chair of the ICIJ Advisory Committee since 1997, recalled that Phillip “lived his life to the fullest and fashioned what he had learned into great skills as an investigative journalist and in turn into some of the best journalism of the last half of the 20th and first decade of the 21st century. His insights into Kosovo in the 1980s helped me dig into that region when I worked my way through there and Albania in the 1980s.”

In 1997, coincidentally the same year the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began, Phillip’s memoir, A Hack’s Progress, was published. Near the end of his book, he wrote, “I know now that the influence journalists can exercise is limited and that what we achieve is not always what we intended. It is the fight that counts.”


David Donald (1952 – 2016)

By Gordon Witkin

Former Center for Public Integrity data editor David Donald, a pioneer and leader in the development of modern computer-assisted reporting worldwide, died Saturday, Dec. 10 at Reston Hospital Center in Virginia after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 64.

Donald was one of the early and most successful practitioners of data-based, investigative journalism that relied on computer analysis. He became a passionate Pied Piper for such reporting, crisscrossing the United States and indeed the globe, training dozens of other journalists who then helped spread and develop the craft even further. Donald was also known for his calming influence, his sage advice on matters both journalistic and personal, his dry wit, nutty professor appearance and love of a good glass — or two or three — of red wine.

“David was as kind as he was brilliant,” said Center CEO John Dunbar. “He was an evangelist for database investigative reporting and touched so many lives. I learned so much from him. He was my friend, and I will miss him.”

Donald joined the Center for Public Integrity as data editor in 2008 and worked with a variety of teams on some of the Center’s most ground-breaking projects — they included an investigation into the top subprime lenders behind the financial meltdown to the under-reporting of campus sexual assault to the methods Medicare providers used to overcharge the government.

Donald’s work with senior investigative reporter Fred Schulte on Medicare billing was twice (in 2012 and 2014) honored with the Philip Meyer Award, widely considered the most prestigious annual award in the world of computer-assisted reporting. Judges called the 2014 entry “superb,” adding that “despite the challenges of dealing with complex and voluminous government data the Center aptly dissected the shocking shortcomings” of the Medicare Advantage program.

Over the course of his career, Donald was also honored with the James K. Batten Award, the Dart Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award and a Peabody Award.

Prior to joining the Center, Donald served as training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors; it was in that capacity that he spread what he considered the gospel of data-powered reporting, conducting training sessions both domestically and internationally.  

Former IRE executive director Brant Houston told the IRE news blog that Donald was a talented trainer “not only of how to use data in journalism, but of how to conduct oneself with kindness, grace, humor and civility in the often rough and irascible world of journalism.”

Donald left the Center for Public Integrity in 2014, and he most recently worked as data editor at the Investigative Reporting Workshop and as data journalist in residence at American University’s School of Communications.

Earlier in his career, Donald was research and project editor at the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. He also taught as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and at Savannah State University. Donald earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Miami University in Ohio and a master’s degree in journalism from Kent State University.

No funeral is planned. Preliminary planning is underway for an event to honor Donald’s life in January at the Investigative Reporting Workshop. The family has asked that donations in Donald’s memory  be sent to IRE, where a special fund will be established in his name to further data journalism.

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