Concerns about paying sources for information and its validity kicked off day one of The African Investigative Journalism Conference’ at Wits University in Johannesburg on Monday.
Heather Brooke, journalism professor at City University in London, reflected on whistleblowers who want to be paid for leaks. She was guest speaker at the conference opening.
Brooke previously worked as a crime and politics reporter. She talked about her investigations into the expense accounts of British MPs. She said this investigation showed her that some stories validated payment for sources.
“I went through everything I could do by the book. The only way it (information about MPs expenses) came out was via a leak. The leak was not going to give the information without being paid,” said Brookes.
“You can feel good and say you won’t do cheque book journalism. Or you pay the money and the wider systemic corruption comes out. By no means am I saying the default should be let’s pay for information.”
Brookes said also that payment should be considered for whistleblowers.
“If you’re an investigative journalist you’re always going to be reliant on whistleblowers… Knowing the risks they face to future for information, they ask for money… They lose their jobs and their reputation,” said Brooke.
“Newspapers sell a lot of money on the basis of a leak. I don’t feel that it’s wrong for the whistleblower to ask for a share (of the money earned). I would try to persuade them (whistleblowers) to do it (offer information) for free for the greater good. But if they wanted the money I would pay for it,” said Brooke.
Anton Harber, journalism professor at Wits University, challenged Brooke though.
“Your laxness on paying for sources worries me,” he said.
“Cheque book journalism is not acceptable… There may be some real exceptions… The danger is that it will create a free-for-all that corrupted and damaged British journalism so badly.”
During her opening presentation, Brooke also criticised WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for irresponsible leaking of information. She said WikiLeaks “failed to be accountable for its actions”.
“WikiLeaks published (information) willy-nilly… That doesn’t further democracy. It doesn’t provide the accountability that we need… It’s not enough to throw information on the internet,” said Brooke.
“A lot of it (leaked US cables, in particular) is just cocktail gossip. It’s all these diplomats going to parties and gossiping about who’s having an affair with whom and who’s doing business with whom. If we publish that we can be sued for that.”
Brooke said that Assange wanted to sue her when she had obtained leaked information from a Wikileaks source. She planned to use that information for stories for a major UK newspaper.
Professor Tawane Kupe, dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand, welcomed at least 200 conference delegates at the opening.
“Investigative journalism is important in respect of the fact that all power needs to be held accountable. Power on our continent has not always been accountable. That has had a detrimental effect on the continent’s progress. When power becomes accountable to ordinary people it will change the continent,” said Kupe.
“Investigative journalism illuminates dark corners and gives people information they need to exercise their rights as citizens.”
Kupe said the investigative reporting conference was important because journalists are “warriors for democracy”.
“Investigative journalism is one of those forms of journalism where people can lose their lives where power holders who don’t want to be held accountable are not scared of killing journalists.”
The three-day conference focuses heavily on data journalism, the current mining crisis in South Africa as well as China and Africa relations. It also hosts an investigative journalism awards evening and the inaugural Carlos Cardosa Memorial Lecture in memory of a journalist who investigated corruption in Mozambique.