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2021: Our year in stories

2021: Our year in stories


As 2021 draws to a close, Basia Cummings looks back over a year of Slow Newscasts with her colleagues James Harding, the co-founder of Tortoise, and Ceri Thomas. What’s changed in the way we think about podcasts at Tortoise? And are there any you’ve missed which you might want to catch up on over the Christmas break?


Basia Cummings, narrating: Hello, it’s Basia here and you’re listening to The Slow Newscast. And this is our final episode of the year – and it’s a special one because I’m not going to tell you a story this week. Instead with my colleagues, Ceri and James, we’re going to talk about investigative journalism and storytelling and what we’ve learned in making this podcast in the last year.

Because it was actually almost exactly a year ago that we decided that we were going to do something different with this podcast – that instead of making episodes that explored a topic or analysed the news in the more traditional format that we would have been used to from our newspaper days or our radio days, we were going to shift to narrative storytelling. And we set ourselves a challenge, which was to tell you about the investigative work that we do as journalists in ways that would grip and thrill and surprise you.

And by that, I mean, I guess going back to the eternal principles of story telling. Talking about things that have a beginning, a middle and end; characters who change; conflict that’s resolved. The DNA that is shared with good movies and books and plays and TV shows, but applied to investigative journalism. And so that’s the approach that we took in stories that you’ll have heard, like “Hunt for the porn king” or “Left to die” or “Lost at sea”. So many of the episodes that we’ve published this year and that we’re going to talk about in a moment. 

The other thing that we said that we would do is that we would show our working – that our work at tortoise as a newsroom, and in this podcast, is not just about the finished product, but it’s about the people and the processes and the conversations that take place in getting a story.

And so I’m going to start with a clip from “Hunt for the porn king”, which was spearheaded by my colleague, Alexi Mostrous, who is our investigations editor. And then you’re going to hear the conversation that Ceri and James and I had, and we’re going to talk through our highlights of the year and the things that we’re proudest of.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: The man I’m there to meet is one of those rare people who leave almost no trace on. He’s the majority owner of a huge international company, a company that owns dozens of websites. One of those websites is the 10th most visited in the world… It’s more popular than Amazon. More popular than Netflix. 3 billion people visit it every month. I’m talking, of course, about online porn. It’s the porn business that provides the man I’m looking for with tens of millions of dollars in profit every year. But until very recently, no one even knew that this man existed. And to put it bluntly, I want to change that. Because it matters that we know who this man is and how he runs his business.

Basia: Do you want to just introduce yourselves? 

Ceri Thomas: Hello, I’m Ceri. I’m one of the editors here at Tortoise and an occasional voice on The Slow Newscast.

Basia: And you are…?

James Harding: And I am James Harding. And I am the editor of Tortoise. 

Basia: Fancy seeing you here. 

Okay. Let’s jump in then. So we said at the very end of last year that we were going to shift how we thought about The Slow Newscast. And we were going to shift how we thought about the stories that we were telling. And there’s a question I think about showing your workings – about journalism for you know, hundreds of years, being the thing that you sit and read in the newspaper, or watch the finished product as a broadcast or a finished radio documentary. You don’t see how it’s assembled. You don’t know the team working on it. You don’t see the moment that the scoop happens or that, you know, long investigative question is finally resolved.

And that’s something that we’ve done quite differently this year. If I think of how Alexi worked on “Hunt for the porn king”, you know, how do you make EXIF data interesting? You make it interesting when you hear a team reacting that that’s the thing that finds Bernd Bergmair. 

Xavier Greenwood: I’ve been racking my brain to figure out how we can get a more specific location from these photos. You probably know this, but when you take photo, there’s the kind of bits of information that are attached to it.

Alexi, narrating: Xav’s talking here about EXIF data. EXIF data tells you things like shutter speed, or if a flash was used. But it can also tell you exactly where the photo was taken. Instagram and Facebook strip that data out.

