Back to Work: Restarting investigations

Back to Work even if Westminster is closed – except for virtual contacts

This is just a note to my readers that after an absence of nearly three months I am now back in rather a different England that I left in January.

I have been extremely lucky as the trip I took with my disabled wife sailing round the whole of South America was about the safest place to be at the time – as the ship kept ahead of the spread of COFID 19 until the every end.

Then a very wise captain decided not admit any new passengers or crew when we docked at Fort Lauderdale and only allow passengers to disembark – not even go ashore and return – protecting the ship from the virus.

We then sailed straight for Southampton and were able to dock without facing the terrible fate some cruise liners had to endure where passengers had caught the disease. Cunard deserve a lot of praise for this. I will put up a blog with lots of pictures of what we saw in South America at a later date – as an antidote to today’s gloomy situation.

But now having had to painfully adapt to the new situation and look after and protect my wife from this invisible scourge I am back to investigating from home again.

I have a lot to catch up. I am planning fresh articles on developments on the BackTo60 campaign and the continuing plight of #50sWomen now hit by the fall out from the coronavirus. While I was away their victory at the Court of Appeal to challenge the findings of the judicial review on all grounds was an amazing achievement.

I am also back working for Byline Times which is doing a series of investigations in to the NHS and the coronavirus and I will keep an eye out for any other issues in Whitehall that are being buried by the current crisis.

I also have a number of more long term and complicated investigations – nearly all raised by people who contacted me directly and are taking many months to sort out. You will know who you are but I ask you for some patience as it will take time to get round to them.

In the meantime it will soon be back to business as usual.

The not quite complete Exaro archive



Historians and researchers may one day need to refer to articles put up on the Exaro website. It covered a wide range of issues from detailed investigations into allegations of child sex abuse, what Rupert Murdoch really thought about News International’s involvement in hacking and paying sources, the tax avoiders in Whitehall, the demise of the Audit Commission, business stories involving arms deals and ” dieselgate”.

Exaro has now taken down the website but fortunately a large proportion of the original articles can be seen here at this link here

However there are a number of caveats as this is  not the complete picture. This link only covers stories  published by Exaro up until the sacking of its editor in chief, Mark Watts, by Exaro and New Sparta management.

After this happened  Mark Conrad and I, who took over running the site, commissioned and published a number of new articles including one by Nick Kochan on the discovery of WMD in Iraq long after the row over the issue had been concluded.None of these are on this archive  but fortunately we have captured them and they will be put up at a later date.

When Exaro folded nearly a month later mysteriously these articles disappeared.

The description of the staff who worked for Exaro was changed back to an earlier period.Some of the profiles with the exception of Mark Watts were removed as was the detail of who was running the site in the last month. So the section in this archive is not accurate.

There is one other issue in this archive. It contains a number of stories about a survivor called  “Darren”. Mark Conrad and I no longer stand by the accuracy of these articles.

Prior to the closure of Exaro  Mark and I were going to conduct a review  of all  Exaro’s child sex abuse  coverage but stopped when the website closed. This does not mean we felt that articles were wrong or that we don’t stand by them despite hostile national press coverage.

But the editorial handling of the  articles on Darren  – which was a matter of internal dispute- made us uneasy. This is no reflection  on the excellent work done by  Tim Wood as a diligent reporter on the case. We felt that the editorial management  of the story did not reach proper and thorough journalistic standards that we would expect from such an investigative site. So the end  edited result should be treated with caution.

As for the future the dedicated staff of Exaro will be looking at alternatives so the investigative journalism we strive to produce will be resurrected in the future.

Exaro: What next?



Most people have been shocked at the sudden closure of the Exaro website. Excepting trolls and troll websites that is.It means the  end of an outlet for a cutting edge form of investigative journalism. It certainly made waves  – whether on controversial allegations of child sex abuse and paedophile rings, the Dame Janet Smith findings, tax avoidance, and  media stories like the ” Rupert Murdoch ” tapes.

And it is worth saying  that the owner Jerome Booth, generously funded the site for five years without ever interfering in the editorial content.

Every effort will be made by Mark Conrad and me to see that  these investigations and more will continue and we are having conversations with a number of people on what we do next – whether using the Exaro site or with other media organisations.

But I thought a couple of points should be made to ensure people don’t get the wrong idea.

First, conspiracy theorists please note, the site has not been closed down because of its coverage of the child sex abuse allegations and by hints from dark forces. It is purely the result of a wider financial decision

Second, the site was not scheduled for closure when its former editor in chief, Mark Watts, was first made redundant and then dismissed. Nor at that time were other people expected to lose their jobs. Logically you would not appoint new people to run a  site if you wanted to close it.

Indeed we both had plans for developing new challenging stories  which first appeared in the last few weeks and there were more in the pipeline. We were also looking at new commercial ideas and partners to fund the site.

This has paradoxically put us in a good position to examine alternatives for the future. We are also  looking out for opportunities for Exaro staff who were there at the time of the closure so this excellent team can continue their investigations.

All I can say is watch this space. I am not commenting further  on the  sad and traumatic events of this week. There is the chance of a new era ahead.


Exaro News: Pay wall scrapped – It’s all free

You can now read all my stories and many other good scoops on the Exaro website free of charge.
Just like my old employer The Guardian and unlike Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and Times there is no longer a pay wall between you and the story.
So go to the site and see and hear the full private Murdoch ” tape”; all the stories about Ed Lester, the former head of the Student Loans Company now at the Land Registry and his tax avoidance; all the stories on the Operation Fernbridge historic paedophile investigation; the government’s flawed plan to abolish the Audit Commission and embarrassing disclosures about the activities of the Serious Fraud Office.
Exaro is now funding its activities with a big expansion in data journalism -aimed at business.
Go on indulge yourself!

