Global Conspiracy
The Global Investigative Journalism conference 2005, held in Amsterdam, brought together investigators from all over the world.
They came from all four corners of the earth. Quietly and stealthily they gathered in the grimly corporate surrounds of the Meervaart conference centre in the western outskirts of the city.

The centre, with its plush colour-coded carpets, seemed to represent the antithesis of the conferencegoers and their never-ending struggle against exploitation, political corruption and international crime.

Some of them were dressed to kill, but those were invariably television journalists. Most were dressed to be killed, at least by the fashion police. They spoke in many tongues, but all with one voice.

Welcome to the Global Investigative Journalism conference 2005.

More than 500 people attended the conference, which was organised by the Vereniging van Onderzoeksjournalisten (the Dutch-Flemish Association for Investigative Journalists). Distinguished and not-so-distinguished figures from the world of journalism gathered to discuss the state of investigative journalism and ways to improve it. There was a small but significant smattering of journalists from Asia, Africa and South America, but most were from Europe and North America.

During the lunch and coffee breaks, small groups would huddle together buried in deep conversation as they discussed ways to cooperate on stories about conspiracies that stretched several times around the globe. Others hunched over their laptops, furiously typing with two fingers between swigs of black coffee, evil-smelling cigarettes burning in the ashtray.

The awareness of a world in crisis was a fairly universal preoccupation among the journalists there. Whether it was famine, disease, war, Iraq, global warming, or the struggle over the planet's dwindling resources, there was a sense of pessimism among many of the journalists present. 'Things can only get worse' was the general consensus.

One would be forgiven for wondering if these people were from the same planet the rest of us live on -- for surprisingly little of what they discussed as fact seems to find its way into the daily newspapers.

That raises the question: why don't the public know more about the veiled events that shape their world? This vexed question became an important topic of conversation at the conference. "The public just isn't interested," said one conferencegoer, a British journalist with a lived-in face framed by a flowing white beard. "It's because most the media is in the hands of a few global corporations," explained another, an elegantly dressed French woman in her thirties. "No money is available for investigations," said a third, a smartly dressed man and one of the notably few black journalists in attendance.

With this in mind, some of the sessions looked at alternative ways to reach out to the public. One speaker from South Korea told about his remarkable project to get people more involved by creating 'citizen journalists'. Another session looked at the evolving art form of blogging as a way to avoid media censorship.

The four-day programme also included training sessions on the techniques of newsgathering so beloved of investigative journalists, such as the art of working with hidden cameras and microphones. To illustrate the technique, a seasoned South African journalist showed secret footage of a drugs den, where a husband and wife were lovingly shooting up each other with heroin.

The images were shocking, but the discussion that ensued among the hard-boiled television journalists assembled in the room centred purely on the practicalities: Where was the best place to hide the camera? How do you avoid suspicion? What do you do if you are discovered? And what about the ethics? Another question was how long the public are going to remain ignorant of the technique. "People always assume we have hidden cameras on us now," said the journalist woefully.

A casually dressed British television journalist revealed how he had worked undercover in the police service, using a secret camera to record instances of racism. He was found out and charged with obtaining his police wages by deception and damaging police property -- he had made a hole in his bulletproof vest for the camera.

What quickly became evident was the sheer bravery of many of the journalists present, especially those from Eastern Europe, Africa, and South America. The stories they told of the threats made against their own lives made pussycats of most of the conferencegoers.

One Irish journalist who gave a talk on 'dealing with dangerous people' revealed that he was under 24-hour police protection. For years, he has faced threats and intimidation from the crime boss he exposed, including a hoax bomb that was placed under his car. Mobsters gunned down his journalist colleague in 1996. Throughout the conference the journalist wore wrap-around shades.

All this inherent danger raises the question: why do it? And that is perhaps the hardest question to answer of all. Investigative journalists are a rather strange lot -- serious, and generally not the life and soul of the party. Perhaps they all do it to quell their own angst.

Some investigations -- especially from the American side -- were remarkable for the sophisticated techniques used. But one couldn't help wondering what the point of it all was.

Other sessions touched on the tactics used by PR men and women to stop damaging stories coming out. For instance, how stories are given to rival newspapers to lessen the impact of an article.

A session devoted solely to one large multinational oil company sparked a barrage of questions on the tactics used by big corporations in an attempt to derail journalists' investigations. But the one question that wasn't asked was whether there was anyone from the company in the room - for the conference presented a golden opportunity for the 'opposition' to gen up on the techniques of its well-meaning but poorly funded adversaries.

There were certainly some people at the conference who were not all they seemed.

At a special meeting for freelances held in one of Amsterdam's cosiest bars, one smartly dressed 'investigative journalist' disclosed that he was in fact from a large firm of auditors. He quickly doled out his business card to the others in the room and told them that he often had to find out financial information about companies and that he used freelance journalists to do this.

"Would that extend to asking the journalist to gather information on your behalf?" I asked. It was clearly an uncomfortable question for him to answer.

Journalists are, of course, supposed to provide information to the general public, and not to act as corporate spies. But the truth is that investigative journalism is the perfect cover for spying, as it is one of the few professions that allow you to ask 'difficult' probing questions without raising undue suspicion.

At a welcome reception laid on by the city, the most important topic of conversation turned out to be the reasoning behind the remarkably small number of bottles of wine made available to the thirsty journalists.

There was indeed a sweet, encouraging speech given by one of the city council members in praise of investigative journalism, but it felt somehow unconvincing. We all know that as a rule, no one in power likes investigative journalists. That's because they have this annoying habit of publishing irritating and unreasonable stories that can wreck political careers. They're stubborn. They never toe the line. And they make terrible confidantes.

At 7.30, the journalists -- by now desperately casting around for fresh supplies of alcohol -- were quickly shepherded out of city hall and the city's brief flirtation with the world of investigative journalism was over.

In the evenings the conference-goers dispersed into small groups and headed for the best restaurants in town. The snatches of overhead conversation would no doubt have made the hair of many diners stand on end, and they might well have wondered whether these people read the same daily newspapers as they do. For the sad fact is that the view of the world shared by the majority of the people at the conference was vastly different from that contained in the daily papers. And this was an issue that exercised many at the conference.

Much of the discussion was of how better to organise cooperation among journalists. In a world of globalisation, companies operate across borders. Yet journalists have much catching up to do in this respect.

But investigative journalism is expensive. In an age of declining advertising revenues, many publications can ill afford the cost. Yet, as one Danish speaker put it, if publications do not rise to the challenge, "they may as well use entertainers rather than journalists."

At the end of the conference, at the grand celebration dinner, as waiters stood guard over the sweets trolley, a succession of self-congratulatory speeches sent a ripple of yawns across the room. The very organisation of investigative journalism has seemingly evolved into a complex world full of personal rivalries and private agendas -- a world as easily intriguing as the world it aims to investigate.

A version of this story was first published in 'Amsterdam Weekly' in October 2005.

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