Sharing a scoop with journalists on rival publications ahead of publication is almost unheard of – but when The Guardian’s Paul Lewis obtained a huge cache of files revealing corruption at tech giant Uber he decided to do just that.
Guardian head of investigations Paul Lewis told Press Gazette there were “significant upsides” to the move that ensured its Uber investigation had the global footprint it did.
He also revealed that the Guardian’s new round of investment in its investigative team will mean it will aim to compete with the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post, rather than UK outlets.
On Monday, The Guardian released its Uber files investigation in conjunction with 42 worldwide media outlets, exposing the “illegal” activities of the company as it grew into a global tech powerhouse between 2013 and 2017.
From revealing the company’s dodgy dealings with world leaders, including then UK Chancellor George Osbourne, to outing attempts to mass delete company files when the police raided Uber offices, the revelations have sparked a huge reaction, including street protests in many countries.
The fact it was able to have that global influence was one of the main appeals for going to the ICIJ in the first place, Lewis explained, despite it being an unprecedented move on The Guardian’s part.
The idea began when Lewis first visited Uber whistleblower Mark MacGann in Geneva in March after being contacted by an intermediary.
“We spent a couple days with him. What you’re doing in these situations is getting to know the story trying to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and getting to grips with their background,” Lewis said.
“But the primary objective of a trip like that is to familiarise yourself with the data itself, the information, the documents, as best you can in a short period of time, and make it public interest assessment.”
The prospect of going through 124,000 files in using the Guardian investigations team seemed a daunting task.
“Then there came a point when we, we had a discussion about the material and its reach,” he added. “It was obvious that this is a leak of data that could have repercussions all around the world. And, and that it would be helpful to have experts from all around the world.”
The ICIJ seemed like an obvious solution with its network of 280 investigative journalists in 100 countries.
“The chances of a UK reporter understanding a reference to Estonia in 124,000 records is tiny. The chance of an Estonian reporter getting that reference is high. I mean that’s literally what happened with this piece,” ICIJ managing editor Fergus Shiel told Press Gazette. “We thought initially the story would be big in ten countries… But it’s only grown and grown since then.”
These large-scale collaborative investigative journalism projects have also become increasingly common in recent years, with the ICIJ alone being behind exposed like The Pandora Papers, The Panama Papers and the Luanda Leaks.
The ICIJ isn’t the only collaborative investigations group in existence like The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) network or Forbidden Secrets, which helped to expose Israeli-made spyware that was used by governments to spy on journalists, activists and politicians.
BBC producer James Oliver worked on the Panorama investigation into the Uber files.
He said: “I worked a lot in the 2000s on FIFA investigations with Andrew Jennings. And what was interesting working with him was that… He worked with a network of journalists to work with because they’ve worked out but actually we’re not in direct competition with each other.
“But the idea of sharing stories is still quite radical. And even when we started doing these ICIJ projects, I remember a meeting at the BBC where I was briefing someone, and they were shocked and said ‘wait, we’re going to tell The Guardian what the story is?’.”
Lewis said: “I understand that some journalists will see it as kind of like anathema to how they would normally operate. Because usually, we’re used to keeping our stories close to us close to ourselves,” he said. “There are occasions and I think this is one of them, where there are significant upsides to a collaborative approach.”
He added: “And I think it can be quite inspiring at times. Because we were working on this project really closely with journalists at Le Monde, The Washington Post and the BBC. And they’re great reporters. And it can be enjoyable and rewarding to work in partnership with other journalists who are really good.”
The Uber investigations release also coincides with a major investment in The Guardian investigations unit, which is in the process of growing its seven-person investigations team into the double digits.
“If you take the long view of the last 20 years, then the transformation in the news industry that we’ve all gone through has meant that many good newspapers have contracted. And often that has meant that investigations, which are sometimes viewed as a bit of a luxury, a drain on resources or a legal risk has been something that has gone.
“I don’t think we at The Guardian view it as a luxury, it s integral to what we do… Our readers really like it when we hold power to account when we expose wrongdoing. We get that feedback continually.
“Internationally, there are big investigation teams that we see as our competitors are places like The New York Times, The Washington Post, at Der Spiegel and Le Monde. We see ourselves as competing against them as much as anyone else.”
Picture: The Guardian