The inaugural Sir Harry Evans Global Summit in Investigative Journalism was both a testament to a man who transformed the industry, and a Marvel-esque “Avengers Assemble” of the world of journalism. Organised by Evans’s wife, former Vanity Fair editor and author Tina Brown, in partnership with Reuters and Durham University, the summit gathered journalists from around the world to interrogate the future of investigative journalism. After 17 extraordinary panels crammed into a single day, it was impossible to feel hopeless about the future of truth-telling and accountability.
Brown opened the summit with an acknowledgement that the media industry has reached a critical moment. Vice News is about to announce bankruptcy, BuzzFeed has all-but disintegrated, the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovitz is imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, and not 24 hours ago Arman Soldin of AFP was killed near Bakhmut in Ukraine. That is why, Brown reminded us, this gathering was imperative. At a time when misinformation, corporate timidity and the erosion of fact-based inquiry is hampering reporting around the world, “today, we are pushing back, as Harry did”.
How to fund it
A theme of the day was how to make investigative journalism – often expensive, time-consuming, and litigious – sustainable, and even, whisper it, profitable. Editors from the New York Times, the FT and Tortoise linked the impact of big investigations with a rise in subscriptions, and in building trust. Roula Khalaf, whose reporters at the FT broke the story of the German Wirecard scandal, said: “good journalism is very expensive”, but warned that it was reductive to link important investigations with commercial decision-making.
In a later session, “truth costs money”, Sir Michael Moritz, a partner at Sequoia Capital and an early investor in Google, now founder of the San Francisco Standard, was asked what he thought was the best model for journalism. “We are on a voyage to discover that,” he said, pointing out that so far the news media has demonstrated a “stunning ability to operate not for profit.” He was cynical about “tin cup” journalism – asking for money from readers – but his fellow panellist, Katherine Viner, showed how the Guardian had turned this into a profit-making model. “The harder the investigation, the more the readers come and back it,” she said.
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Steve Hasker, president of Thomson Reuters, announced an investment of $100 million in AI, which he described as a transformational technology for news more important than the arrival of desktop PCs, the internet or cloud computing.
In a world where AI may fuel disinformation and flood the news ecosystem, Deborah Turness, CEO of BBC News, announced a new BBC Verify service in the style of the investigative collective Bellingcat, to show consumers how journalists assess stories and sources using geolocation, video location and chrono-location. She added: “we have to bring investigative journalism to everyday news.”
Why to fund it
But it wasn’t all business. Fury and moral outrage reminded this gathering of the risks so many journalists face. Annabel Hernandez, a Mexican journalist and author who has spent 17 years investigating the Sinaloa cartel, spoke about the use of cocaine and the impact it has on the Mexican people. She described how her reporting on a senior police chief linked to the cartels saw him send 11 gunmen to her home, where they rounded up her neighbours and held a gun to a six year-old girl’s head. She decided to leave Mexico once she realised she was a danger to others. On her methods, she said she is building relationships with the wives, mothers, lovers and girlfriends of the cartel members – “the families are the witnesses”, she said. She has exposed corruption and made an impact. “I won a little battle,” she said. “But the war? Not yet.”
With similarly moving anger, Masih Alinejad, a journalist and author, talked about Iran’s oppression of women. Masih, whom the Iranian state has tried to kidnap from New York to Venezuela and was escorted to the summit in central London by four Metropolitan police officers, appealed to the audience to take notice of what is happening: “to me and millions of Iranian women, this is the revolution. They will end this gender apartheid regime in Iran.” With Tortoise’s Paul Caruana Galizia, they described how the capital is no longer a safe haven for journalists, a subject Paul has investigated for his latest podcast series, Iran’s Hit Squads.
Russia and Ukraine
A remarkable session on the situation inside Russia convened the anti-corruption investigator Maria Pevchikh, Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev, Mikhail Zygar of TVRain, and campaigner Bill Browder of the Magnitsky Act. Asked about the current condition of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Pevchikh said he has been in isolation for 6 months and hasn’t spoken to his family for a year. He is underfed and in ill-health, but his messages are getting out through lawyers, who are allowed to see him. Their strategy, she said, is to keep Navalny’s name in the spotlight – “we want to increase the value of Navalny’s life, and the cost Putin might pay if he decides he wants to kill Navalny again.”
Pevchikh described the moment in the Oscar-winning documentary on Navalny, when he spoke to his poisoner on the phone – one of the men who had planted Novichok in his underpants. It was a moment of jaw-dropping cinema, and, as Pevchikh and Grozev admitted, the highlights of their investigative careers. “I was frozen for quite a while,” she said.
