NI Water: As brought to you by Slugger O’Toole and others…

I’ve been away for a few days and this story has been rolling on without me taking such a close interest in it. It has been an extraordinary few months. For me it began with a tip off on Friday 2nd July that I should get a hold of footage of the PAC meeting from the previous day.

Thanks to prompt service from the Beeb the democracy live footage was available that evening. I sat down to watch it after putting the kids to bed at about 9.30, interstitially, between late night housework and later with a glass of red. I stopped watching just before 3am in the morning.

I worked most of the rest of that weekend putting together my first thoughts on it for Monday morning. If this was a scoop, it seemed of little interest to anyone in media, bar, I suspect Jamie Delargy of UTV, who’d already put in weeks on following the story the full extent of which is still in the process iof coming to light.

It was different matter on the inside of this story. And within days we were ruffling feathers, when we published Dixon letter. The BBC also had it, Correction: and Martina Purdy broke at 8am on the sixth. At that stage I don’t believe they understood its fuller significance as part of an attempt to undermine the PACs investigation of DRDs IRT.

Much of what followed on our part was a forensic investigation of the publicly available evidence combined with increasingly wider contacts with some of the main characters inside the drama. We built a timeline based on what evidence we could be sure of… And early on we concluded the NEDs had been wronged, not on the basis of allegations, but on the basis of verifiable evidence

Many in our wider audience, I suspect, were confounded by our interest in what even to me before the PAC meeting had been a pretty obscure story. But a small number of our commenters both on site and on their own blogs helped keep the story alive by bring in new information. BelfastJJ’s material threw important light on a number of otherwise inscrutable internal processes. Having different people firing in FOI requests and following their own hunches no doubt helped keep the pressure on. Others kept pressing with questions and opening new angles.

In the meantime – but completely separately – Jamie Delargy was coming to similar conclusions. When Sam McBride at the News Letter came back from his summer holidays, he called me and proceeded to get stuck into an investigation under his own terms.

The rest will become a matter of record.

My concern was not so much to the break the story (people should not discount the challenge facing UTV in bringing these matters into a coherent whole) but to try to track the many threads and build a wider provenance to it when it did break.

It is crucial the committees and the media get to understand why this rash course of action was embarked upon. And to track down the truth about procurement inside NI Water (and DRD). It is obvious now that people with even high level financial expertise generally don’t understand the complexity of contractural instruments. Witness: the nonsense of that £28 million figure.

For this Jamie Delargy (and his boss at UTV Michael Wilson, with whom I have previously crossed swords over the axing of the Insight programmes) deserve huge credit for leading the way in spectacular order. It suggests a model of ‘contingent journalism’ which I hope they will not only continue but to continue to invest in.

This story was never about the NEDs themselves. It was always (though I admit this was not always obvious to outsiders in my copious blogging out of the last two months) about a very serious case of misdirected process in government.

Now the shamelessly commercial bit. As Eamonn has pointed out, this was a non profit making project. My personal aim was to provide an example of slow journalism, as opposed to the kinds of elevator pitch, stand alone story.

I think we have proven a point. Good high quality journalism costs but it also sells. And modest blogging can have powerful effects. For all the strangeness of those monkish first blogs, this has become not the biggest *political* story of the year, but the most significant since it goes right to the heart of the job we expect our elected representatives to do in return for their generous salaries, not mention our trust.

All of this has been free and will remain free for as long as there is a Slugger O’Toole (even after we go, there’ll be a free copy in the British Library to refer to.

So before I brazenly ask for donations, I want to ask that small proportion of our audience who have had serious value from Slugger in the last few months to consider how much value before they decide how much to give.

In the meantime, for opeds, radio, TV, research, book deals and/or documentaries, send me a decent proposal.

For workshops, training, consultancy and digital mentoring, contact Paul Evans.