When David Hencke took voluntary redundancy from The Guardian in 2009 he imagined he would be retired by now.
But four years on, having joined investigative website Exaro News, his journalism career has a new lease of life.
At the end of last year Hencke beat political editors from The Guardian, Independent, Independent on Sunday and Mail on Sunday to be named Political Journalist of the Year at the inaugural British Journalism Awards.
In recent months he has led Exaro investigations into Whitehall tax avoidance and paedophile rings resulting in newspaper splashes and television exclusives.
Clearly he has proven a strong asset for the newly-formed Exaro and he largely credits his near-50 years of journalistic experience for his recent success.
While the website does employ some young people he says its success can largely be explained by the experience in the office.
Along with former Guardian colleagues David Pallister and Mark Conrad are a number of “grizzled hacks” from both tabloid and broadsheet backgrounds.
“I think this is one reason why Exaro has been so successful,” he says.
“There are a lot of people, like Mark [Watts, the editor-in-chief, who has worked on The Sunday
Times, Independent on Sunday, Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Express], and people from News of the World, who have had a lot of experience.
“I’m not going to say that Exaro will never make a mistake but the chances of making a mistake are minimised by all this wealth of experience and knowing how to follow through a story.”
Hencke admits it might seem odd to outsiders – the idea of Guardian journalists working alongside ex-News of the World reporters – but he believes this adds a lot to Exaro.
“We can talk together about things we’re pursuing and it does create quite a good atmosphere. And because it’s quite a small operation, relatively, people talk to each other much more – we’re not in different camps. There’s no difference really.”
Another major advantage Exaro has over nationals, according to Hencke, is that print deadlines do not exist.
It took him around three months to get anything out on his Whitehall tax avoidance investigation – and he produced ten separate stories from the 60-page Freedom of Information document he was sent.
He fears the story, described by British Journalism Awards judges as a “major scandal”, might never have had the same impact if it had been obtained by a national.
“Sometimes if you’re doing one short story in a paper you might not use very much but we pursued every possible angle,” he says.
“You’re increasingly unlikely to be able to do this at a national level because reporters are expected to do so many different things.
“It probably wouldn’t be done properly – just a quick hit and that would be it actually.”
Leaving The Guardian
Was this why Hencke left The Guardian? No, he claims, saying the main reason for going after 33 years was “because it has a lousy pension scheme”.
Financially, he explains, it made sense for him to leave. He was 62 at the time and believed he would be better off taking the redundancy pay-off, putting it in a self-invested pension scheme, and finding part-time work.
Clearly it was The Guardian’s loss. Hencke left the paper alongside the likes of senior correspondent Duncan Campbell and investigative reporter David Pallister – who is now at Exaro with Hencke – who also took voluntary redundancy.
“A friend of mine on the Telegraph said to me, ‘it’s a big mistake for The Guardian – they should have made compulsory redundancies and say who they want to leave’,” he says.
“I don’t really want to criticise it because I’m a member of the NUJ for years so therefore I don’t really like the idea of people being forced to go.
“So in a way it’s a compromise but I had a feeling they didn’t think through what they were doing – in the sense that they could lose all their best people.
“They will lose a lot of experienced people and get cheaper, not so experienced, people.”
There is no trace of bitterness in Hencke’s voice – but he clearly doesn’t fully buy into the direction of his former paper.
“Actually I thought the way The Guardian was going I’m not surprised there have been more redundancies. It’s changing. It seems to be becoming a worldwide liberal paper.
“And I think there’s a real danger if they’re not careful. I mean they will be a worldwide liberal paper, but if they haven’t got the skilled, experienced journalists working for them they won’t get the stories.”
‘Neil Hamilton hates my guts’
Throughout the interview Hencke refers to the importance of experience in journalism and it certainly isn’t something he lacks.
In 1965, in the second week of his first term at the University of Warwick, he became the editor of the student newspaper. From there, Hencke went to work for the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, Cardiff’s Western Mail and the Times Higher Education before becoming a reporter at The Guardian in 1976.
After reporting on education, local government, transport and social services among other things, then editor Peter Preston made Hencke a Lobby journalist – not just to be “the standard Lobby journalist but to be an investigative journalist”.
This meant that while most other political journalists were concentrating on the “rows and parties” Hencke was working on investigations such as the cash-forquestions scandal.
“No one was noticing this huge, dodgy lobbying industry being created,” he says. “And that’s why I got a passion for Whitehall. Because I teamed up with the national audit office who I realised were also scrutinising everything and there was a great story.”
Hencke says he has been “very unpopular” at various stages of his Lobby career, but points out it has not stopped him finding stories in Westminster and Whitehall.
“It does make it a bit difficult but funnily enough some of the people, including those who I’ve turned over, do look back on things and say, ‘actually, I was a bit out of order then’, and suddenly become friends,” he says.
“And I know there are one or two MPs who hate my guts – like Neil Hamilton still thinks I traduced him. You get people like that who really get very cross and still to this day are hostile.
“But the vast majority don’t.”