Xav: And I found a blog and I think it’s her blog… because some of the photos on Instagram are also on this blog.
Alexi: Okay.

Basia: And James, that will feel like quite a shift for you. 

James: I think it’s a big shift, mostly overwhelmingly for the good, I mean, partly because you’re letting people in to the reason that you love being a journalist. I mean, the process of trying to find it out is thrilling and fascinating, but I would just say one thing about the extent to which transparency also means an acknowledgement of things being complicated. And there’s something that is much more honest, of course, of painting a picture… There’s something frustrating as a reader, watcher, listener without saying here is, if you, like the clear conclusion of that story. And I don’t know Ceri whether or not you feel or worry to yourself, that we shortchange people, or whether we give them a richer or more honest version of things? But it possibly, we possibly convince ourselves it’s the second and sometimes it might be the first. 

Ceri: We condition them probably, don’t we? We help ourselves when we disappoint, probably,,, that’s what we do. I mean, I think podcasts generally, especially the multi-part big series… a lot of them are, in the end, disappointing. And I think partly because they don’t have the kind of journalistic wait and endeavour that we tried to put behind things, but you can think about the “Hunt for the porn king”. We could very easily not have found Bernd Bergmair. We would still have done that story. And we would have tried to make the narrative about the hunt for him, that in the end failed. And that clearly it’s much more satisfying if you have a hunt that, that succeeds. 

Basia: Well I do remember saying that explicitly to Alexi, we need to find a way to tell a story, even if we don’t find him in the end. And in that way, it’s a kind of, it’s the journalism procedural. You move away from the cop shows to the frustrated, bored journalists in a windowless room. 

Ceri: Totally. But I do think we need to hold kind of firm to the idea that the end does matter. That too many podcasts are a beginning and a middle. And actually I think the bit that we can really bring is the final third.

Alexi, narrating: At half past eight there’s movement.

Katie Gunning: Hold on, hold on, hold on. Is that him?
Alexi: I think that’s him. Yes it is. 

[Clip: Katie and Alexi getting out of the car.]

Alexi: Mr Bergmair. Hi. Um, I’m very sorry to disturb you at your, your house. I just wondered if I could ask you a few questions about Mind Geek. Do you mind? We’re producing a story about Mind Geek, sir. And a lot of the victims on Porn Hub, a lot of the victims…

James: Can we just meander… or veer wildly off course. Why true crime podcasts so disproportionately popular?

Basia: I’m glad you asked. I’ve thought about this a lot. And in fact, I’ve been reading a book recently, uh, where it’s, there’s, there’s a particular page in it, which really, really gripped me – because I’ve had a few conversations now with other podcast production companies and other people who are working in the same way that we are. Talking about have we reached peak true crime? You know, is it a parody now? And it is a parody, it’s been parodied many times the sort of, oh, there’s a dead woman in a tank and somebody’s got to find her killer. And I’ve listened to, you know, a shameful number of those podcasts. 

Um, and the response has always been quite split between people who say no, that’s just a journalist question. Actually, the listening public are not sick of true crime. And then other people saying, yes, it’s kind of that there’s a peak and we’ve reached it and we’re moving out the other side. But one of the, the, the, the book that I’ve been reading has this one page where it talks about the, sort of the psychology of curiosity. And that curiosity is actually structured in, in sort of four key pillars. The first is that you pose a question and you want to know the answer to that question. You know, whether it’s who killed her or whatever, then you expose a sequence of events and you can see already why a police procedural, or a sort of a police investigation fits into this so well. Then there’s a search for an explanation, and then there’s the possession of information by different people. And that those are the key pillars around psychology of curiosity, that you just, you have to piece those things together, to feel satisfied with the story and true crime can deliver that. And I think the journalism procedural has that too. Which is something I think is more interesting. 

James: So do you think we can do that? Do you think we can do that? You could poach those four?

Basia: Absolutely. 

James: And put them into… that’s interesting.

