“The secret weapon of investigative journalists are informants; informants and an enquiring mind,” said veteran journalist Quentin Dempster at the panel discussion he chaired, The Secret Weapons of Investigative Journalists, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
In the packed Sydney Dance Theatre hall, the chair of the panel appeared to both begin and end the discussion in the first few minutes. Yet what unfolded over the next hour was an arsenal of insider knowledge from panel members who make a living exposing the secrets of the criminal and the corrupt.
For Caro Meldrum-Hanna, the secret weapon is discretion while working with her sources. In her exposure of live-baiting practices in greyhound racing for ABC’s Four Corners, the trick was in keeping her snooping secret over several months of enquiry. The key, says Caro, “is tactics”.
Suzanne Smith, whose reporting for the ABC on child sex abuse in the Catholic Church set the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in motion, said it’s the relationships you build with informants that prove most useful. For Suzanne, whose research relied on the testimony of victims and police whistleblowers, just spending time with your informants is crucial.
Likewise, Steve Pennells said trust is essential to investigative journalism. His journalistic integrity was put to the test following his reportage for The West Australian on Gina Rineheart’s legal disputes with her children. Rineheart, desperate to know his sources, engaged Steve in a two- year legal battle. For Steve, the secret is journalistic integrity.
“Informants won’t talk to you unless they can trust you completely,” he said.
The three journalists, each relating vastly different stories, all converged at one point. People power.
Whether as informants, whistleblowers or an impassioned audience, one way or another people are the foundation of investigative journalism. However, as the panel members said, the foundations seem to shake at times.
“We journalists totally immerse ourselves in a story,” Steve Pennells said, “but after it’s done, we move on. Sometimes there are people we leave behind…people who have been ruined.”
Journalism’s reliance on whistleblowers and informants proves to be a two-edged sword. For a journalist, intimidation and threats mark another notch on the belt of a seasoned agitator. But for the informant, the story doesn’t always end once the words are published.
“When you do these stories, you become a target,” Suzanne said, “not just from your enemies but from competing media, too.”
Suzanne’s informant in the child sex abuse cover-up, Detective Inspector Peter Fox, experienced this first-hand after appearing on Lateline. Suzanne said a journalist’s duty is to help a source face any backlash they receive from their participation in an investigation. In Peter’s case, his actions lead to an appearance at the Royal Commission.
But a whistleblower is not always vindicated after speaking out.
“Few people are really prepared for what will happen,” Steve said.
He recalled meeting Antoine Deltour and his pregnant wife in their quaint hometown in rural France. Deltour, an accountant for Price Waterhouse Coopers, was on the cusp of a massive data disclosure that would become known as the Luxembourg Leaks. Deltour’s files had a global reach implicating more than 300 multinational companies in tax avoidance.
“Deltour kicked off a whole global movement,” Steve said. “There are commissions, reviews and laws trying to change the practices he exposed. But they went after him as well.”
For his efforts, Deltour now faces an impending criminal trial.
Every journalist has a story to tell of an informant who was endangered, publicly discredited or left unemployable. Caro Meldrum-Hanna pointed out that funding cutbacks and staff redundancies plague already under-resourced media outlets. And how anonymous can a source stay when the police can gather metadata or subpoena evidence?
“The truth isn’t enough,” Caro said. Holding institutions to account is no longer commercially viable.
Quentin Dempster was quick to assure the audience this doesn’t mean the truth is lost. Rather, he said, we are entering a “brave new world of investigation”.
The Panama Papers, for example, speaks to the success of “crowd-sourced” investigative journalism. An international collaboration, kept tight-lipped until the day it dropped, the story exposed 11 million leaked documents of the tax havens of companies and individuals. What’s more the database is freely available to the public.
According to Quentin Dempster, this is the “beauty” of investigative journalism in the digital age.
“Anybody can be an investigative journalist if you’re prepared to act.”
Investigative journalism is made possible by the ordinary people who become informants, or who join the call for a Commission or petition the government for action. A collective sense of moral justice fuels the fires of investigation, and for Suzanne Smith, this is where the true value of her work lies.
“You start to wonder if it’s all worth it. Then you get the announcement there’s a Royal Commission and you think ‘yes, it’s all worth it’.”