Oliver: the man who wanted more

Joint
winner of this year’s Hugh Cudlipp Award Oliver Harvey has gone from
stable lad and gardener to become one of The Sun’s most successful
investigative reporters. He spoke to Dominic Ponsford

WELL-SPOKEN ecology graduate Oliver Harvey is far from anyone’s typical image of a hardened tabloid journo.

Yet over the last 18 months he has gone toe-to-toe with Albanian
people-smugglers, hidden in the back of a van posing as a Moldovan
illegal immigrant and gone undercover to expose a massive identity scam
at an Indian call centre.

He also picked up the Hugh Cudlipp
Award for outstanding tabloid journalism at the British Press Awards
earlier this year for his part in bringing about the Band Aid 20
Christmas single.

By anyone’s standards Harvey is enjoying a journalistic purple patch.

So what’s his secret?

“Always read the cuts.”

Oh come on, there must be more to it than that.

“Be polite to people, and if you’re posing as someone else, be credible – believe you are that person.”

Harvey makes it sound easy – and if it is easy for him it’s because he’s served a lengthy apprenticeship.

First
with local weeklies, then tramping the streets doorstepping for a
London news agency, then three years on the demanding Daily Mail
showbiz desk before moving to The Sun features team five years ago.

Harvey,
37, was a relatively late starter in journalism. After graduating from
London University he spent years in the career wilderness working
variously as a stable lad, a delivery driver for London hotels and a
gardener at Camden Council.

Not the most auspicious start to a journalism career, but he maintains that these years were far from wasted.

“I
think it was the best journalistic education I could have had because I
was dealing with real people,” he says. “Every morning at Camden
Council gardening department depot there were 50 blokes sitting there
from 7 to 8am, eating fried food and reading the papers and commenting
about the stories.”

Harvey opted to do the post-graduate NCTJ
course at Highbury College when he was 26. He says: “I didn’t know what
I wanted to do but I was addicted to news. I still am.

“I went to
the Harrow Observer to do work experience and was asked to write up a
press release and I thought, yes I can do this.”

He got his first
staff job at the Crawley News on £7,200 where he spent six months
before moving on to spend a year on the Sutton-based Croydon Guardian –
a free weekly with a reporting staff of just two.

“I found it
very frustrating, because there wasn’t any staff, so you couldn’t go
out. I had lots of ideas but they just said they hadn’t got enough
people to do that.”

To make the break from Sutton to Fleet Street
he started doing evening and weekend shifts for the National News
agency and got his first big scoop in 1996, covering the story of Mandy
Allwood, then pregnant with octuplets.

“I was sent to do a
doorstep on a Sunday night that no-one else wanted to do. It was Mandy
Allwood’s fertility doctor,” he explains. “I was taking over from the
staff guy and the Fleet Street pack had been down there all day and got
nowhere.

“As it was my first shift I thought, ‘I’m going to make an effort’ so I knocked on the neighbours.

They
told me ‘he doesn’t live there any more – he’s moved across the
street’. So I knocked on his door and he said ‘come in’. He gave me
chapter and verse about the Mandy Allwood babies and what he thought
about fertility treatment.”

The story made a double-page spread in the Daily Mail, which also gave him a byline – an unusual honour for an agency reporter.

A
full-time job at National News soon followed and Harvey recalls that
the agency was a “great training ground”, where low wages and lots of
racing to telephone boxes to file copy meant staff reporters literally
tended to lose weight.

After a year spent calling at the front
doors of “the great and the good”, Harvey says he learnt that
doorstepping is a “fine art”.

The secret, he says, is: “Try not to come across as a sleazy journalist and just be as civil and normal as possible.”

After
a few months working evening shifts at the Standard and weekends for
the News of the World on top of his agency day job, Harvey was finally
offered a staff job on the Daily Mail showbiz desk.

Three years
later he was headhunted by The Sun where his first splash was “Guy weds
with no pants on”. Sent to Scotland to cover the wedding of Guy Ritchie
and Madonna, Harvey decided to track down the Ritchie tartan. By
chance, the first shop he phoned up was providing Ritchie’s kilt and
was able to confirm that he wouldn’t be wearing any underwear.

On
the more serious side, Harvey has been to Ethiopia four times and also
to Uganda and Sierra Leone, writing stories about Aids, debt relief and
trade.

“It’s a great honour to do that sort of reporting and it’s
great that The Sun has put the resources into covering those issues,”
he says.

It was on one such trip last October that Harvey first
met Birhan Woldu. She is the remarkable young woman who featured in a
now-famous 1984 news broadcast from the Ethiopian famine when she was a
starving three-year-old believed to be minutes from death.

Harvey
took Woldu to meet Tony Blair and Bob Geldof at the Africa Commission
meeting in Addis Ababa, a move which reduced the Prime Minister to
tears and sparked the recording of the Band Aid 20 Christmas single.

Harvey
has also been to Moscow to investigate how Roman Abramovich made his
money, to Malaysia to turn over DVD smugglers and, last month, to India
to reveal the call centre identity fraud scam which made headlines
around the world.

Other assignments have included covering the
2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster in Houston, six weeks spent
travelling around Japan writing colour pieces during the 2002 World Cup
and trips to Albania to expose people smugglers and gangsters selling
fake British passports.

The door-stepping techniques he honed at
National News came in handy last year when, with photographer Arthur
Edwards, he called at the Jordanian home of Abu Musab al-Zarqawim, the
Islamic militant believed to be behind the killing of British hostage
Ken Bigley.

He says: “I went up to his wife’s house and said ‘Hello, I’m from The Sun, is Mr al-Zarqawim there?’

There
were secret service people following us around and kids making
neck-cutting hand gestures; it was pretty scary. I found a cousin who
said he was basically a great bloke who loves his kids, but eventually
we found an uncle who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. He was
shaking with fear saying he knew what this man was capable of and told
us that al-Zarqawim had used a blunt knife to make Bigley suffer more.”

In contrast to his days on the Croydon Guardian, Harvey says he has yet to be turned down on a story idea by his Sun editors.

“While
other newspapers churn out stuff that’s in the diary we are still
breaking big stories, which is what newspapers are all about – making
waves.

“If I come up with an idea for a story, the editor and
features editor have backed me on every one and it’s fantastic to have
that.”

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