Double British Journalism Award winner George Arbuthnott: 'It's about ringing the phones as hard as you can'

Sunday Times reporter George Arbuthnott says other newspapers would not give him the time to complete investigations like his award-winning modern slavery campaign.

The deputy editor of the Insight team (pictured above left) picked up his second British Journalism Award, in the breaking news category, this week for his work on the FIFA scandal. Last year he won in the campaign of the year category.

But although The Sunday Times gave him the space to work on such stories, he says: “I don’t know if many other papers would do.”

The 29-year-old was previously a news reporter at The Mail on Sunday, before moving to The Sunday Times after winning the inaugural Marie Colvin scholarship, a one-year scheme set up in memory of the late Sunday Times foreign correspondent.

He says: “I’d done some work on human trafficking when I was at the Mail, but never been able to properly focus on it.

“The Sunday Times allowed me to completely commit to it for around two years.

“That’s the beauty of Insight, you get given the time to commit to spending long periods working on single, really important topics, rather than having to flip between the daily news stories.”

During the two years spent investigating slavery in Britain, Arbuthnott says he received “phonecalls late at night from people making various threats”.

He says: “They were saying, ‘we’re watching you’ and ‘we’ll get you’ and I just was sort of saying: ‘If you can tell me who you are, I’d be grateful and what your issue is?’

“But they wouldn’t engage so I’d usually end up hanging up and stop taking their calls.

“I didn’t ever really take it seriously, but it did put a few questions in my head, you know you never quite know.”

Arbuthnott joined the team investigating FIFA around the time legal action was beginning to take place against its executives. 

He says: “It was just terrifically exciting. For a long time FIFA was entirely unaccountable.

“There was just no chance that anyone would ever be held to account, so when the arrests first happened it was a terrific moment for Insight that we actually thought all the work that had gone in would count for something.

“That story came about from a sort of ferocious period of three days where in that very short time period we had to get a hold on the scale of the investigation. 

“So it was very difficult, but luckily we were able to find the sources who could stand it up for us.”

Since moving to The Sunday Times in March 2013, he has spent much of that period working under Jonathan Calvert (pictured above, centre, being presented with the breaking news prize by Kurt Barling).

The editor of the Insight team picked up Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards on Tuesday night and Arbuthnott describes him as “masterclass”.

“It’s terrific to watch him operate and learn from his calmness and clarity.

“The way he deals with people is brilliant, because they immediately trust him and respect him and that means they tell him things that they wouldn’t tell other people.

“I think I have a lot to learn on that. Also the way he strategises and structures an investigation.

“He’s just so experienced at it and knows exactly what to do, so it’s just great to be able to learn from that.”

Arbuthnott says he also learned much working at The Mail on Sunday.

“The Mail is pretty old school and still believes in shoe-leather and door knocking and that sort of thing.  I think those skills have allowed me to hopefully produce stories that others haven’t.

“There’s a lot of young journalists come in, they’re good at doing all the Google work and the open source stuff but I think the skill that’s hardest to learn is the human source work which I find produces the most interesting and revelatory stuff.

“Persuading people to talk to you and give you material still seems to produce results.

"If you identify a topic where you think there’s wrongdoing, it’s about ringing the phones as hard as you can and speaking to as many people as you can.

“Then it’s building up the first possible picture so you can identify the weak spots where you can actually get the evidence you need.”

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