Hackgate and the case for collaborative reporting

On Sunday, Newsweek published a long account from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger of his paper’s journey in breaking the hacking scandal. Between Rebekah Brooks’ arrest that night, and the parliamentary hearings yesterday, Rusbridger’s piece has not gotten much attention. That is a shame, because it conveys an important message: that phone-hacking and its corrupt cover-up, this rottenness in the heart of British journalism, was revealed to us by journalism of the highest caliber.

The whole piece is worth reading, but there is one point I would like to highlight. Over the years that the Guardian spent pursuing this story, and publishing pieces of their findings incrementally, no other British paper thought it worthwhile to join in the chase. And instead of seeing this as a great competitive opportunity to dominate a scoop, the Guardian recognized it as a problem, appreciating that this was a story that even Nick Davies could not handle alone:

If the majority of Fleet Street was going to turn a blind eye, I thought I’d better try elsewhere to stop the story from dying on its feet, except in the incremental stories that Nick was still remorselessly producing for our own pages. I called Bill Keller at The New York Times. Within a few days, three Times reporters were sitting in a rather charmless Guardian meeting room as Davies did his best to coach them in the basics of the story that had taken him years to tease out of numerous reporters, lawyers, and police officers.
The Times reporters took their time—months of exceptional and painstaking work that established the truth of everything Nick had written—and broke new territory of their own. They coaxed one or two sources to go on the record. The story led to another halfhearted police inquiry that went nowhere.

Yesterday’s parliamentary hearings add something to Rusbridger’s account. In the Home Affairs Committee hearing, Metropolitan Police public affairs chief Dick Fedorcio suggested that the Times piece did more than prompt a new and inconclusive inquiry. He cited it as the direct cause of his decision to terminate Neil Wallis’ contract with the Met.

Moreover, getting the Times on board “gave courage to others,” in Rusbridger’s words, opening the door for pieces in the Independent, Vanity Fair, and the Financial Times, for broadcast reports and for new victims to come forward with lawsuit: “A wider group of people began to believe that maybe, just maybe, there was something in this after all.”

Stories this complex, with tentacles that reach deep into multiple powerful institutions – News International, the Metropolitan Police, Downing Street – need to be tackled like a hydra, from all sides at once. One news outlet can try to do it all, but, as Rusbridger’s article shows, it works better if each news team has time to focus deeply on one angle, and the ability to share findings freely with those who are coming at the beast from another side. Moreover, a story of this type, one that will raise shocking questions about institutions so embedded in our society, whose authority and honesty we are taught to trust, cannot break through if it comes only from one corner. True though the revelations may be – and Davies’ work was flawless - they are too easy to dismiss until they have been cross-checked and verified by multiple voices.

This is not the first time that the Guardian and the New York Times have worked closely together. Just a few weeks after the Times’ hacking story appeared, the paper appealed to Guardian for a favor: access to the latest tranche of Wikileaks documents, which Julian Assange had barred the New York Times from receiving after the paper ran a critical profile of Mr. Assange. At the time, I expressed enthusiasm for the Guardian’s decision to be generous with the documents, and hoped that it would be the start of a new paradigm for collaborative reporting. This week’s events bolster that hope.

The Guardian and New York Times collaborations have been struck at the highest levels, by phone calls between top editors. But at Public Business, we believe that all reporters and researchers should have access to the benefits this kind of partnership provides. That is why we’re working on establishing a space here on this website where journalists, nonprofit researchers and academic researchers can share their findings securely with one another, comment and build on one another’s work. Expect to see more about our plans in the months ahead.