Exploding the cash-for-stories myth

Don't believe the myth about the murky workings of the British press. Real investigative journalists don't pay the police — or anyone else — for stories

Shame that Kelvin Mackenzie during last Saturday’s Today programme wasn’t pushed by Evan Davis to justify his claim that bunging coppers and other public servants is essential to landing public interest stories.

It’s a media myth created in part by lazy reporters that offends the overwhelming majority of us who get good stories through experience, patience and practicing the journalist’s craft under good supervision.

Could it be a smokescreen for screwing their exes? Let’s hope Leveson isn’t taken in by this guff – as Evan Davis seemed to be.

Either way, Kelvin should know better. He did, once.

When we were all a lot younger, Sun editor Kelvin bought serial rights to Scotland Yard’s Cocaine Connection, a book I’d co-researched and written with Paul Lashmar and Vyv Simson (with early involvement by David Leigh), which exposed corruption at the highest levels of the Flying Squad.

Neil Wallis, then features editor (yes, he’s back in the news for other reasons), saw it into the paper.

Kelvin embraced me in the Sun newsroom (thank goodness no Guardian photographers were about) and terrorised Sun lawyers who baulked at some of the disclosures. Yes, really. He was right and the Bad Guys never sued.

Kelvin and Neil knew that book could not have been written without the covert co-operation of serving detectives and customs officers. They also knew we hadn’t paid a penny.

Some of the cops were no angels but none, not one, ever held out their hands. These sources were driven by the refreshing desire to do what the top brass wouldn’t do: rid the Yard of bent coppers. Some took real risks. I recall getting rubbed down in seedy pub lavatories by serving officers, checking I wasn’t wired. Then they bought their round and talked.

Kelvin had the courage to publish.

The BBC in the mid-1980s, intimidated by the Thatcher junta (and I believe blocked by MI5’s then resident in Broadcasting House) refused to screen the devastating one-hour film we made for the Brass Tacks series about these dirty dealings between detectives and major London gangsters. Twenty-odd years later The Untouchables is still in a locked archive, gathering dust.

I resigned in protest from the Beeb, Ray Fitzwalter at World In Action stepped in and I remade the film with Paul Greengrass. Within 24 hours an outside force was appointed — by the same Home Office officials who’d done their best to kill the BBC film — to investigate our allegations. Senior detectives melted into early retirement — with pensions.

So we got a great book, eventually the film, mass serialisation and some reforms, all without paying sources. On subsequent stories I got help from within SAS, the FBI in Washington and detectives in Miami, Germany, Rome and Palermo, always revealing corruption in public service. Nobody asked for money. I even obtained transcripts of in-camera sessions at an Old Bailey trial. That did cost a decent meal – but the source had been working non-stop all day!

The journos I’ve worked with over the past 45 years have had our share of great stories – and there was never a price on them. Granada would never have allowed bungs and neither would the three Panorama editors I’ve worked for in recent years. Anyway, it wasn’t necessary. Effective reporters engage with conscientious sources and serve the public interest without cash or chequebook. Kelvin, don’t you remember?

BBC Panorama’s FIFA’s Dirty Secrets - screened in November 2010 — was shortlisted this past week for a Royal Television Society journalism award. It didn’t win but to be in the top three in a year of outstanding television reporting was fine.

At the heart of our programme was the disclosure of a secret list we obtained of $100 million in contract kickbacks to senior FIFA officials over the previous two decades. They were and are bent, massively so, and we had the proof.

Our programme was scheduled to go out three days ahead of FIFA’s vote on which city would host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The government secretly lobbied the BBC, unsuccessfully this time, to delay transmission.

The well-rewarded leaders of the English bid denounced us as “unpatriotic”. The day after transmission the Sun condemned the Beeb under the headline, “Brainless, Betraying, Cretinous”.

We had shown that the FIFA process was demonstrably corrupt. As we soon learned, when FIFA awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, England’s bid had been a waste of time and £18 million. Eventually, the Sun agreed.

What did this breakthrough story cost us? Hard work and honest, decent sources.

The source of this staggering revelation a few months before the show had handed over the List saying simply: “I think this is what you want.” They wouldn’t even let us buy them a drink!

Another crucial source, a public official, insisted on paying for our pleasant meal and the wine (which they didn’t drink), saying,“We have a clean hands policy.” 

 

About the author

Journalist Andrew Jennings has been chasing bad men for four decades and disclosing their activities in the international press, television, books and academic journals. Escapades with bent coppers, the security services and the Palermo mafia led inexorably to specialising on corruption in the Olympics and FIFA. Follow him on Twitter (AAndrewJennings) and at transparencyinsport.org