Basia: Because it’s the same, it’s the same principle. And actually when I read that, I thought about what you talked about when actually… when I joined. What it when I first joined Tortoise? Or was it when we first started thinking about what would an audio first newsroom sound like? And you said, how do we capture that sense of curiosity? How do we capture that sense when you, when there’s a group of us sitting in a room as journalists, and you can feel that there’s something there, you can feel that a story has potential. And you’re, you’re asking questions, you’re digging at it. Everyone has a slightly different perspective and there’s an energy to that which is electric, but it’s also journalistically really important. And it’s something that I think, you know, you can’t reduce it to a format or a formula, but there is a question about curiosity and I think the best of our stories embody that sense where you can hear one of us chasing after it.

Basia, narrating: They’re all starting to assemble at the highest point of the boat, the safest place. They’re on this mammoth vessel that suddenly seems just too fragile in the giant ocean. And there are questions in the air. Why did this ship carrying thousands of live animals, sail straight into the eye of typhoon? Why did the ships seemed to have safety deficiencies? And why didn’t it turn back or around? Well to answer this question, I’m going to take you on a journey to a wild west, where giant vessels regularly sink or go missing – nearly a hundred a year. And we’re barely anyone notices. Where investigations into what went wrong, and why, are almost non-existent. Where the truth is lost somewhere deep in the ocean and answers and accountability are buried under obscurity.

Ceri: The way that I thought of getting into “Lost at sea”, Basia, was that we, I think like “The porn king”, I thought actually it was proof that a narrative approach can actually sometimes get you further journalistically. So with “The porn king”, if we haven’t set ourselves for narrative reasons, the ambition defined Bernd Bergmair then we probably wouldn’t have set about, really hard, trying to do that.

And I thought with “Lost at sea” the beauty of it was that we went in on narrative and we ended up finding this whole world of policy, this sort of madness of exploitation and lawlessness and all that kind of stuff. So, so I took them both as quite good examples of the way that actually it’s a good kind of lever to open up new bits of journalism that, um, that we might not have got to otherwise.

Basia, narrating: Whether it’s the ship’s numerous identities or this thread of safety deficiencies, or the decision to sail through a typhoon or the meagre and disjointed search operation after… Every single step of the story is an illustration of a booming industry going, it seems, rogue. And Ian is clear on what needs to be done.
Ian Urbina: All ships should be required to keep their transponders on at all times. No matter what, you can’t go dark. You can’t disappear – no matter who you are, because the minute you can disappear, it becomes easy to do whatever you want. I personally think that information should also be public… 

James: And I think there is something there too, Ceri, in that, you know, the, the story you did about Nazanin. Which felt as though it was going to take her to a place where frankly, every news bulletin would. Richard Radcliffe’s on hunger strike outside of the foreign office. What can you possibly say about Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe that’s not being said in all the bulletins and all the news pages. Actually, what it forced you to do was to find the story that wasn’t being told about the tank debt, and then weirdly it became a story, didn’t did it, about the… about Whitehall and the defended culture of the British civil service. And probably much more than that.

Basia: But just to jump in there, the thing about Nazanin um… the thing that really stood out to me was Ceri’s scripting, which is just worth us mentioning because there are podcasts where I think you… Because each week we sort of jump into something totally different. I think each week our approach to scripting can be quite different. And there are some scripts where you just need momentum. You need, you need a sort of pace setting. You need to get from one place to another. You need to, sort of, cover quite a lot of ground. And sometimes that doesn’t leave a lot of space for, sort of… literary ideas or, or beauty or… And the thing that Ceri’s taught me, I think, over this year is that you can do both. That it is a real skill and you need a lot of practice. So he’s nodding.

Ceri: I do try to teach people about beauty. That’s one of my things. 

Basia: But if you listen to that podcast, it can do both. And it, yeah, it was very well done.

Ceri: I think that radio, all my life in radio… people think radio is about talking. Radio is really about writing and it always, you know, largely has not all of it – you know, the phone isn’t about writing – but, but so much of radio actually is about writing and people just don’t spot it. 

