London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Iain Overton is the Managing Director of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which is a non-profit organization that aims to produce high-quality investigations for national and international media, as well as support the education and training of investigative journalists. Overton studied at Cambridge University and has worked for the BBC and ITN. He is primarily known as a documentary maker, and has produced films on a wide range of issues including the activities of the minutemen on the US – Mexico border, child trafficking in India, and honor killing in Turkey. His films have won numerous awards including a Bafta Scotland, a Prix Circom, a Peabody Award, and a One World media award.
The following is the full text of the interview.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
[Overton] I have been a journalist for 13 or so years. I was at the BBC for the majority of my tutelage; rising up from being a researcher to being a senior producer on the international strand ‘This World’. My time at the BBC was a very happy one and I was lucky enough to receive a number of awards for some of the investigations I carried out. I got something called a Peabody Award for an investigation into counterfeit pharmaceuticals in Africa and India. I won a Bafta Scotland for a Scottish investigation into organized crime; and I won a ‘One World’ award for a film I made in Somalia. My main focus was on TV documentaries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you describe British Journalism today?
[Overton] From a broadcast position, I think that some of the panoramas have played well internationally. Things like the “Secret Policeman” [documentary] showed very strong investigation and revealed systemic racism within the British Police forces. The recent “Dispatches” exposure of lobbying in parliament showed how things really work in British Parliament. The sad truth is that such investigations are increasingly hard to finance and they are fewer and further between. Most people in Broadcast journalism accept that the amount of slots available for quality broadcasts has reduced over time. In terms of journalism at its best, I think that there are some very strong strands out there; Aljazeera English is a very strong producer of investigative work, or “60 Minutes” in the US also produces some very strong work, as do the Germans and Scandinavians. I think there is a very real concern that in many areas of the world where new economic powers are developing – places like China and Brazil – their investigative journalism isn’t yet as developed as it is in Europe.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little bit about the Bureau of Investigative Journalism?
[Overton] The bureau was conceived by David and Elaine Potter as part of the Potter foundation. David Potter made some money with his computer company and he and his wife Elaine – who used to be a Sunday Times journalist – believed that there was a lot of work to be done in quality journalism and investigative journalism in the UK and internationally so they initially put forward £2 million to help the process of investigative journalism. The role of the bureau is to do two things; one is to carry out investigative journalism, and the other is to help a new generation to undertake investigative journalism and to look at new ways in which investigative journalism can be financed. Over time the Bureau of Investigative Journalism aims to be self sufficient and a source of both new stories as well as a means through which new stories can be funded. In some ways out hope is that our model will be a commercial model, but we cannot discount that philanthropy will have to play a part in sustaining the financial model of journalism over time. In terms of what kind of people the Bureau will take on over time, naturally we will take on freelancers but the relationship that the Bureau has with City University means that we will [also] take onboard interns and those looking for work experience from City University to carry out investigations with us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What does the Bureau of Investigative Journalism do with the investigative articles that are written by its staff? Do you sell them off?
[Overton] There are a number of ambitions and we are currently looking at different financial models. We just formed a relationship with the Financial Times where we are collaborating with them on a major investigation. My hope is that that this investigation, rather than just being published in the Financial Times, could also be broadcast on other media networks. For instance, there might be a possibility that just as we run a newspaper article we can also have a documentary going out on European television or on satellite TV that mimics the investigation which is going out on print. My basic belief is that the fragmentation of the market has meant that publishing on one medium alone is insufficient to securing a major impact; both in order to earn the money back [spent] on the cost of the investigation, but also more importantly in order to have an influence on the public at large.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What’s your view on newspapers selling their stories via the internet, and what do you about the long term prospects for newspapers whether this is in the UK or the Middle East?
