Investigative journalism’s secret is that stories don’t usually come from fabulous contacts or anonymous brown envelopes.
The Evening Standard’s investigation revealing the extraordinary sums of public money paid to organisations run by senior advisers to the Mayor, or their friends – organisations that have done little or nothing in return – started with a written answer to the London Assembly.
I trawl openly-available, but largely ignored, sources, like the Assembly website. And one day I noticed, buried in answers on an organisation called Brixton Base, a £287,000 grant for ‘premises”. But another answer about Brixton Base said it occupied a Mayor-owned building, rent free, at the time.
I pulled up the Companies House file on Brixton Base and found it hadn’t accounted for the money. I saw, too, that its patron was one Lee Jasper, the Mayor’s senior aide for equalities and policing, and its director was one of his closest friends. I got the records of all the other companies at the same address and other companies run by the same people – and then their accounts, and those of the GLA. I came up with eleven companies, paid at least £2.5 million in public money.
I started calling my contacts in the black community, and elsewhere, and I ended up with a wodge of leaked emails and dozens of people who talked, on or off the record. The more you know before you call someone, the likelier they are to help you.
On a big, damaging story like this, working out how to deal with the inevitable counter-attack is also important.
We knew Livingstone’s first response would be to denounce me as an evil racist (with the predictable dash of Lord Hutton thrown in), so we kept material back. As Ken’s denials grow ever more hysterical, we’ve rolled out more sources and more evidence to, shall we say, put those denials into perspective.
And if there is a lesson from Hutton, it is that anonymous sources, however accurate, are not enough. This story rests on signed statements, taped interviews, documents. For all his ranting, Ken has denied virtually none of our specific allegations (he’s tended to take refuge in semantic boltholes, denying things we never alleged.)
Despite the title of this slot, I haven’t quite ‘done it’yet. The story is complicated, and modern journalism doesn’t do complicated. Most original investigations – one thinks of The Guardian’s admirable BAE story – spend months being rubbished by their targets and ignored by other media before breaking through.
This story has had big London play, leading both local TV news bulletins twice, but is only now stirring national interest. The key – as always – is persistence, and new material.
Luckily, there is plenty of that. With an ‘inclusiveness’to make Lee Jasper himself proud, other City Hall figures will soon find themselves involved. Even more luckily, I work on one of the very few papers, with one of the very few editors, who is prepared to persist, to give serious investigations the time and space they depend on.