London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Angus Stickler is a former BBC journalist who worked on such programs as the Today programme, File on 4, and Newsnight before being appointed the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s lead reporter in April 2010. Stickler is best known for his award winning investigation into child abuse within the Catholic Church, as well as exposing the failings of the British Ministry of Defense, the Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, and extra-judicial killings in Brazil, amongst other investigations. In 2006, Stickler was named News Journalist of the Year at the Sony Radio Academy Awards. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is a not-for-profit organization that aims to bolster original journalism and whose investigations have been widely covered by national and international newspapers and media outlets. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Angus Stickler about the media in general, investigative reporting in particular, the WikiLeaks phenomenon, and the future of journalism, in addition to other topics.
The following is the full text of the interview.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What first attracted you to journalism?
[Stickler] Well it certainly wasn’t the money. I think it was the same reasons that anyone drawn to journalism as a profession is, and without wanting to sound pompous, it was to hold those in power to account for injustice. I think it was also a job where you can travel the world and cause mischief and get paid for it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you first get a degree in Journalism or Media Studies before entering this profession?
[Stickler] No, I myself unfortunately had no degree, and embarrassingly I failed academically. I worked through the ranks on local papers, and then ended up at the BBC sixteen years ago. I then joined the Bureau [of Investigative Journalism] in April of 2010.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What particularly attracted you to investigative journalism, rather than other forms of journalism?
[Stickler] I think that it is the basis that you are trying to hold people to account, rather than just reporting on what you see. I’ve done both in my career. Covering conflicts such as Kosovo, Iraq, Burundi and Ethiopia, famines and earthquakes…that is very satisfying because you are there witnessing moments of history. The investigations are about exposing injustice and holding those in power to account, and that is my reason for getting into journalism and investigative reporting in the first place.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You spent sixteen years at the BBC?
[Stickler] Yes, sixteen years at the BBC. I was primarily at the Today programme, which is a flagship news outlet that also does documentaries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You then went on to join the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; looking back do you consider this to be the right decision?
[Stickler] It was a very difficult decision to leave the BBC. I was extremely fortunate and had a wonderful career there, and there were plenty of people who thought that I was mad to leave, and they may yet be proved right, but joining the Bureau [of Investigative Journalism] was a one-off opportunity not to be missed. It provides a new way of working and collaborating with different media organisation, and pooling resources that would otherwise not be done just because this is too problematic.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have been involved in a number of investigative reports, in your own opinion which one has had the greatest impact?
[Stickler] I think that without a doubt the one that had the most impact, which is not necessarily the one that I am most proud of, was exposing child abuse cover-ups in the Catholic Church in England and Wales. I think this was because it was an extremely difficult story, it took months, and we were reporting on it for about five years, and it was basically getting the documents that would prove that there was a deliberate cover up on the part of the Church. I think the end result was why it had the most impact, there was a national outcry, and that effectively changed the way in which allegations of child abuse were dealt with. And that is the point of what we do in journalism, which is trying to effect a change.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] WikiLeaks has made great strides with regards to freedom of speech and information, but do you think that the documents it has leaked threatens national security – as some claim – or that the WikiLeaks phenomenon has ultimately threatened, rather than helped, investigative journalism?
[Stickler] If we look at the Bureaus of Investigative Journalism’s collaboration with WikiLeaks over the Iraq war logs – which are 391,000 classified US military files – a good deal of time, effort and hand-wringing went into discussing the issue of what should or shouldn’t be put into the public domain, and every effort was made to redact materials so that lives were not put at risk. If anything, I think that the end result of that was that the files were over-redacted. In my view this was not a new phenomenon, it’s an age old issue and impacts on any journalist and any new organisation when dealing with sensitive or classified information. You get the information, you then have to verify that it is what it is, you then look at the possible repercussions, but the overriding issue is whether or not publishing it is in the public interest. In the case of the WikiLeaks documents, there is no question that it was clearly in the public interest, and it basically gave us a previously unseen insight into what happened in the war, it enabled us to expose hypocrisy and wrong doing, turning a blind eye to torture and war crimes, not just on the part of the coalition forces, but insurgent forces as well. I think that any leaked information has to be dealt with on a case by case basis. There are arguments that this information should be made available to all, but I think that argument is flawed, you have to act responsibly. Lives are at stake, and I, for one, would not want blood on my hands.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little about your beginnings as a journalist? Did you ever experience a defining moment in which you were certain that you had chosen the right career?
[Stickler] Well I’ve been in journalism longer than I wish to remember. The fist thing that I take issue with is with fame. I’m not famous and would never want to be. If your motivation is for fame, than my view is that you should get out of the trade. It should always be about the story, not the reporter, not the man, and the reporter should never become the story. In some respects that is why I find this interview quite difficult. The defining moment for me…I hadn’t done well at school, but I desperately wanted to be a journalist and I was lucky enough to get a job in a newspaper, and I built up my career.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How important do you think it is to have an academic degree, particularly as the increase in tuition fees in the UK may result in less people applying to join university? What other traits do you think are important for a journalist?