[Overton] There will be two types of newspapers [in the future]. The first is the newspaper who will retreat away from the digital medium, which is a short term solution, so there may be some newspapers who say “We will take our information off the internet” or “we will set up a system where you have to pay to access our content.” In the short-term some of these models might work, it’s too soon to tell whether the Financial Times or The Times model where you have to pay via the internet will work. I believe that the more specialized and the more expert your opinion, the more people will be willing to pay for it, and if you are just reporting on general news people will not be willing to pay for this. My general thought on international newspapers is that they are struggling with advertising downturn and fewer readers. However I believe that if newspapers begin to collaborate with broadcasters then they may find a way of sustaining investigation, particularly long-term forms of investigation over time, and I think the answer to increasing audience figures and advertising revenue is collaboration.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do the British daily newspapers carry out good investigative journalism, and do you think this is something that is too costly to provide?
[Overton] Investigative journalism is really a gamble. You can chase a story for 2 or 3 moths and it will reveal nothing in the end. If you have nothing at the end of it you can still publish something that is light and weak and possibly libelous and then open up your organization to being sued, or you can just sign off and accept that you didn’t get a result…and that is why is it is very costly. Quality journalism – when it works – can boost ratings and sales and advertising revenue, an example of this is the Telegraphs coverage of the [MP] expense scandal, which was investigative journalism to a degree, even if it wasn’t true investigative journalism in the sense that it required the purchase of a whistle blowing document however this was still of massive benefit to the Telegraph. But there are also masses of instances where the investigation didn’t get the results that the journalist hoped to reveal. So investigative journalism can be extremely costly and this is why it is one of the fist things which seems to be affected when newspaper editors have to make cuts.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the British MPs Expenses Scandal was the best piece of investigative journalism this year?
[Overton] Yes. It’s had the most impact, but there have still been many others that were very good, although they didn’t have as much of an impact, but they are powerful stories and are very revelatory, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was the best investigative report, but it has had the longest consequences.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What other stories have you like this year?
[Overton] I think the “Dispatches” story on lobbying in parliament was very strong
[Asharq Al-Awsat] what special characteristics are needed for working in investigative journalism?
[Overton] I think that a quality that an investigative journalist needs to have is dogged persistence and the ability to spend hours and hours going over details without giving up hope that there is something at the end of it. So I think that you need perseverance and determination.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the number of investigative journalists are increasing or decreasing?
[Overton] I think that because of the problems that the media is facing with costs the number of investigative journalist paid to do the work is decreasing, however the upturn in social networks and access to the internet and e-mails and blogs means that there are plenty of amateur journalist out there also stepping into the gaps, so I think the number of professional investigative journalist are slowly declining.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you describe what makes a good story?
[Overton] A good story is something that has relevance to people and shows people how things work. The process, the facts, the problems behind the scenes, and finally a story that has an effect, that has an impact, that causes a change and forces society to address the problem.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What names come to mind when you think of good investigative reports?
[Overton] Well I’m a fan of Ben Goldacre who is a very punchy journalist, who must be in his mid thirties. Nick Davies is also very good. And another person who is helping the Bureau and who I have a great amount of respect for is the ex editor of the “World in Action’ [current affairs program] Ray Fitzwalter.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is investigative journalism a solitary profession or is it better if it takes place as part of a team?
[Overton] I think that the best investigations happen as part of small teams working together, as people working together are able to give each other ideas on how to progress the story.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think men or women are more suited to this job?
[Overton] Well it would be impossible to say. I have an equal number of both men and women working here at the Bureau and it is more about the individual who brings their personality to the story. There are excellent male and female journalist, and there are also very bad male and female journalists, so I don’t think that you can say whether it is about whether you are a man or a woman.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Out of the 15 freelance journalists working for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, how many of them are women?
[Overton] We have about 8 women who are all rather youngish, and the point of the Bureau is to try and train up the next generation of investigative journalists; so they’re all under 40.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What sort of issues pique your interest make you want to investigate them?
[Overton] In the UK, I am very interested in public service accountability and how our public services works. Internationally, I think that the so-called war on terror is an area that has to be carefully analyzed and we have to make sure that the governments are acting within the boundaries of human rights and the guidelines of the Geneva Convention.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there anything you would like to add to our readers?
[Overton] I am keen to hear from Arabic speaking journalists who have stories to tell.
We are a totally independent media organization, and we have no bias with regards to sex, race, color or creed and I am interested in exposing all manner of corruption and failings. So I would like to use this opportunity to tell other journalists that our doors are open for collaborations.