Gavin MacFadyen: ‘maniacs’ make good investigative reporters

Leeds Trinity University College Journalism Week is running from Monday 22 until Friday 26 February. Speakers from across the industry will be at Leeds Trinity to talk about the latest trends in the news media, including Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger; BBC news director Helen Boaden, Sky News reporter Mike McCarthy and ITN political correspondent Chris Ship.

Addressing journalism students from Leeds Trinity University College as part of its annual Journalism Week, veteran investigative journalist Gavin MacFadyen said he is optimistic about the future of the specialist field, despite the “bad environment” that surrounds the industry in the UK.

The American, who is the director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism and a Visiting Professor at City University London, told students about his experiences as an investigative reporter and shared anecdotes about some of the world’s most famous exposés.

MacFadyen outlined the bleak conditions that reporters face when attempting projects that are time intensive and require sufficient financial backing, and criticised the “risk averse” culture of media organisations in the UK, who refuse to fund lengthy inquiries that are costly and could end up in court.

“This kind of journalism is very rarely practised in Britain,” he said. “The media don’t want to spend the money – they don’t want to pay for it. It’s time-intensive but there’s no way around that.”

But despite the issues, he said good examples of investigative journalism remained, highlighting the MPs’ expenses scandal and exposure of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme as good examples.

The former war correspondent – who has worked on flagship programmes such as Panorama, World in Action and Dispatches – refuted concerns investigative journalism couldn’t be profitable, citing the example of French magazine Le Canard Enchaine

He described it as the French equivalent of Private Eye and explained it was “profitable because the information is critical to your life.”

And he advised students to get involved in investigative reporting, encouraging them to look for opportunities overseas where such journalism receives better funding and resources.

MacFadyen added that there was a “salvation” in the form of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organisation that he helped set up.

When asked what skills and qualities were needed in aspiring reporters, he said: “It’s not so much [about] skills, its mania. If you’re a maniac and really suspicious and compulsive – you’re going to do well, you’ll get the skills.

“You have to know your way around public sources. You’re prepared to work extraordinary hours and put up with the endless reading of the most boring documents you have ever seen.

“But then there’s the ‘eureka’ moment and suddenly you see something on the page that’s going to nail some very bad people and it’s all worthwhile.”

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