Universities and journalists: Partners in seeking truth

There is a tendency in discourse about the value of higher education to focus on broad data such as employability outcomes, rather than celebrating the contribution that individual alumni have made to the world.

Durham University teamed up with Reuters to gather together on Wednesday some of the world’s bravest and most talented journalists to celebrate the life and work of its alumnus, the late Sir Harold Evans, and discuss the challenges facing investigative journalism around the world.

Sir Harry is revered in the United Kingdom – in 2002 he was voted the greatest editor of all time in the UK – and around the world, for his achievements as editor of The Sunday Times. Its investigations led to compensation for mothers who had taken the morning sickness drug, Thalidomide, with thousands of children being born with deformed limbs; and the exposure of Kim Philby as part of the Cambridge Spy Ring during the Cold War.

Evans was instrumental also in securing a change in the law in the UK to give the press more freedom by allowing reporting of court cases in advance.

(When I set out in journalism in 1982, his were the standards that many journalists were taught to live up to and I still have his bible on journalism, a series on Editing and Design, on my shelves.)

‘Truth Tellers’, the inaugural ‘The Sir Harry Evans Global Summit in Investigative Journalism’, hosted at the Royal Institute of British Architects by Sir Harry’s wife, Tina Brown, herself a renowned editor – of The Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Daily Beast – and a highly decorated, multi-award winning journalist, was an extraordinary event.

The theme of the summit was journalism’s mission to ‘speak truth to power’, and give a voice to the voiceless.

Opening the event, she said her late husband’s “passion for telling the truth propelled his entire life” and since he passed away in 2020, at the age of 92, she had been seeking a legacy project.

She said the summit was born of her conversations with David Thomson, chairman of Thomson Reuters and grandson of the great Roy Thomson who owned the Sunday Times when Harry ran some his landmark investigations, and a partnership with “another hugely important institution in Harry’s life”, Durham University, his alma mater.

Hence the Sir Harry Evans Memorial Fund was born. “It makes possible an annual fellowship in investigative journalism to give much needed oxygen to the young Harrys of the future,” she said.

The foundation also supported Wednesday’s “phenomenal convening of mighty journalistic talents” on stage and in the audience.

Serious journalism under threat

Evidence for why a ‘truth tellers’ gathering was needed urgently now lay all around, Brown said. “Serious journalism is under threat from a perfect storm of competing forces. Misinformation, corporate temerity, escalating authoritarian suppression, to disruptions looming ever closer with AI.

“We have all seen how the erosion of a fact-based inquiry is a threat to a functioning society. And more sinister still, the increasing disregard for the Geneva Conventions in multiple dark corners of the world makes the profession of journalism a mortal risk for those brave enough to pursue it.

“Today we are pushing back. We are here today to defend and bolster a rigour of enquiry against the bullies and distorters and remind everyone why serious journalism is indispensable.”

Universities and journalism’s shared commitment

Durham Vice-Chancellor and Warden Karen O’Brien said Durham is similarly committed to the research and teaching of difficult urgent issues, from gender-based violence to Russian contemporary politics.

“We are delighted to play a part in this global summit to affirm the special partnership between investigative journalism and universities and to celebrate our shared commitment to evidence gathering and free inquiry,” she said.

“For if great journalists are truth tellers, universities are surely truth keepers. Not only are we educators of students and safe guardians of the archive.

“Not only do we maintain expertise in languages, security studies and areas whose public use may only one day become clear in a crisis, and not only do we remind legacy-conscious tyrants and war criminals how the first journalistic draft of history will become the lasting record of all time and how as Tacitus wrote, truth is confirmed by inspection and delay.

“More than this in our global era of digital noise, we give assurance to journalists in the field that there are observatories of truth, spaces where fake news and fake histories are contested and where the insights of journalists can be verified.

“We sustain and collect insights over a long time and we also evaluate and celebrate how journalists themselves are the makers of history.”

She cited the example of the atrocities in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, in 1971 that Harold Evans was “bold enough to name as genocide” and which universities in the UK and across the world continue to document 50 years on.

Tales of courage

The summit heard from many courageous journalists – a persecuted journalist from Iran, guarded at the conference by four Special Branch police officers, journalists risking their lives in Ukraine including a live link to one in Kharkiv, and a journalist who took on the power of the deadly drug cartels in Mexico despite the risk to her and her family.

