"We can never get enough information."
04 November 2014
Journalist Jack Serle, of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is November's Monthly Talk speaker. Here he talks to Nione Meakin about increasing transparency, challenging state surveillance and avoiding lectures.
The biggest challenge is a product of the secret war we’re trying to monitor and report on – we can never get enough information. The Covert Drone War data and Naming the Dead data are drawn in large part from open sources. The strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are happening in remote and hard to reach areas. And there are many different actors in each country who make life difficult and dangerous for journalists. So it’s always difficult to get information about the drone strikes and casualties.
What tools/data/sources have proved most valuable?
There are various tools we use, like Twitter, Facebook, Google alerts and so on. But often the best tools are email and the telephone, or better yet having lunch or a pint with someone.
How do you ‘test’ a source for accuracy?
A lot of it is to do with instinct for the information and source, and also to do with a personal relationship with sources. Beyond that, you try to stand up the information a source provides by trying to verify with duplicate sources of information. Editors and fellow reporters are excellent barometers for whether you’ve stood something up or not.
What informs the direction of the Bureau’s investigations?
We’re investigative journalists rather than campaigners, so we go where the evidence we gather takes us. We don’t take a moral or ideological stance on something: we work on issues to increase transparency, doing journalism of public benefit.
Is there a report/investigation of which you are particularly proud?
I’ve had some stories with more impact than others – they’ve been read by more people, shared more widely or cited by politicians in parliament, or in government or UN reports. But I’m most proud to be part of the Bureau’s covert drone war project as a whole – work by more than half a dozen journalists over more than three years.
How do you handle the emotional fall-out of working on investigations like these?
I don’t think I have experienced too much emotional fall-out from my work on drones. There are times when individual stories are quite affecting and there are times when our database of drone strikes and deaths as a whole is affecting. And there are sometimes images that come my way that I would prefer not to look at. But ultimately I have it incredibly easy compared with the affected communities, and the journalists who risk their lives to report on the strikes.
Traditional media is cutting back on costly investigations and the government is routinely surveying journalists’ communications. How optimistic are you about the future of investigative journalism?
Traditional media has been cutting back for years now and investigations are still being published. I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I actually think we’re now at a turning point in journalism. Impactful investigative journalism remains prohibitively expensive for many publications and freelancers. However every week there seem to be new, interesting tools being created to help journalists find information, find funding for their research, and tell their stories. Crucially, these tools are free.
The routine surveillance of journalists’ communications is much more troubling I think, than the diminishing incomes of daily papers. We live in a time that relies almost entirely on electronic communication methods that are completely open to being perused by the State, or others. Plus it feels like we’ve let ourselves forget the mantra drilled into the early email adopters that you must not write something in an email that you wouldn’t put on a postcard.
Taken together, they are chilling and there are serious implications for sources and whistleblowers. The Bureau has made an application to the European Court of Human Rights to look into UK law, to see if it has the necessary protections for journalists, because there is a concern existing regulations don’t give sufficient safeguards to ensure journalists can protect their sources, and as a result is a restriction on the operation of a free press.
The philanthropically-funded, not-for-profit Bureau is the first of its kind in the UK. Do you see this model as the way forward for the beleaguered journalism industry?
Not-for-profit, philanthropically-funded journalism like the Bureau is unusual in the UK, though the Guardian is technically philanthropically funded with the Scott Trust behind it, and they haven’t made a profit in years so it’s not too unusual.
The Bureau operates on a model which is much more popular in the US. There are scores of non-profit investigative journalism outfits over there, working on local, state-wide, national or international stories. Pro Publica and the Center for Public Integrity are two big ones, but there’s also the New England Center for Investigative Reporting which focuses on Massachusetts and the New England area. Whether the number of non-profits in the US is sustainable is unclear – there are only so many wealthy philanthropists and foundations to go round.
This is one way of funding investigations. The big newspapers, like the Guardian, Sunday Times, New York Times are all still doing investigations, if not on the same scale as before. And they probably will continue to do so as they recognise it’s valuable work, despite the expense.
What drove you to become an investigative journalist?
I got into journalism at university because I didn’t want to play sport anymore though I did want to do something while avoiding lectures. And I got into investigative journalism after hearing tales of the great investigations by the Sunday Times’ Insight team under Harry Evans, and by World in Action and the like. Plus I read Flat Earth News by Nick Davies and felt that if I was going to be a journalist, I didn’t want to suffer like those depicted in his book.
What are the key tools of your work?
Broadband, a healthy distrust of authority, and patience.
Jack Serle is responsible for managing records of US drone strikes and casualties at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent not-for-profit organisation based at City University London.
Among the Bureau’s many major investigations (Lobbying’s Hidden Influence; Deaths in Police Custody) is Covert Drone War, which provides a full dataset of all known US drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
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