The investigative reporters who do it quietly, but very well

I’ve spent the past few years being told repeatedly that investigative journalism is under terrible, terminal threat. The business crisis of newspapers and commercial pressures have gutted investigative teams and dumbed down the very idea. Owners and publishers don’t like it. Across the world, the future for penetrating and patient reporting of what powerful people don’t want revealed is bleak.

I’m pleased to say that this is doom-laden nonsense. Philanthropic money continues to flow into the most difficult and demanding investigations both in the US (the founding donation to ProPublica and Pierre Omidyar’s $250m being the most spectacular examples). Mainstream media continue to strip away layers of concealment. The British Press, Foreign Press Association and James Cameron awards – all in London within the last few weeks – have recognised investigative reporting by, among others, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, The Times, Channel 4’s Despatches and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (declaration: I’m a trustee). There are few weeks of the year when a conference boosting the skills or morale of investigative reporters doesn’t start somewhere. Today in London it’s the Logan Symposium (foundation funded).

But there is one example of the health of investigative journalism rarely mentioned and I think it deserves to be. I first came across a clue when I was in Hong Kong last year and had lunch with an old friend who brought an extra guest to the meal. This Australian worked, he said, for Reuters and I asked him what he did. He was an investigative reporter and I asked if he specialised in any subject. He did long-form reporting, he said, on the army of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

Now the Chinese army is very large, very powerful and no doubt rich and fertile territory for investigations. But I was struck that Reuters, with its roots as a global news agency, should be deploying investigative reporters on that kind of scale.

Since that conversation, there have been regular reminders that some very difficult and even dangerous stories done by investigative reporters anywhere are done by teams from Reuters. Here’s one example, which made the Foreign Press Association shortlist.

Three Reuters reporters, Steve Stecklow, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Yeganeh Torbati spent six months scouring documents and sources across the Middle East to produce “Assets of the Ayatollah”, which lifted the veil on the wealth of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamanei. It disclosed details of the secretive organisation, Setad, which has amassed $95bn and which provides the Ayatollah with his political power base.

Reuters took risks and paid some price for this. Their bureau in Tehran remains shut and the reporting won’t have improved the chances of it reopening. Three Reuters employees were temporarily relocated for their own safety. The Iranian reporters on the story may have harmed their chances of getting visas to see relatives in Iran.

This isn’t an isolated example. There has been more than one long investigation on the treatment of minorities in Thailand and Myanamar by Andrew Marshall (one of which, with Jason Szep, won a Pulitzer Prize). The Iranian investigation had an impact in the Middle East and certainly in Iran; it just wasn’t much noticed in Britain. So someone at Reuters some time ago decided to make a habit of this kind of work; a good, brave call.


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