Anabel Hernández, a mother of two young children, risks her life to investigate the drug cartels and those who protect them. When she was 29 her father was kidnapped and murdered in Mexico City. But she won’t let up on her investigations because she believes that anywhere in the world “if you buy a bag of cocaine, you are killing someone in Mexico”.

The author of Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, she has written about the impact of the relationship between the Mexican government and US agents on the Mexican drug war.

Now forced to live in exile for her family’s safety, she continues to revisit Mexico every couple of months to investigate. When asked by Sky News’ Special Correspondent Alex Crawford how she succeeded in gathering information, Hernandez said she targeted the cartel’s weak spot, getting inside information via “their wives, mothers, daughters”.

In addition to journalists’ accounts, the audience also heard from media moguls wrestling with the impact of AI and our ‘post-truth’ context.

Additionally, there was a discussion with John Poulos, the co-founder and CEO of Dominion Voting Systems, fresh from a court victory days earlier forcing US channel Fox News to pay US$800 million over false reporting of the ‘stolen election’, Donald Trump’s fake news rewrite of his defeat in the 2020 presidential election in the US.

The audience was packed with top journalists, photojournalists – including Don McCullin – and media executives.

The summit gave space to discussion of the role of journalism in exposing the truth in a world where many people are increasingly willing to drop objectivity in favour of believing their own political tribe, no matter whether the facts tell a different story.

It is a trend that has snowballed with the evolution of mass followings on social media and the rise to power of ‘post-truth’ political leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, but also very worryingly through the recent trend towards authoritarianism in many countries.

Woodward and Bernstein top the bill

Top of the bill, in the last session was a discussion between former BBC journalist Emily Maitlis and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two journalists who brought down president Richard Nixon in 1974 with their investigation into the 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters. (It was their work that inspired me and no doubt many others to go into journalism.)

Bernstein spoke of Ben Bradlee, their editor at the Washington Post, and Harold Evans as the two greatest editors in the English language in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century. They recounted how at first their stories on Watergate were not believed by many in the press corps, but Bradlee gave them the time and trust to keep knocking on doors and keep digging.

Eventually one day they realised that they had found sufficient evidence – meeting Bradlee’s standards of at least two independent good quality sources for any significant piece of news – to report that Nixon’s attorney general and campaign manager, John Mitchell, was operating a secret fund to undermine the national electoral process, which they believed meant Nixon would face impeachment.

Navalny confronts his attempted killers

Earlier, a clip had been shown of a documentary by Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner whom Russian agents attempted to poison. The film showed the moment when, pretending to be a Russian general, he called his attempted killers and trapped one of them into confirming the assassination attempt.

Two years ago he returned to Russia to demonstrate that he was prepared to stand up for truth. He was arrested and has been held in jail ever since. He has reportedly been repeatedly held in solitary confinement, as well as underfed, while suffering from chronic illness.

The UN Human Rights Council says his treatment would amount to a form of torture, if confirmed.

The summit was told that he was still able to get messages out to the world digitally, although it was not revealed how.

Extraordinary message from Navalny

Woodward and Bernstein astonished participants by revealing that to their surprise, earlier in the day while the summit was taking place, they had received a personal message from Navalny. He wanted to let them know that he had just read Woodward and Bernstein’s books on Watergate, All the President’s Men and The Final Days.

“This is why we are here,” Bernstein said. “This message is from someone who understands what can and is happening to democracy in many parts of the world today, where facism, and where authoritarianism, and where death is a daily part of being in opposition, and so we got this extraordinary message today.

“And you think about [how] we sit here in this conference, and this is what is recognised in that message from Navalny and the fact that it came to us today in this gathering.”

“And we looked at each other,” interjected Woodward. “And we compare in our mind the system there, which has never been democracy, and the freedom we have in the US and in the free world to actually operate [as a journalist]. And that is a daily liberation.

“[So] we better bask in and realise that we have been liberated to actually explore what happened and we better work out that liberation every day,” he told the summit.

Brendan O’Malley is editor in chief of University World News. In 1999 he and his co-author, Ian Craig, were shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for their investigative documentary book, The Cyprus Conspiracy: America, Espionage and the Turkish Invasion (IB Tauris), which was also a Guardian Book of the Year. The book investigates the role of US and UK military and intelligence interests in the Cyprus problem, including the Turkish invasion in 1974, which straddled the final days of Nixon's presidency.