Ceri, narrating: When you’re in the street, it’s like being at the bottom of a canyon and you’ve got the foreign office on one side and the treasury on the other, these great weighty buildings. And they’re tall enough that at this time of year, the sun never gets below the third floor to down here on the street.

It’s dark and it’s chilly. The whole street is designed to send a message about power and authority. It tries to make you feel small. And the truth is… it works. And then halfway down, there’s a little scene, which looks as if it’s been blown together by the wind. You know how the, there are just some corners where litter and leaves collect and swirled around. It’s a bit like that. Three tiny tents, some camping chairs, a lot of painted pebbles scattered around. Loads of Halloween pumpkins on a wall, some hand painted signs. And a man on hunger strike, Richard Ratcliffe. He’s here because his wife Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe has been held hostage in Iran for five and a half years.

Basia: So Sweet Bobby doesn’t quite fit into the categories of anything we’ve talked about so far, because it was the first time that we’d really done a big multi-part series for ourselves. And the response has been astonishingly good. It’s climbed to the top of every chart… it’s been listened to by more people than really anything we’ve done before. 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: This is the story of a woman called Kirat. And a man called Bobby. And it’s about how Bobby manipulated Kirat over 10 years. He destroyed her career… 

Kirat Assi, voice note: What can I do to help you sweetheart?

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: … her friendships… 

Harvy: She went from being a vibrant person to being a shadow of a person. 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: … her chance to have a family…  

Kirat Assi: Why didn’t you stop?

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: … and almost her life. 

Kirat Assi: You could have stopped, but you chose not to. Why?

Basia: So Ceri, what do you think you’ve learnt from the process of doing Sweet Bobby for Tortoise? 

Ceri: I mean, funnily enough I think it was really what we’d learned over the past year that allowed us to do Sweet Bobby in the way that we did. So, as you know, cause you were right in the middle of it, it was a really fiendishly difficult story to tell because you needed to get people curious without frustrating them by leaving them too much in the dark. And you know, all of you, all of you involved in putting that thing together… I forget how many versions of episode one there were, but there were awful lot of different ways of cutting that story. And I think we wouldn’t have had the kind of confidence to do it in the way that you did, if we’d done it a year ago.

It’s also, it’s one of those things that, you know, there is a… there is a natural, habitual podcast audience out there. And Sweet Bobby happens to tick a load of the boxes that they love. So it’s so, so it’s, it’s, um, very, it just perfect match with the kind of demographic and the age and the concerns and the preoccupations of, of a whole bunch of people who, who, you know, who love podcasts, who… People are seeing it as a true crime podcast so it fits within that genre. But it’s in some ways, I think, much more than that. So it’s got that sort of extra bit. The really fascinating test for us, I think, is whether we can start to take the things that we’ve learned from doing that and push out into other areas, which aren’t perhaps sort of as naturally, uh, you know, sort of catnip to the, to the podcast audiences.

Bobby: Eight years, eight years. And I’m thinking, woah, lady – who are you? What do you want? I’ve never seen you in my life, please. And I’m thinking… this lady needs help. Who is she?  

Kirat Assi: I was like, it’s me. And he was like, I don’t understand – you’ve got me confused for my brother. 

Bobby: My brother and I are often confused for the same person. Maybe you think I’m my brother, J.

Kirat Assi: I was just confused. I was like, why are you being like this? 

Bobby: And she’s like nope. This is who you are. She names our names. Okay. She’s definitely got the right people – really shell-shocked now we’re getting a little bit frightened. 

Kirat Assi: Why are you being, what are you being like this for? And then out walked the ex-wife and then I was like, okay, he’s pretending, like, that’s why he’s like, not anything to me, not being, you know, he’s, he’s warning me off. Like it was, for me, it was like, he was warning me off, like go away because she’s here. Right. So that’s what I thought was happening. Cause he’s been living a double life. 