[Stickler] It’s difficult for me to answer in terms of tuition fees as I myself have no degree, and I started at a time when you could still make it by joining a paper and working your way up. Things have changed now and it is very difficult to enter without earning a university degree. New blood coming in now is almost exclusively from middle class families who have the means to support their children in the early parts of their careers, and I think that’s sad because there are some very sharp young potential journalists out there who come from possibly less advantaged backgrounds. I think [this] profession should be open to all.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With the rise of the internet, do you believe that print newspapers and books are under threat? What is your opinion about some online media placing their content behind a pay-wall, rather than allowing free access?
[Stickler] There are hard and difficult times of change within the industry, and everyone is looking at new ways of publishing and accessing information, and new ways of working. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve got the Bureau of Investigative Journalist here today; it’s a new way of working. I think the public are coming around to the realisation that if they want information based on facts then they have to go to reliable sources who can sift the wheat from the chaff, and that’s what we do in journalism. While delivery methods may change via online or hard copy, there will always be a place for strong impartial journalism. I will always buy my preferred national newspaper because I like to read it on my way into work, and I like to mull over it. I don’t want to be sat at a computer or an iPad.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What advice do you have for young journalist?
[Stickler] It’s difficult to get into journalism, but if you’re driven, don’t give up. It’s always a combination of luck and ability. You have to work your socks off, but if you do, the breaks will come. The big mistake a lot of young journalist make is that they get their first job, and there is a certain amount of arrogance that goes with that. You only get information from people if they like you. Nurture your contacts, look after your contacts. Don’t just drop them because you’ve moved on to a different story. They are your bread and butter, keep hold of them and you will continue to get jobs and stories, and then you’ll have a very good career.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you find most compelling about reporting?
[Stickler] As a reporter there is no better job. I’ve been extremely fortunate as I’ve got to see parts of the world you would never go to in any other trade, you get to experience history in the making first hand. Every story is different, whether you’re bouncing around in the back of a dusty Land Rover, or watching a politician squirm because you hit him with a question he didn’t want. Every day is different, and variety is the spice of life. I wouldn’t do anything differently.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How important is what is happening in the Middle East to news coverage?
[Stickler] It’s absolutely central to what’s going on in the world today. My opinion is that there is not enough coverage of the Middle East in the West, that is in depth coverage, in the right way, and which actually puts forward what is happening on the ground. It’s getting increasingly difficult – especially for western journalists – to operate in some countries, which I think is a travesty, because without journalists there you can’t get true and accurate reporting of what is going on. It is of fundamental importance as it is the one issue that is staring everyone is the face.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that it is important to have specialised journalists cover certain stories, such as having specialised journalists in Afghanistan and Iraq?
[Stickler] There are two schools of thought on this. One is that you have your specialist that has been working in the field for a long time and knows all of the ins and outs of everything. But then I think in terms of investigations, that is a different skill. Sometimes a combination of both is best and that is what we do at the Bureau [of Investigative Journalism], which is bringing in people with absolute expertise, and then combining that with someone who has expertise in investigations…this is the best way forward to really get at the nub of the story.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As a reporter, have you ever felt that you were under surveillance by intelligence agencies?
[Stickler] My view on this is that I would be flattered if I were to be placed under surveillance by secret services. I would hope that any security service worth its weight in any country would have various journalists under surveillance. I have never really covered the Middle East in any great respect, except for being a reporter outside of Iraq based in Turkey. It is the one area that I would have liked to have done more of and fully expect to in the future. I have thought at times that we may have been under surveillance. I have a feeling it was when the Bureau of Investigative Journalism was dealing with WikiLeaks’ Iraq war logs. I should imagine that we were under surveillance then, and there were curious things going on with phones and computers. It may just be reporter paranoia there, but it was certainly quite strange. There have been other times in my career as well, but for different reasons.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With 1 in 10 graduates unable to find work the UK, what kind of experience is necessary to join the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and who funds it?
[Stickler] At the moment we are funded by the Potter Foundation. As regards to young people getting into journalism, it is incredibly difficult. I for one would hope that if there was someone that we heard about who had promise as a journalist, and if they walked in our door or contacted us, we’d bring them in and talk to them, and if we felt that they did have promise, and the hunger and the drive to do the job, we would bring them in, degree or no degree.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the Bureau of Investigative Journalism offer training?
[Stickler] We don’t actually train anyone. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, if you like, is a not-for-profit organisation that’s primarily for journalists. We do get interns from City University, but unlike other organisation, here at the Bureau [of Investigative Journalism], they are paid.