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Is investigative journalism an endangered species?

Madeleine Barwick talks to The Age's Richard Baker about investigative reporting, the ethics of publishing from someone's Facebook account, and the challenges of dealing with sources.

A year spent in the UK during high school reading papers like The Guardian and The Times and the The Sun gave Richard Baker his first inkling that he wanted to be a journalist. After completing journalism at Deakin University in the mid-1990s, Baker landed a job at The Age and has been working since 1999.

Since 2005, Baker has worked in The Age’s investigative unit. In 2008 he was awarded the Melbourne Press Club’s Gold Quill and an investigative Quill for a story on misconduct by one of Victoria’s leading surgeons. Baker was also a finalists in the 2009 Walkley Awards for an investigation into a decision by former immigration minister Amanda Vanstone to overturn a deportation order against a criminal linked to the Mafia. More recently, Baker, along with fellow Age reporter Nick McKenzie, have been pursing a bribery scandal involving Securency, a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Is investigative journalism an endangered species?

Globally, yes. The funny thing is that most good journalism has investigative traits to it. It’s finding out stuff; telling people stuff they didn’t know. You can do great investigative work by looking at things other people aren’t looking at, or by having good contacts. While there might not be many specialist or dedicated investigative units in Australia, there are a lot of cost pressures on media businesses now. To have some guys working away at stuff that might not come off, just isn’t viable.

A lot of people’s idea of news now is is just updating the internet. I don’t see a great future for investigative journalism if news is just about going to an internet site that is updated every half an hour. You need to work at different ways of giving a story presence. You do work on something for three months, say, and it’s a big story and it only lives on the internet for half an hour. What’s the point really? It’s a real challenge I think for media businesses. It’s a tough one.  There’s a  school of thought that it is endangered, but you’d hope that most journalism has some investigative elements.

Do you use new media tools like Facebook and Twitter  in your work?

No, I hate Twitter but it is increasingly popular and it’s a good way of getting information out. We use Facebook to search for people and to find photos, and to find connections. Say you’re looking at someone overseas — a business person or whatever — and you’ll look at their profile to find links with other people. We never rip photos off, but we do use it when searching for stuff.

Other new media, the web plays a huge part in everything now. The first thing we do is use a search engine and look at what is out there. In America they do what is called computer assisted reporting and they have really good specialists. It’s amazing what they can do, and they can make stories out of otherwise meaningless data.

We use the web a lot and even managed to make a good link in a story to something we’d been trying for ages. We’d been trying for ages to find out information about this guy who an Australia company was paying a lot of money to; a middleman in Malaysia. We heard he was involved in an arms trade but couldn’t find any proof for it. It took months and months of sending out emails and calling people here there and everywhere.

Then I thought we could use, and find an old web page from 8 or 9 years ago that had been taken down. Sure enough his web page promoted him as a broker for this Pakistani weapons complex. This gave us the proof that he was involved in the arms trade.

This is one way that technology helped us confirm a story that people had told us but we didn’t have any proof and it gave us the proof. From time to time there’s been a focus here on doing some multimedia reports for the websites, it’s a good way to do it if you can.  The Washington Post last year they had a couple of reporters, a multimedia producers and a editor work on this unsolved murder of a White House intern in 2001. It was just before September 11th so then it was forgotten about. One of the suspects in the murder was a US Congressman who had been sleeping with this girl. They went back and re-traced the whole story again, the whole police investigation, they spent a year on it before they did any reporting. All their reporting went online over 12 days, like a novel. That was a really good example. It had all this extra stuff on there. No-one in Australia has the resources to do something like that. But it’s a good example how it can be done and how it can have a role and a real value in today’s media which is all about updating things and getting stuff out quickly.

Do you think it’s ethical to report on someone’s Facebook?

Yes and no. It’s certainly happening, and people have to be aware that Facebook really isn’t a private place. I tried to minimise my own; I didn’t set it up, my friend did.

Facebook has its role. It makes it easier to find stuff. A lot of the time it’s used in the media when there’s a car crash with young people and the media go there for photos and quotes and to find out what the young people were interested in. Unfortunately those things are news events. To get photos from Facebook you’d always contact the family and get their permission and ask if it’s okay. I’d never run photos of anyone’s children from Facebook.

People post stupid photos on there when they’re drunk. I wouldn’t go near that if it’s just an ordinary person. If they are a well known public figure — if it’s a politician who is dumb enough to post a drunken shot on their Facebook, for example — but for your Average Joe, you have to be wary of how you use it. You make a judgment on a case-to-case basis.

What has been your career highlight?

One was I got to meet Muhammed Ali. When the Sydney Olympics were on, I had to follow the torch relay for 30 days when it was in Victoria. Me and a photographer had to write a story each day about the person carrying the torch, which after 30 days can get a bit dull and not change that much it was challenging finding new interesting stuff.

Muhammed Ali was brought out by Richard Pratt to go visit his employees. And the torch was there one day and we got to shake hands and get a photo with him and that was a highlight that the job can bring you. Professionally in a story sense I think a story me and Nick McKenzie did last year on corruption on the reserve bank and banknote manufacturing companies overseas and it a hard one because it took 8 months. The bank and the company denied it initially, we’ve so far been proven right.

Then you meet lots of memorable person, not famous, but in the rural rounds especially sometimes you get phone calls from farmers or people you met on the road travelling around. Good thing about that job was you could just drive up a dusty driveway in country Victoria and say “I’m doing a story on the grain harvest” and generally people would be so helpful and invite you in and show you around have a cup of tea and keep in touch with them. I still like stuff like that because unfortunately a lot of the time in investigative journalism you’re bringing stuff down and destroying stuff it’s nice to still have the human contact with people from times when it wasn’t do destructive.

What’s it like being an investigative journalist?

It’s hard work, and there’s a sense of satisfaction when something comes off and because it’s always high stakes and there’s a lot to lose it’s very stressful because you know if you make a mistake your credibility is gone, whether it be politicians or big companies to have the means to exploit you and take you down. Prospect of law suits. Risk of unknown when you’re edging into criminality. It’s a privilege to do the job, to get the time, the resource, and the support of the paper and the editors. It does have its moments when people lie to you, however.

Sometimes a story can have a disastrous effect on someones life, family, careers can be ruined. And you always have to put yourself in their shoes, and that’s why you have to be careful not to make a mistake. There aren’t many people doing this sort of stuff anyway, and if you stop doing it how much more stuff will be going on and not getting out? The people getting hurt are the ordinary people, who get mistreated or ripped off, and that keeps you going. I don’t know if you can constantly do this job indefinitely, I certainly look forward to my holiday.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

One of the biggest challenges is convincing sources who want to blow the whistle, but are scared of losing their job and being threatened. Convincing them to cross that line so you can use that information and winning their confidence and trust takes patience and sometimes you won’t be able to do it. You also have to conceal your frustration. You have to work out ways to protect them from exposure, because people want to find out who your sources are, and there are always traps being laid to find your sources.

What’s your advice for tomorrow’s journalists?

Just get published as much as you can. Do your own stuff. Be different. Don’t aspire to be a ‘she said, he said’ reporter. That’s meaningless stuff. Do stuff you enjoy and makes a different, and informs and entertains. The key ability — regardless of how news will be delivered — is being able to break stories. That quality is never going to be devalued and you’ll always be able to find work if you can do that. Be prepared to flexible and embrace all the technologies. Unfortunately it’s increasingly tough to get into. The traditional training programs aren’t what they used to be. It takes time to get paid well. A lot of journalists out there get nothing or get ripped off a lot.

Madeleine Barwick is completing her honours thesis in Journalism at La Trobe University

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