Byline Podcast Episode One: Westminster scandals and scoops with David Hencke

This is going to be a weekly installment where we talk to one prominent journalist about their work, their thoughts on journalism and the weeks news.
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Nick Mutch (NM): Tell us about how you got started, how you got into the Guardian and what that was like, and what you’ve been doing since you left.

David Hencke: I went to Warwick University when it first started, and if you wanted to do anything whether it was play football, chess, bands, or run a newspaper, you had to set it up yourself! After 10 days I found myself editor of their first student newspaper, and I’ve always said that it’s all been downhill from there as I’ve never been asked to edit anything again!

After that I did the conventional route and worked for the Evening Telegraph in Northamptonshire for several years, went to the Western Mail and did a stint at the Times Educational Supplement and then got to the Guardian. In 1986 I was moved to the lobby. I was sent by the then editor Peter Preston not to do the day-by-day reporting, but to investigate behind the scenes. The editor thought ‘parliament is an amazing place for contacts and information, but 80% of it is never reported.

I made an alliance with the National Audit Office because they are like me; they want to find out where things have gone wrong in Whitehall. As a result, I got a really good scoop, which was the Rover sweeteners deal. This was when Rover car company was sold by the government for British Aerospace and I discovered the Government had been dishonest about the about of money they had given to help BAE buy it. That produced a huge row because the memorandum I got was from the auditor general himself. Me and the editor were dragged in front of the standards and privileges committee to explain that we’d done this absolutely appalling thing, leaking a parliamentary document. They had an ancient rule which could have committed me to the Tower of London. But they thought that the idea of a journalist being jailed for revealing £33 million worth of spending wouldn’t have been a very good look.

NM: About this alliance with the national audit office, whom would you advise journalists to team up with to get stories that they might not necessarily get otherwise?

DH: Westminster employs 5000 people, of which 600 are MPs and 900 or so are peers. Now my sources were not the people who others didn’t think of speaking to. Rather than glamorously entertaining Cabinet Ministers and others, who would tell you a story they wanted to see, I took to MP’s for instance who sat on the Public Account Committee, which was involved in scrutiny. I talked to staff in Westminster such as political researchers. I found if I went to Whitehall functions I could talk to civil servants; officially you cant talk to them but if I’ve got a drink in my hand and I ask for a quiet word its going to be rather difficult to trace them isn’t it?

NM: One thing I’ve been surprised about is that often you don’t think people want to talk to a journalist. Actually often people quite like talking to journalists, it makes them feel that what they’ve got to say is important or relevant

DH: That is quite a crucial thing. The people at the top are trying to control journalists and limit what they will say. Other people are quite keen to talk to you in great detail because they think ‘great; I’ve got a journalist on to things that I’m interested.’ Some of it might actually be in the public domain, burying in a boring report. A recent example; I discovered that the Ministry of Justice had set up a commercial arm called Just Solutions which was selling British legal expertise to Saudi Arabia, where they lash bloggers and behead people and I got this because one of my contacts drew my attention to a six-monthly report from the Ministry of Justice, which just happened in a few paragraphs to disclose that this organization was bidding for contracts, and that the then Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi’s to ‘share’ legal expertise. Of course this was buried in a many page boring report on a day when hundreds of other reports came out. It wasn’t a state secret, but in a boring pile of information.

NM: How do you know where to look, are often these things hidden in plain sight where people won’t think of looking?

DH: An Auditor-General once told me, ‘when you get a public report, read it backwards.’ You’ll find in the appendices and in the latest information, there will be information that MP’s have asked but that hasn’t appeared in the hearing of the public accounts committee and sure enough you find all sorts of information that is in the public domain, but no one looks at. A great story I got that at the end of ministry accounts, they put their write offs. There was a write off from what is now the Culture Media and Sport ministry because there had been an exhibition called Royal Britain, but this said they had written off the money. I made some inquiries and it turned out that it was a company owned by Charles Branliff who happened to be at the time Norman Lamont’s Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Treasury. I got a brilliant story that the Treasury Ministers Private Secretary had to be bailed out by a government office. He assumed I got it because someone who didn’t like him leaked him when I actually got it from an obscure report.

NM: You mentioned about how you first went into local journalism and then into national journalism and slowly moved up the ranks. That’s not really an option marketed to young people these days, what advice do you have for people trying to break into the industry?

DH: Well journalism, even on my conventional route, is very difficult to get in even on the bottom. I wrote to 30 odd local newspapers before I got my first job. If you are determined then still go for it as there are new ways to get in; websites like the Huffington Post or Byline, so you can join those and then get a reputation for doing good work and then you might well get onto one of the nationals. You don’t have to necessarily go straight to the Telegraph or the Guardian. If you work for a specialist publication or you get in online, which is of course the future. You wont get a lot of money to start with, but you never did. Its old money but I started on £16 a week.

