Insight editor Jonathan Calvert: 99% journalism 'not about trawling through databases, it's talking to people'

Sunday Times Insight editor Jonathan Calvert's national newspaper career began with one of the biggest British political scoops of the modern era – the original House of Commons cash-for-questions exposé.

But he ranks the ongoing investigation into corruption at Fifa as the biggest story he has ever worked on

Earlier this month, the Fifa investigation won yet more awards as revelations about president Sepp Blatter saw Calvert and Sunday Times colleagues pick up the breaking news prize at the British Journalism Awards. Calvert also won  the top prize of journalist of the year in recognition of his team's mammoth investigation into corruption at football's world governing body and revelations of doping which have rocked the world of athletics.

Both the Fifa Files and the doping scandal involved huge amounts computer-based research. But Calvert says relationships with people are still the most important element when it comes to finding stories.

“In the end it's not about trawling through databases, it’s about talking to people. Ninety-nine per cent of journalism is a human resource thing.

“It's about contacts, finding the right people who might know things, hoping that people might give you things. Sometimes there can be a temptation for modern journalists to just trawl the internet hoping that they are going to find a story.

“It's not impossible to do that, but you are rarely going to get something that's really great from that. The best stuff comes from your fellow human beings.”

Conservatives more 'business-minded' when it came to cash for questions

Calvert began his journalism career at Leeds University where he was editor of the Leeds Student, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s first command.

After a few months which he found “deadly boring” at a computer magazine called Datalink, he was part of the launch team for Wales on Sunday. He then worked as chief reporter of the Cardiff-based Western Mail before joining The Sunday Times as a reporter on Insight in 1993 working alongside editor Maurice Chittenden and his deputy Mark Skipworth.

In the summer of 1994 Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed was claiming MPs were like taxis for hire, so Skipworth decided to send young Calvert into the Commons to find out if this was true.

Calvert says: “I was the one who had to go out and pretend to be a small investor. I bought myself a new summer jacket and I went and saw these MPs at the House of Commons and offered them £1,000 to ask a question and if they said yes I'd hand over the cheque then and there.

“We thought it was quite a good story. It was only when everyone in the newsroom came into our office and said it was amazing that we realised how big it was. It was the first time I could think of that anyone had done anything like that.”

The two MPs who agreed to table parliamentary questions, Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick, both received short suspensions from Parliament.

Today press regulator IPSO takes a dim view of undercover “fishing expeditions”.

But Calvert says: “In those days the rules weren't quite as tight. We had a generalised allegation from Mohamed Al-Fayed that you could just buy an MP like a taxi. We picked the MPs at random, ten from Labour and ten from the Conservatives.

"Inevitably the Conservatives were more business-minded and agreed to do it.”

In October that year, The Guardian reported that lobbyist Ian Greer had paid Conservative MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith £2,000 each to ask questions on behalf of Al-Fayed.

The Sunday Times and Guardian stories led to the Nolan Standards on public life and new roles over MPs' disclosure of outside interests. “It had a huge effect,” says Calvert.

It also spawned a succession of subsequent newspaper stings in which journalists have tested the extent to which public figures can be influenced by the lure of lucre.

Calvert left The Sunday Times to become head of investigations at The Observer in April 1996 working with Dave Connett, Lucy Johnston and Michael Gillard senior (Gillard junior would also work with Calvert at the Sunday Times and was journalist of the year in 2012 for his investigation into gangster David Hunt).

The four were poached en-masse by the Daily Express during Rosie Boycott’s brief attempt as editor to take the paper upmarket, only to be made redundant following Richard Desmond's takeover of Express Newspapers in 2001.

Calvert says: “He didn't want anything that was going to be a legal risk, he was quite clear about that. He wanted very simple clear journalism where he wouldn't have any libel risk afterwards.”

He came back to The Sunday Times in 2001, working as a reporter and then deputy news editor, before becoming Insight editor in 2005.

At the time it was reported that Insight had been disbanded as a cost-saving move, but Calvert says this is not true.

“Up until then we had four people in a room. As an experiment they decided to just have me as the editor forming ad hoc teams as and when.

“It was reported that they had closed down Insight. We hadn't, we had just decided to do it a different way.”

The experiment ended shortly afterwards when Claire Newell became Insight deputy editor. She was replaced by Heidi Blake in 2011 who left the paper earlier this year to become investigations editor of Buzzfeed UK.

Today Insight is back up to three, with David Collins and George Arbuthnott working alongside Calvert.

