Spotlight, Press and the inside story into a major investigative journalism team

Oscar-winning biopic Spotlight aired on BBC Two last night, giving viewers a thrilling insight into the United States’oldest journalistic investigations unit.

It was a timely showing, with new show Press airing for the first time last week to some mixed reviews from journalists, who questioned the accuracy of the British journalism drama.

While I’ve yet to watch Press, Spotlight is one of my favourite films – and it’snow one of a select few I’ve bothered to watch twice.

Spotlight highlights the thrill of the chase, the buzz and sense of importance a major news story hits you with.

The real-life plot in Spotlight – where the Boston Globe unit uncovered a sickening series of child abuse allegations against the Roman Catholic church in Boston – far eclipses any story I’ve ever covered in my local journalism role, in terms of significance.

But in spite of this, my own investigative work still triggered the same emotions and the sense of duty which made my job feel like it had a real purpose.

My part in our own Spotlight

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The trade press covers our mini Spotlight

Spotlight is rumoured to have inspired the setting up of our own version of the crack investigative team.

My company, Johnston Press, owns nearly 200 papers across the UK, from the Worthing Herald where I’m based to The Scotsman, i and Belfast News.

In all honesty, each of these titles doesn’t have the manpower to have its own Spotlight. Yet think of us as a whole and suddenly there are hundreds of journalists at our disposal.

I think there was a realisation that we could do something similar but approach it in a slightly different way, thus the Johnston Press Investigations Unit was born.

The unit brings together some of the top journalists in our group from across the country. We work on topics good enough to grace our London national, i, but ones which can also be picked up and adapted by any of our titles.

Launched in 2016, it’s successfully campaigned for tougher sentences for dangerous drivers, forensically examined plans to plug a £22billion shortfall in NHS funding and shone a light on the murky world of cybercrime, knife crime in schools and military suicides.

To my surprise, I was asked if I would join this select team and have been part of it since I was introduced to the painful task of analysing data from 350 councils’ freedom of information reports as part of the cybercrime series.

Projects often take several months, with everything from in-depth interviews to time-consuming FOI requests forming a key part of what we do.

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Courtesy of Johnston Press

The amount of input into each project varies, as work is done alongside our day job. Albie’s introduction into the world initially hindered my usefulness in one of the investigations as his pre-birth problems started to surface around deadline time!

It has been a hugely rewarding experience. Among my favourite interviews was with a man who became the first in the UK to be charged with hacking into a computer system, a case which was so significant it eventually paved the way for the laws which protect all of us from computer misuse today. It turned out he lived in my patch!

Then came my role as a guinea pig, as experts gathered enough data on me to show me the dizzying array of cyber attacks they could launch on me.

Each project is kept top-secret from the majority of our journalists until very soon before launch, so anything we do is not undermined.

We keep in touch through weekly conference calls, instant messaging and emails, in a kind of virtual office set up.

It’s not cracked a case as huge as Spotlight just yet, but as it grows there’s no reason why it can’t be as successful in the future. All the key bits are there and the journalists part of it have me in awe at their work.

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One of the investigative stories which made national, front-page news

Graft

Good journalism takes a huge amount of graft. Today’s 24-7, internet-based world makes us hungry for news, and news right now. It’s not an environment which allows in-depth journalism to easily thrive.

Online, readers lap up what we call ‘hard news’, from the crashes, to fires and crime.

There was no greater example of this than the Shoreham Airshow disaster in 2015, an event which saw 11 men tragically taken from us way too soon, rocking my community – us journalists included – more than was comprehensible.

It was a story which led to me exclusively interviewing the Prime Minister and addressing millions of listeners on one of the country’s top radio stations, BBC Radio Five Live. It was a story which went global – and one which I’ll probably never see the likes of ever again. It was also one I clearly wish never happened.

That story took a huge amount of people and a high level of expertise to portray sensitively to a devastated community.

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Here’s me at my university graduation, looking a whole lot younger and less wizened by parenting and journalism! I never imagined I’d be working on some of the stories I ended up covering

Unlike the work of the Spotlight team, however, Shoreham and the other bread-and-butter stories are luck of the draw. There’s no difficulty in uncovering them, although the skills comes in how they are reported.

Investigative journalism doesn’t land on your lap. It might start as a simple tip but it snowballs into something you often didn’t think it would become. There are a host of challenges to overcome and nothing but groundwork, persistence and time (often a lot of it your own, outside office hours) will lead you to success. It requires you to go the extra mile.

It’s why these stories – including those I’ve worked on with the unit –  are the ones I’m truly proud of, not the ones which might have collected the most hits.

I hope you take the opportunity to give Spotlight a watch and check out future work by the Johnston Press Investigations Unit.

 

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This is my status post the Shoreham Airshow disaster. It wasn’t an investigative story but still a draining weekend of work which shared the intensity and energy-sapping effort required of the type of in-depth stories the Spotlight team deal with. This is me with my nephew, pre-Albie days!

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