The mainstream media fails regularly when it comes to holding power to account, but there are certainly noble exceptions. The Guardian’s investigation of BAE Systems and its shady relationship with Saudi Arabia is one such example. The Press Gazette explains the way in which the web changed the role of reporting:
“About every 10 years,” says David Leigh, The Guardian’s investigations editor, “I take on something big.”
And investigations don’t come much bigger than the one he and reporter Rob Evans have been embroiled in for the past five years.
The pair, who were commended at this year’s British Press Awards, have uncovered evidence that Britain’s biggest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems – the fourth-largest company in the world – has been paying illegal kickbacks worth hundreds of millions to members of the Saudi royal family and countless “middlemen” around the world, to preserve lucrative arms deals.
They have previously reported that in the now infamous al-Yamamah arms deal, first negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1985, BAE inflated prices for fighter jets by 32 per cent when selling to Saudi Arabia to allow for an extra £600m in commissions – £60m of which went into a “slush fund” that paid for cars, planes, shopping and girlfriends for Prince Turki bin Nasser, the Saudi Prince Sultan’s nephew, whenever he visited the West. BAE has always denied any wrongdoing.
But the biggest revelation came last month when Leigh and Evans claimed that Saudi Prince Bandar had received £1bn in payments from BAE as part of the al-Yamamah deal.
And they used the occasion to launch a specially designed section of the Guardian Unlimited website, The BAE Files. Leigh says that when the pair started their investigations into allegations of corruption in the arms trade in 2003, no other paper followed up their claims. Over time, even The Guardian newsdesk became less enthusiastic. But the latest revelations have been widely followed up – and have prompted frontpage stories in other national titles.
Leigh says he considered writing a book, but The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger persuaded him “books are old thinking – let’s do a website”.
Leigh says: “We started off with a series about how corrupt the business was. Whistleblowers started coming forward, we kept writing about it and no one wanted to know.
No other newspaper took it up, our own paper got a bit bored of it from time to time, but to give it credit it did run it. But now it’s taken off, it’s everywhere. All the time we’ve had this battle with BAE, and they’ve been saying ‘piss off, we’re this big corporation and nobody listens to you lot, there’s no evidence anyway’.
“We were able to lay everything out with no constraints of space and say ‘OK guys, here’s all the evidence’.”
Jeff Jarvis rightly states: “There it is: networked, collaborative journalism. You can’t do it all yourself. The story gets better when the story can get bigger. Do what you do best and link to the rest. Bravo.”
For a newspaper to recognise that its own resources will never be able to fully investigate the whole story and instead relies on citizens to provide invaluable information to fill in the blanks is noteworthy. And vital.