Basia: Okay. So let’s end by me asking a horrible question, which is what given all we’ve talked about, what was your favourite episode from this year or favourite series? Ceri, why don’t you go first? I’m going to 

Ceri: I’m going to go for “Left to die”. 

Basia: I’m Basia Cummings and you’re listening to The Slow Newscast. And this week I’m bringing you an investigation in three parts. A story of broken promises at the Amarula Hotel in Palma, Northern Mozambique, and of what happened to the men, women, and children who were abandoned inside.

Ceri: It partly about what we’ve learned over the course of the year. So I was amazed, um, that nobody else did it. Cause it just seemed to me such an amazing story that opened up all these, as James was saying, these sort of all these different vistas about oil, politics and globalisation and, and the sort of power imbalance between big oil companies and poor countries. All of that was there. And you had this intense drama that had been reported to some extent in the papers. Um, so partly I was amazed that by the time you got to Wes and Nick that, um, no one else had got there. But then, you know, it had the intensity of that story. I think those are the kinds of things we’re looking for – an intense kind of gripping story that takes you through, into a whole set of wider issues. And it was another moment in the year where I thought, actually, you know what, we couldn’t have done this 12 months ago because we just wouldn’t have known how.  

Wes: It was just often that the road going into the airstrip, that was where, where we first got shot at. And I just remember ba-ba-ba-ba-ba and that sound of the bullets hitting the car and hitting the steel is something else. I felt a bullet come underneath my foot. It hit the bottom of the, of the car and I could feel where it hit and my foot came up from it. Checked everybody’s okay but that was… now it was panic stations…

Basia: James?

James: So I loved… I have to confess I really, really loved the stories that we told about the world. So I thought that “Left to die” was an amazing piece of storytelling. I felt like I was there. I thought Giles’s “From Russia with diamonds” helped me understand, if you like, the whole of, of modern Russia, Putin’s Russia, oligarch’s Russia, and the West’s bewilderment and it all. 

Giles Whittell: But in those early years, nothing was more tempting, more transportable, more liquid than diamonds. There was a market out there ready-made to turn them into money. No question asked. They were mined in Siberia. They were stored in strong rooms under the streets of Moscow. All you had to do was get them out of there. So how did he do it? Who was really behind it? And where did all the money go? I’m Giles Whittell and you’re listening to The Slow Newscast. This is From Russia with diamonds, part one. 

Basia: I think one of the episodes of the Slow Newscast from this year that I’m proudest of is Shukri Abdi. It was one that my colleague Nimo Omer did, which was actually how she came to Tortoise. She had spotted this really tragic story, as you’ll remember, of a 12 year old girl who had drowned in Bury and it was a… it was a beautifully brave, thoughtful narrative about how a community tells a story about the world and itself and how that is then escalated by social media and by activism.

But it was also, I think exactly, that thing that we’ve talked so much in this conversation about the process a journalist goes on that she came to it with a particular set of ideas and you hear over the course of that podcast, her arrive at a very different set of ideas about her own role, about the job that she’s really come to Tortoise to do.

And I thought it was a very, it was a good example of how we can do things differently – that it felt like a proper piece of journalism that uncovered something new about the world, but it told it in a very self-reflective, thoughtful way. And I was very proud that we had done that. 

Nimo Omer: That’s your life. That was my life. It was almost like I was looking at my younger self – and the really scary thing for me was also that I can’t swim either. And so initially the version of the story that circulated online was the one I believed. It felt right to me. It reflected what I know about Britain, about schools and about the police.

Basia, narrating: So that’s where we are. We’re already working on the stories that we’re going to bring to you next year. They’re ambitious. They’re fascinating. They’re varied and they are investigative. And I really hope that you’ll stay listening to us throughout 2022. And so I’m just going to end by saying very simply: thank you. Thank you for listening. Thanks for sharing our work and for writing in with your thoughts and ideas and your criticisms. And I’ll be back in early January with a very timely and rather terrifying story about what happens when you try and freeze your own fat. Happy holidays, happy new year, and I’ll see you on the other side.