Defending Your Work, Defending Each Other: Inside NZ's Investigative Journalism Conference

Anna Bracewell-Worrall reports from the NZCIJ's annual conference.

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What does an investigative journalism conference look like in a country with a small population and an even smaller, even more concentrated media?

For a start, it looks pragmatic, but kind. At the second annual New Zealand Centre for Investigative Journalism conference, held last weekend at Massey University in Wellington, it took a realistic perspective on the constraints facing newsrooms across the country. Speakers were generous with sharing their knowledge and offered their time for free. In fact, their willingness to help journalists across competing organisations (and perhaps, for those journalists to support each other) could provide a model antidote to the pressures of newsroom deadlines, and the increasing scarcity of retainer-style arrangements,  that otherwise limit the ability to pursue lengthy investigations.                                                        

The conference was held under Chatham House rules, meaning I can’t tell you exactly who said what. The rules exist so speakers can feel free to voice their opinions without fear of having their quote turn up in the paper, muddying the story they’re working on or the court case they’re about to present or appear in.

I can tell you we heard from Nicky Hager, who was to appear in the Wellington High Court the next morning to seek judicial review of the Attorney-General’s raid of his home. I can also tell you we heard from North and South editor Donna Chisholm, investigative journalist Mike Hall, former police officer John Gaulter, Herald reporter David Fisher, former Chicago Reporter staffer Jeff Lowenstein, who has made remarkable multimedia forays into investigative journalism with his brother Jon that encompass both data-drilling and Instagram, and a handful of others.

The conference opened on the topic of wrongful conviction cases. It’s timely, with two high-profile cases (Mark Lundy and Teina Pora) seemingly reaching their conclusions this year, and a third potentially set to return to the public spotlight, after convicted double murderer Scott Watson was granted the right to speak to White by a High Court judge last month. Of course, the current golden child of wrongful conviction stories is Teina Pora, as diligently reported on by TV3’a 3rd Degree (now 3D). That campaign’s been lengthy, and remarkable in its eventual success. After 20 years in prison, Pora’s convictions were quashed.

But there’s great reputational risk to the journalist who fronts such a campaign, should the subject end up being guilty. Certainty of innocence is simply not a reality in most cases, though a speaker noted that it’s a good hint if the defence lawyer is saying they think their client didn’t do it.

Given that wrongful conviction cases require a great deal of time and effort - sometimes years - and given there is no guarantee of innocence, why should a journalist risk damaging their career covering this stuff? One of our speakers says it's because they feel compelled to. It’s about fighting causes. The other says it shows the system someone’s watching; someone’s holding them to account.

If you are to run a wrongful conviction campaign, we’re told, it pays to pick your subject carefully. It can be a challenge to win public support, especially if the subject has committed violent or sexual offenses in the past. And then there are the characters involved. Like David Bain’s advocate, Joe Karam, they might be outspoken and passionate - but advocates could also be unreliable at times, and their presumptions must be challenged.

And then there are the questions as to how involved a journalist should become. If your subject is released early, without money and without support, it could be a recipe for re-offending and a disaster for your campaign. There may well be practical and financial considerations which would blur the line between reporter and booster - and that can be where your Karams (even at arms’ length) are needed.

Moreover, wrongful conviction cases are different from a lot of investigative journalism in that there may be few opportunities to speak face-to-face with the person at the centre of the project - and what few there are could be controlled and supervised. Not all investigative journalism involves interviews, but when it does, they can be a delicate business. Someone recounts their car ride with a man who’s confessed to murder and just agreed to take them to the site of the body. At any moment they could realise what they’ve confessed to and hastily back out. How do you manage that situation? It’s an exercise in building trust and reading - and perhaps out-maneuvering - humans.

Beyond justice (and injustice) cases, these two points were rehashed by a number of presenters. They spoke of the importance of establishing a rapid connection and sense of trust with the interviewee. Use your personality and sense of empathy to build a human connection - ask about their kids, the kowhai tree at their front gate. It’s this weird combination of real and calculated, the genuine and the put-on, that really successful investigative journalists seem to have mastered.

If your subject could scare easily, our speakers warn against giving them the time or space to ask themselves why they just let this oddball reporter into their own home or led a detective to a body. If they offer a drink, take the cup of tea - it takes a while to cool down and drink, and the subject has just invested a little time and effort into you. If they’re nervous, don’t go to the loo, don’t record, don’t write notes. Find a quiet place and write everything down the moment you leave. And, importantly, be good to good people and never tell lies.

We’re told these sources won’t just come to you out of the blue. You will come across them if you are looking and thinking already, but there’s one particular thing we’re told to actively seek out - retirements. If someone’s retired from a government agency, there’s someone who might hold a whole lot of information and could be disgruntled, or at least have little to lose. If you want to find out what’s been happening in Iraq, scour LinkedIn for Defense Force job openings and figure out who left that job. Organisations are never as monolithic as they seem. Within them are people having feuds, gritting their teeth. Potential whistleblowers all over the place who are not who you expect them to be.

All this thinking and watching will inevitably mean engaging in a lot of sideways research and background reading. As you do this, look for the voids of information and observe patterns. You might notice that despite freedom of speech in this country, some people are afraid to speak out or are attacked by bloggers when they do. You might ask yourself why that is. You might notice no one’s really writing about what’s happening in the Middle East after a quick flurry at the start of the year. You might decide to find out what’s going on there.

When you find a good source, you’ll want to decide how much protection they need. If they are supplying information that puts them in a precarious position, protect them fiercely and meticulously right from the beginning. Tell no one about the source, and don’t leave a digital trail. This might mean calling them from someone else’s phone and setting up a physical meeting wherever possible. It might mean only visiting them in their home, face-to-face, speaking to them once you can see they are alone.

If you are able to communicate without raising suspicion, we’re told to do so. Paranoia aside, bugging is very rare, so the content of your communication is unlikely to be compromised. Metadata collection is not, and can be used to figure out who you’ve been calling or emailing, and from information such as document sizes, organisations can quickly narrow down which files they possess of that size. From there they may work out what was sent and who had access to it. Last year, Hager published an article on investigative journalist Jon Stephenson, saying US agencies helped the New Zealand military spy on him while he was based in Afghanistan. It was also revealed Andrea Vance’s swipe card phone was being tracked and her phone records accessed during the investigation of who leaked the Kitteridge report into the GCSB. It’s happening, but it’s also not too difficult to evade.

While authorities may be directly or indirectly obstructive to investigative journalism, and investigations of people (or issues) on which you directly or indirectly stake a moral claim may run the risk of damaging the career of a journalist, the tone of the conference was to buck up and carry on. Obviously, running a long investigation isn’t possible when you work in on the newsroom floor and are subject to a bottomless pit of deadlines. Advice from the veterans included keeping tabs on a certain subject of yours alongside your daily work. Just have it churning away quietly in the background and check on it every so often.

Lastly, one particularly optimistic investigative journalist urged media to work across camps, help each other out and and ask each other for assistance on sources, contacts, pre-existing research. In this time of instability in news media, he says we can drastically improve if we help each other out.