Calvert says: “We found it was sort of better to have at least one other person. There’s so many benefits from having two brains on things and having the ability to constantly discuss things between the two of you.”

Calvert emphasises the extent to which the Fifa investigation was a team effort between himself and Blake (the pair are pictured below at the 2014 British Journalism Awards where they won three prizes).

“Heidi is truly brilliant. She's the most talented journalist I have ever worked with and the reason for Sepp Blatter's downfall." 

The investigation was published across the first 11 pages of The Sunday Times in June 2014. Based on millions of leaked documents, it revealed how Qatar had spent millions corruptly winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup via its representative Mohamed bin Hammam.

Calvert says that he and Blake spent three months on the story before publication and that it involved “an enormous amount of work”.

“We couldn't review the files here in London… because the source was worried about the documents leaking anywhere so it was important they were contained in a certain place where we could review them on powerful computers.

“We started at the beginning of March and went on from March through June. Initially we travelled there during the week. By the end she and I would be working every hour God sends. We sort of disappeared. I think our colleagues at work thought we had been sacked.” 

Today Fifa faces an investigations from the FBI in  America and police in Switzerland. Fifa president Sepp Blatter has been suspended, as has Uefa president Michel Platini, and both face possible bans from involvement in football.

Calvert believes the Fifa Files investigation was “the thing that really started pushing them down the hill into this position”.

He says: “They lost all support at that point, partly because their reaction to the crisis was so dreadful…

“In terms of impact and ramifications it probably is the biggest story I've ever worked on.”

Neither Qatar or Muhammed bin Hammam have ever issued any comment about The Sunday Times story. Blatter responded by calling the Sunday Times “racists” in front of Fifa’s African Congress.

Lawyer Michael Garcia, who was being paid by Fifa to investigate corruption in world football, appeared to ignore the Fifa Files exposé.

“The day after we did the story we sort of expected Garcia to come to us and say he would like to see our evidence. He announced he was stopping the evidence-gathering stage of the inquiry that day and from then on he would just be writing his report.”

As to how the story came about, Calvert will only say that it was “because we had done a lot of work on Fifa earlier” which led them to win the trust of the source who provided them with the damning Fifa documents.

In 2010 Calvert’s Insight team posed as representatives of an American consortium seeking to secure the 2018 or 2022 World Cup for America. Seven weeks before the crucial vote of the Fifa executive committee they found a member of the body who was willing to sell his vote for $500,000.

Then in 2012, Blake and Calvert revealed that Qatar’s World Cup bid team had agreed to pay $1m to the son of a Fifa executive committee member to host a gala dinner which cost a fraction of that figure to hold.

Calvert says it was this story which started the Garcia corruption investigation, which in turn prompted the Swiss police investigation and the downfall of Blatter: “It’s like a chain of dominoes. We don't quite how far this is going to go.” 

'The last thing you want to do is get involved in a libel trial'

While the Fifa investigations have unfolded Calvert and Blake were also involved in fighting two of the biggest libel cases of recent years.

In March 2012, The Sunday Times reported that then Tory Treasurer Peter Cruddas had offered potential Tory party donors access to David Cameron for £250,000, after he was secretly recorded in a Calvert and Blake sting operation. He won £180,000 in libel damages in July 2013, only for that to be overruled by the Court of Appeal. The court however ruled that the newspaper should not have reported that Cruddas knew the money offered came from foreign investors in breach of UK law, and on this point he he was awarded £50,000. 

Then, last month, former Tory MP Tim Yeo lost a libel action prompted by reports in The Sunday Times that he offered to abuse his position in Parliament to further foreign business interests. Blake and Calvert had posed as representatives of a Far East solar energy company which was seeking to secure Yeo’s services.

Calvert says: “The last thing you ever want to do is get involved in a libel trial. It is so much down time in terms of work because it takes so much effort.

“In the Cruddas trial, every single action we did, everything we said to each other or had written down, any tape recorded conversations were absolutely pored over because basically the other side were attempting to prove that we had behaved not just irresponsibly but that we had made the whole thing up. We hadn't.

“Cruddas, for both Heidi and I, was so much pressure and an incredibly intense experience. It was absolute bewilderment and so depressing when we lost.  To win on appeal was a massive relief.”

He said the Cruddas case is evidence of the extent to which the UK libel system can be weighted against publishers.

“Everyone should have the right to sue. But this was a case that was drawn out into something it never needed to be.

“It was based on a two-hour recording that was clear. Because the other side went for malicious falsehood, they turned it into this monster of a trial.”