Will data journalism save investigative journalism?

The collapse of the print media and the rise of the free internet is threatening to destroy the income that allows traditional journalism to thrive.

As papers  and TV cut and cut again staff  they have fewer and fewer  resources to scrutinise and investigate government, business, crime and the dodgy guys have a much greater chance of getting away with it.

So just like the ancient search for the Holy Grail  journalists have been looking for a way to fund their time-consuming and expensive investigative operations. Some have sought world-wide alliances like Alan Rusbridger,editor of The Guardian, to bring an international flavour – like the Prism survellience scandal – to journalism. Others like Rupert Murdoch have thought pay walls  and monopoly control will fund journalism.

But they might just be a third way. The government’s decision enthusiastically endorsed by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, to open up data has provided an amazing opportunity for a new breed of journalists – data journalists – to exercise their amazing mathematical  and computer savvy skills- and create new stories. But they have also opened up an extraordinary lucrative way to raise cash from business for a tailor-made service to meet their individual needs.

Exaro, the news organisation, who employ me on a freelance basis, may have just found the answer to marry this. By exploiting government data  Exaro’s data journalists have  produced a major story on the state of liquidations in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland ( see ). But this journalism led investigation – by Tim Wood, Henry Taylor and George Arnett – also has a very lucrative spin-off that may bring an income worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

As Jasper Jackson ( son of the late Mark Jackson. my friend and one of Fleet Street’s great colourful  journalist characters) discloses ( see the possibilities of a tailor-made service that can change the finances.

As Mark Watts, editor in chief of Exaro, puts it: ”

“There are data journalism teams out there, but they traditionally don’t worry about making things commercial. What we are doing is rather different because it is journalists who are doing it, generating material for editorial purposes, but in the same breath doing it for commercial purposes.

The editorial aspect is important. The data interrogation techniques are very specific and journalists are also able to present things in a meaningful way. There is a sense of having to distil it, and make sense of the data.”

So have we discovered the Holy Grail, the way to break stories, subsidise other important investigations, without compromising editorial integrity? Francis Maude may have to put up with data journalism providing an income stream enabling us to investigate  and scrutinise him and Cabinet ministers even more thoroughly. A double-edged sword at times.

Press Complaints Commission: defending legitimate journalism

Lord Hunt: Current chairman of the Press Complaints Commission: pic courtesy: The Guardian

It may be unfashionable to say this right now,but this is a blog to say how well and fair the Press Complaints Commission handled a complaint against me this summer.

I was not even a party to the complaint which was between Matt Sprake, a former police photographer, and the Independent Newspaper but the content of his entire complaint was against me over a story that appeared under my name and Oliver Wright which I had researched and published on Exaro  News . (see for full story and pcc’s findings).

Basically  through Exaro News we revealed  how Sprake’s picture agency, NewsPics, offered to pay thousands of pounds to public officials – from nurses to police workers – for inside information on celebrities. Sprake denied he had ever paid anyone.

The offer was made explicitly on the agency’s website.

Matt Sprake: PIc courtesy of Hacked Off website

The disclosure led to Sprake being summoned by Lord Leveson to appear before his inquiry and provide information on the huge scale of his  work for Trinity Mirror which Lloyd Embley, then editor of the People, had omitted to tell them.

Sprate lodged a complaint to the PCC claiming that  breached the editors’ code of conduct. He claimed that the article contained inaccuracies and intruded into his private life, and that I had used subterfuge to gain information about his past career in the police.

The PCC dismissed each element of Sprake’s complaint particularly suggestions that his family had been put at risk by the disclosure that he had photographed terrrorist sites. The findings said:

“He considered that the information relating to his former employment by Scotland Yard in anti-terrorism activities was sensitive and confidential.”

But the PCC concludes: “The complainant had volunteered information about his former work with the police, including that he had been ‘looking at terrorism work’, to the journalist, whom he had taken to be a potential client, and was a stranger to him; and that the information amounted to a statement of his former occupation.

“In addition, in light of the statement published on the website, which suggested police officers contacted the company with information, and the on-going public scrutiny and debate over the links between the police and the Press, there was a public interest in revealing the complainant’s former work with the police.”

Sprake also complained that I had tricked him in a telephone conversation into revealing his past career in the police. The PCC said that Sprake was confused about the purpose of the reporter’s telephone call to him, but concludes: “The commission could not therefore agree that the reporter had engaged in misrepresentation or subterfuge.”

Sprake was asked for comment on the findings and he said: “None at all.”

Now the good  and fair thing  about this judgement is that the PCC did not fall for such sweeping complaints from someone who had already admitted to Leveson about how he pursued the McCanns seeking intrusive photos when they had not wanted them on a  Canadian holiday. But I also had to justify  everything I had written – and had kept a recording of the call. The whole point of chasing him up was to allow him to give me his side and to be absolutely certain from his own words that he was an ex  police photographer.

The irony about all this is that PCC is certain to be abolished by Leveson in its present form because of the ” phone hacking ” scandal. Yet they have handled this well. Whatever  replaces the PCC must both safeguard the public from the worst excesses of bad  and inaccurate journalism  but equally protect  genuine investigative  journalism from unfounded claims from unscrupulous complainants. Over to you, my Lord.