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Open Democracy crowdfunds dedicated Covid inquiry journalists

Open Democracy hopes to afford to send a journalist to every day of the Covid-19 inquiry.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Update 12 June 2023: Open Democracy has been able to appoint three journalists to cover the Covid-19 inquiry in the UK following a successful round of fundraising.

Laura Oliver, a freelance journalist and The Guardian’s former head of social and community journalism, former local democracy reporter and Sunderland Echo assistant editor James Harrison, and Fin Johnson, who has written for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Open Democracy, will begin work on Tuesday when the inquiry starts.

The inquiry will be heard in several modules, and the fundraising done so far is expected to cover full-time coverage of at least the first two parts. The three freelances will be joined in producing coverage by Open Democracy’s politics chief Ruby Lott-Lavigna.

Open Democracy head of news Ramzy Alwakeel said: “We’re humbled that so many people donated to help us cover the Covid inquiry. In the midst of a poverty crisis we know supporting causes like ours is a really big ask, and we hope that we’re able to repay your support and investment by producing stories on the inquiry that no one else is telling, on core Open Democracy subjects like transparency, public contracts, rights and equality.”

Original story 15 February 2023: Non-profit investigative news site Open Democracy has begun crowdfunding to pay for a dedicated journalist to cover every day of the UK’s inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Open Democracy is appealing to readers to help it afford to send a journalist to every single public hearing in the inquiry, even those days that may be deemed less consequential and not worth the time by bigger news organisations.

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Head of news Ramzy Alwakeel told Press Gazette the story “ties together a lot of things that are really fundamental to what we do” at Open Democracy.

“One thing is it’s a unique moment not only in UK politics but global politics in terms of accountability and the public’s ability to understand why decisions were made on a political level in different countries. If there is a story that uniquely united everyone in Britain then surely it’s the pandemic.”

He added: “There’s a transparency angle. It’s a story about race inequality and class inequality in particular, and that links to transparency as well. It’s a story about the privatisation of health… these all go back to the core Open Democracy question, which is what are the ways unequal concentrations of power can destroy people’s public services and people’s rights and people’s, in this case, health? And how can we track that? And maybe what lessons can be learned in the way that happened and what lessons are there for people who maybe want to be involved in resisting that in the future?”

The inquiry into the UK’s pandemic preparedness and response officially began in October but is due to begin hearing evidence in May, although there could be a delay due to a secrecy row over redacted government documents.

The journalist hired by Open Democracy to cover the hearings would produce daily reports from the hearings, but also other content such as potentially a podcast and long reads on particular themes of the evidence.

They will likely be on a flexible contract, working primarily on the days the inquiry is sitting. Its length is not yet known, but the recent inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire lasted more than five years, with 400 days of evidence, making the Covid inquiry a potentially costly venture for Open Democracy if it is a similar length.

Alwakeel, who was news editor at Huffpost UK during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, said he was inspired by Inside Housing deputy editor Peter Apps, who along with his team attended every day of the Grenfell inquiry.

“That probably is the thing I looked at and thought this is really worth somebody doing,” Alwakeel said, referring to “the amount that he got from that and the fact that he was the only person there for so much of it, that he was really able to own what was again an inquiry that’s about one thing but actually cuts across so many other inequalities”.

Peter Jukes was the first journalist to crowdfund daily coverage of an ongoing hearing. In his case it was live-tweeting the phone-hacking trial in 2013 to 2014 and he raised about £20,000 through two Indiegogo appeals, hitting his initial target in just six hours. He found that people who “thought my reporting served a public interest or a personal passion” were willing to support it.

Inspired by Jukes, five years later freelance broadcast journalist Nick Wallis crowdfunded £6,000 in nine days to attend each day of a major High Court trial against the Post Office, after many of its subpostmasters were wrongly accused of theft and false accounting and suffered a decade-long miscarriage of justice.

Wallis told Press Gazette ahead of the trial: “Being a freelance journalist I knew that there was no way I’d be able to persuade a news editor necessarily to send me to every single day of the trial, because even with really big criminal trials it’s very rare to have a broadcast journalist sitting there for every day of it.”

Alwakeel also suggested it would be similar work to that of the BBC-funded local democracy reporters around the country who make efforts to attend even the potentially “boring” local authority hearings.

In a piece explaining the crowdfunder to readers, he said: “Stretched national news desks will send reporters to cover the inquiry on the days that are most likely to generate a quick headline. But the devil is in the details… We all deserve to know what went on in depth, not just for today but for readers in the future. Our coverage will be a historical document as well as a rolling news source.” Similarly Jukes has said his daily tweets quickly became “open-source information that could be used by anyone” and a “resource to other journalists, academics, and lawyers”.

Open Democracy mostly relies on grants for funding alongside reader donations but editor-in-chief Peter Geoghegan told Press Gazette last year that non-profit news funding in the UK is a “constant battle”. “You’re constantly trying to find funders. You’re constantly having to figure out what to do when one funder leaves and when funding priorities change,” he said.

In 2021 80% of Open Democracy’s income came from grant funding. It is currently aiming to increase the proportion of individual reader donations, which made up 17% (over £500,000) of the platform’s income in 2021 – up from £10,000 four years ago.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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