Iain Overton delivered this year’s annual investigative journalism and human rights lecture at lunchtime today as part of Féile an Phobail. It may also have been the first [Ed - and last?] annual honest-about-hubris lecture. But more about that later.
In a change of format away from Amnesty’s previous panels of local journalists, Iain began his solo lecture [MP3] by outlining his circuitous route through two degrees and a spell in British Airways before entering into journalism. Exposing corruption and abuses within the UK and around the world, he would sometimes piggyback a human rights story on the back of a more mainstream investigation piece in the same location. Indeed this is one of Iain’s pieces of advice for potential or struggling investigative journalists: you may be able fund the investigation you want to do through another more easily sold story nearby.
After time in the BBC and ITN, Iain became the first editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a philanthropically funded unit set up in the face of decreased funding opportunities for exposés and long-running investigations. TBIJ had success with exposing US drone attacks as well as analysing deaths in police custody, work that triggered a IPCC review. Iain described his first meeting with Julian Assange, ending up with a USB key full of Wikileaks’ Iraq documentation and the need to quickly hire a large team of journalists.
Becoming skilled in working with data is another piece of Iain’s advice to newbies. But finding stories within big data sets isn’t enough; you still need to find individual voices to most effectively tell those stories.
Iain also warns that “Google doesn’t have everything”. The lure of Twitter and Facebook for some young journalists is too addictive. It is ‘a’ source of information, but knocking doors and talking to people is still required to unearth information and recollections that will never end up online.
Twitter cost Iain Overton his job as editor of TBIF when, in the middle of being diagnosed with MS and having “taken his eye off the ball”, he tweeted a tease in advance of a flawed Newsnight report (conducted by TBIF’s lead reporter Angus Stickler while seconded to BBC). “If all goes well we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile.”
Online fingers quickly pointed at Lord McAlpine who denied the accusation, and the allegation was withdrawn by its source. To his credit, Iain Overton resigned quickly from the TBIF and is now juggling investigations for the charity Action on Armed Violence with writing a book Gun Baby Gun about “how we have created a world where the gun is so ubiquitous, how the gun defines so many lives” and lecturing.
Looking back on the McAlpine disaster he suggested that hubris may have had a role in his 108 character mistake. A salutary lesson for all fast fingered tweeters.
During the Q&A [MP3] chaired by Malachi O’Doherty, members of the audience asked whether this kind of reporting really made a difference to the world, how to handle testimony from subjects within reports being dismissed by powerful organisations or governments, whether speaking to reporters put people in danger, and Iain offered his critique on the reasons behind the BBC’s style of reporting on the current Gaza crisis.