NM: People like to talk about the ‘golden ages of journalism’ but if you actually look at those golden ages, people had just as many problems then.

DH: It’s just a different agenda; we’ve got a different set of priorities. It’s always been a pretty low wage, and that’s how everyone had to start, it’s only later that they made more money. I’m lucky because I’ve got an established reputation and can afford to branch out. I’ve still got contacts that come to me because they’ve trusted me in the past, which is how I get my information still today.

NM: One thing a Guardian journalist told me in the past is that don’t think that all you need are new technical skills, but the actual skills of getting stories are very similar to what they used to be. The fundamentals still haven’t changed since the start of the profession.

DH: That’s absolutely true. I don’t have any technical knowledge and actually if you want to be a good journalist its still exactly the same skills. The problem is that people aren’t digging into things, they’re seeing something on Facebook and just saying ‘oh I’ll do a story on that.’

NM: Everyone is talking about the extraordinary popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, what do you make of that? For many people I know, it’s strange to hear that the Labour party will be ‘unelectable’ under him; but isn’t the Labour party unelectable now, that’s why they weren’t elected? Why is there absolute terror at this prospect?

DH: If you asked any lobby journalist or shadow minister, they’re horrified at this! So far as they were concerned, Corbyn was a minor person who was just a relic from the past, had a very small influence that didn’t count for anything. What has come as a shock is that it’s like what has happened to the Labour party in Scotland, what happened in Greece with the rise of Syriza. It’s because they’re not in touch, they’ve no idea what people on the street think. They’ve been told that ‘they are all entrepreneurs that want to make lots of money who want to be rich or really famous. They aren’t interested in out-dated things like socialism.’ Everyone thought someone like Andy Burnham would get it.

NM: A lot of problems I’ve heard from people is that people just care less about the specific policy but the fact that they were very uninspired by the mainstream candidates. They want someone who will be a genuine alternative.

DH: The bizarre thing on this will say that if you ask people who take the opposite view, they’ll say ‘these three boring people know the responsibilities of government’ but they forget the point your making. They might vote for someone who offers a genuine alternative who says ‘I’m not happy with the society I’m living with, I want a different society.’ Nigel Farage has also tapped into this from people who want to see a society like what we had in the 1950’s; he has a following because he appeals to something different to the establishment. Although everyone portrays Corbyn as out-dated, there is actually a strong reaction to what this government is going to do. I’ll give you one example; we have for decades had a consensus that Britain doesn’t believe in capital punishment. But they’ve just announced that Britain is not going to campaign for the repeal of the death penalty abroad. The reason is that some Tories would actually quite like to bring it back; it’s not in the manifesto but they see it as a possible populist thing like the attack on scroungers. They’d say it was for terrorists for paedophiles or people like that. Its incredibly short-sighted because the terrorists they’re targeting would actually welcome the opportunity for martyrdom.

NM: One thing I’ve noticed in particular is something like trying to ban any form of encryption. Or like the psychoactive substances bill that wants to ban any form of drug regardless of harm. They are being incredibly authoritarian. One of the good things about Corbyn is that people feel they want an actual opposition, not a party who will abstain because they don’t know how they should feel about something like the welfare bill.

DH: That’s exactly the case. It is rather peculiar that Theresa May is talking about arresting people who don’t have ‘British values’. But look at the history of Britain; look at the Peasants revolt! It’s dangerous because it drives these things underground. This encryption thing is just mad. I heard the other day about this encrypted email service called Proton, which is based in Switzerland, outside the EU. How the hell is government going to ban that? Are they going to make it a criminal offense to use that, well how will they know you are using it? Are they going to demand the Swiss government hand over everything?

NM: The problem with heavy-handed approaches is that, especially with the Internet, people just find a way around it so quickly. One last thing I wanted to talk about is that you are very respected for your work on the child abuse allegations against high profile figures. What do you make of the recent allegations about Ted Heath, and how did British society seem to have a culture where this seemed to be accepted at high levels for such a long time?! If you’d said ten years ago that there was a secret Westminster paedophile ring, it involved cabinet ministers and even a Prime Minister, people would think that you were a crackpot!

DH: There is some suggestion that there was some of this was in the Netherlands and Belgium, but has changed is that after the Jimmy Savile revelations. When it finally came out what he had been doing, and the scale of it; it’s going to be a real shock when the BBC report into his activities comes out. It is quite clear it will be a game changer; after Savile, people thought my god, what is going on in this country!? The police have released the Ted Heath allegations to see who comes forward, but it’s an extraordinary situation that no one would have thought possible.

NM: Thanks very much for talking to me, and good luck with your Byline project.

DH: My pleasure!