Russia and Ukraine dominated another session, with photojournalists Andrey Dubchak, founder of Donbas Frontliner, dialling in from of a ruined school near Kharkiv, and Pulitzer prize-winning Lynsey Addario. They were asked to revisit the moment they witnessed the targeting of civilians early in the conflict, in 2022, when a family and a church volunteer were killed in front of them. Addario said her interest in war has always been beyond tanks and artillery, to “how war is affecting civilians, how it’s affecting women and children”. She wept as she recounted the realisation that one of the dead she was photographing was a young child. She knew the images she captured would be confronting and violent, but she was adamant they must be published, immediately texting her foreign editor to say: “I need you to go to bat for me”.
How do you keep people interested in the story 15 months into the conflict? Addario said it’s a challenge. “I’m constantly trying to think about what I can bring to this story that’s different.”
The day was a firehose of inspiration for journalists and editors, and Forbidden Stories, a guerrilla platform founded by Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud, focused on collaboration. Their SafeBox system allows journalists under threat to store their work, and in the event of their death or inability to continue, let other reporters pick up their source material and keep going. They gave the example of Rafael Morena, in Colombia, who was using SafeBox for his work on mining companies operating without licences. After he was killed, Forbidden Stories travelled to Colombia and partnered with a local journalist to continue Moreno’s work. In the end, his investigation was read by millions across the region.
Fisayo Soyombo, editor-in-chief of Nigeria’s Foundation for Investigative Journalism, talked about reporting from a country where it’s almost impossible to hold the government and public institutions to account. His tactic: “simulations”. If he wants to report on a psychiatric hospital, he gets himself admitted. In his “reverse prison break”, he got himself arrested and spent days inside a Nigerian jail, later revealing the reality of a bribe-ridden system that cannot deliver justice.
Further south, Branko Brkic of The Daily Maverick described his website’s remarkable growth – and its fearless investigations of corruption in the ANC and across South Africa. In a country where 37 per cent of people are unemployed, there isn’t a market to pay for journalism, so Brkic decided to rely on a model that would keep the Daily Maverick free – where paying readers would subsidise the site for those who couldn’t afford to support them financially. He warned that the next international crisis would be on the African continent, which he said is under significant Russian and Chinese influence, and is “structured like Russia”, with oligarchs who refuse to be held accountable.
Fox v Dominion
Tina Brown’s convening power was on display in two sessions touching on the biggest story of the last few months: Dominion Voting Systems vs Fox News, described by the summit as “a lesson in truth and consequence”. Dominion founder John Poulos described the moment after hearing lawyers for Donald Trump claim his company had been supported by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. “The whole thing has been totally surreal for us. It didn’t seem real.” His company was receiving “hundreds of phone calls” in the aftermath of the allegation, “most of them death threats.” He thought Trump’s team was trying to incite a civil war.
When the day of the trial came, Poulos said he couldn’t wait for opening statements. Then a note was passed along the table with a number on it – to settle. It was a figure just bigger than his company’s valuation at the time of the 2020 election. “That is a very big price to put on truth and journalism – and not a bad precedent.” They settled.
The case was also examined in a session with Barry Diller, founder of the Fox Broadcasting Company and currently Chairman of IAC and Expedia Group. On his former colleague and boss, Rupert Murdoch, he said: “Initially I totally supported him”, but he said “the tragedy of Rupert is he will be known for a hideous service in Fox News,” a poison, he continued, “that will stain him and his organisation forever.”
Woodward and Bernstein
Journalism’s greatest power couple rounded off an extraordinary day that surely reminded every person in the room why they were journalists. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein recalled the animating spirit of Harry Evans. First-hand witnesses, participants, notes, documents – “this is the Harry standard, this is why we’re here” they said. It became an investigative journalism 101: have at least two sources for every meaningful piece of information – a third source if it feels “thin”.
Impatience, Bernstein said, is a “self-inflicted wound”: “We have a journalistic culture infected by speed, and a lack of curiosity”. On pursuing investigations, Woodward said: “You have to wonder about everything. When you decide, “I’m going to do this story”, you have to have the intellectual readiness to accept that the story isn’t what you expect, and you can’t be surprised by that.”
In the end, we returned to the origins of the trade. Bernstein said: “Too many reporters and news organisations are looking on Google and the internet and not going out and knocking on doors. The great standard of Harry Evans and [Washington Post editor] Ben Bradlee is that it’s about the old methodology – it’s what works. That’s the great lesson of this conference.” Perhaps everyone in the room would leave with the duo’s mantra seared into their minds: FAA – focus, act aggressively.