Update 31 December 2015: Peter Cruddas has provided a statement which appears at the bottom of this article.

The Yeo trial was, Calvert says, much simpler. But the trial still cost around £1m, with Yeo's insurers set to pay the Sunday Times £500,000. He speculates that it might not have gone so far if Yeo’s lawyers did not take the case on a no win, no fee basis.

He says: “One of the problems there was the whole conditional fee agreement. Once Yeo had started, if the insurers were ever going to get their money back we were either going to collapse and pay them out, which we were never going to do, or they would have to go to trial. I question whether they should have ever gone to trial.”

It has been widely noted that the cost of defending libel actions is so high that many publishers feel compelled to settle cases for purely pragmatic reasons, even when they feel they are in the right.

Calvert says: “One of the wonderful things about working for The Sunday Times is they do feel they've got to back their journalism.

“We will apologise if we've got something wrong but we will fight libel cases because otherwise people will just assume we can roll over and try it on all them time.

“I think that's what Tim Yeo was doing. He thought we were at a weak point where we would settle where we couldn't risk another expensive conflict.”

An 'awkward' incident in Bulgaria

Not all Calvert’s Sunday Times stings have resulted in awards and libel victories.

There is what he refers to as “that awkward incident in Bulgaria”.

This was when Calvert and Blake travelled to Bulgaria posing as a couple who were seeking to buy a baby.

They met a pair of prospective baby traffickers only for both sides of the transaction to find out they were being deceived.

“The man was wearing these glasses, which had sideboards down their side."

"He started asking all these questions like: 'You do realise it’s illegal to buy babies in Romania?’.

“I whispered to Heidi that they are either the police or they are reporters. The woman was very glam, and looked like the TV reporter she later turned out to be.

“We went back to the hotel room and put 'spy glasses' into the internet and there on Amazon where these very spy glasses.

“We rang them up and said, you may think we're a couple looking for a baby but we're not, we're undercover reporters like you and maybe we can co-operate.

“For whatever reason they thought it was a good idea to do a programme on it, so two weeks later they did this programme which was broadcast on Bulgarian TV.

“Basically the said, we were investigating the baby trade and then there was this odd twist in the tail. They had this ridiculous selfy of Heidi and I which we sent to them to show that we were a couple.”

Calvert is understandably vague when it comes to saying where he gets his stories but says it is rarely from people calling in to the office.

“Insight do not get ring-ins as such. It's rare and most of these stories aren't quite Insight stories when they come up.”

Instead, he says: “It's cultivating people who tell you things. It's having a good idea about a certain area which you think is suspicious. It might be colleagues who suggest something you should be looking at.

“One of the reasons we looked at Tim Yeo was because [Sunday Times science editor) Jonathan Leake suggested it was a good idea, he works in that area and seen all the stuff about Tim Yeo's conflicts of interest and thought it was outrageous that he was allowed to get away with this.

“A lot of the Westminster for sale stories came from contacts we've developed who I’d loosely term as sources within politics.”

Asked whether there is an element of luck involved in finding great stories,  he says: “I think you make your own luck.

“You can make yourself the people that people will come to. Part of that is about putting yourself around and part of that is about the quality of the work you do.

“The nightmare is that you never get another big story ever. Having done it for ten years I sort of have faith that something will always turn up.”

Statement from Peter Cruddas:

“I take issue with Jonathan Calvert’s contention in his interview with the Press Gazette that he and Heidi Blake had not behaved irresponsibly or been guilty of fabrication in relation to the defamatory articles which were published about me in the Sunday Times in March 2012. While it is correct that the Court of Appeal ultimately allowed part of the Sunday Times’ appeal, I remained the clear overall winner of the Court action I brought against Mr Calvert, Ms Blake and the Sunday Times."

Cruddas noted in his statement that he was awarded £50,000 in damages, that the Court of Appeal said the Sunday Times failed "by a wide margin" to justify the suggestion that he was prepared to break UK electoral law by accepting foreign donations and that the trial judge's assessment that this allegation was malicious was upheld by the Court of Appeal.

Cruddas said: "I also reject Mr Calvert’s assertion that it was my approach which turned the case into a 'monster of a trial'. I was left with no choice but to litigate in order to vindicate my reputation in the face of the very serious and damaging allegations the paper had published about me on its front page and inside pages. The Sunday Times deployed the huge resources at its disposal to try and defeat my claim with a legal team including three QCs. This, and the complex issues within the case, inevitably meant that the court action was substantial.”

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