Tag Archives: jimmy mubenga

Investigating Mubenga’s death (How “citizen journalism” aided two major Guardian scoops part 3)

This is the final part of a guest post by Paul Lewis that originally appeared in the book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? You can read the introduction here and the second part – on the investigation of Ian Tomlinson’s death – here.

Mubenga’s death had been similarly “public”, occurring on a British Airways commercial flight to Angola surrounded by passengers. As with Tomlinson, there was a misleading account of the death put out by the authorities, which we felt passengers may wish to contest. Within days, open journalism established that Mubenga had been handcuffed and heavily restrained by guards from the private security firm G4S. He had been complaining of breathing prior to his collapse. After the investigation was published, three G4S guards were arrested and, at the time of writing, remained on bail and under investigation by the Met’s homicide unit.

Our strategy for finding out more about Mubenga’s death centred on two approaches, both aided by Twitter. The BA flight, which had been due to depart on 12 October, was postponed for 24 hours, and by the time we began investigating the following day the passengers had left Heathrow and were on route to Angola’s capital, Luanda. Raising our interest in the story via Twitter, we asked for help in locating someone who could visit the airport to interview disembarking passengers.

A freelance did just that, and managed to speak to one who said he had seen three security guards forcibly restrain Mubenga in his seat. We instantly shared that breakthrough, in the hope that it would encourage more passengers to come forward. At the same time we were publishing what we knew about the case, while being candidly open about what we did not know.

Hence the very article, published before any passengers had been tracked down, stated: “There was no reliable information about what led to the man’s death of how he became unwell.” It added, perhaps controversially: “In the past, the Home Office’s deportation policy has proved highly controversial.”

The tone was necessarily speculative, and designed to encourage witnesses to come forward. So too were the tweets. “Man dies on Angolan flight as UK tries to deport him. This story could be v big,” said one.

This articles and tweets, contained relevant search-able terms – such as the flight number – so that they could serve as online magnets, easily discoverable for any passengers with important information and access to the internet. Another tweet said: “Please contact me if you were on BA flight 77 to Angola – or know the man in this story.”

One reply came from Twitter user @mlgerstmann, a passenger on the flight who felt inappropriate force was used against Mubenga. He had come across the tweet – and then read the article – after basic Google searches. “I was also there on BA77 and the man was begging for help and I now feel so guilty I did nothing,” he tweeted.

Within hours, his shocking account of Mubenga’s death was published alongside several other passengers who had found us via the internet. An interactive graphic of the seating arrangements on the aircraft was created, enabling users to listen to audio clips of the passengers give personal accounts of what they had seen.

How verification was crucial

As with the Tomlinson investigation, verification, something paid journalists do better than their volunteer counterparts, was crucial. The fact the passengers had disseminated to remote parts of Africa – @mlgerstmann was on an oil-rig – explains why the only way to contact them was through an open, Twitter-driven investigation.

But this methodology also poses problems for authenticating the validity of sources. Journalists are increasingly finding that a danger inherent in opening up the reporting process is that they become more susceptible to attempts to mislead or hoax. This is particularly the case with live-blogs which need regular updates, require authors to make split-second decisions about the reliability of information and take care to caveat material when there are questions.

For journalists with more time, it is incumbent, therefore, to apply an equal if not more rigorous standard of proof when investigating in the open. In the Tomlinson case, when sources were encountered through the internet it was mostly possible to arrange meetings in person. That was not possible when investigating Mubenga, where there was an attempt by a bogus passenger to supply us false information.

In lieu of face to face meetings, we were able to use other means, such as asking prospective sources to send us copies of their airline tickets, to verify their accounts. What the investigations into the deaths of both Tomlinson and Mubenga show is that journalists don’t always need to investigate into the dark. Through sharing what they do know, they are most likely to discover what they don’t.

Paul Lewis: How “citizen journalism” aided two major Guardian scoops (guest post)

In a guest post for the Online Journalism Blog, Paul Lewis shows how Twitter helped the Guardian in its investigations into the deaths of news vendor Ian Tomlinson at the London G20 protests and Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan detainee, while he was being deported from Heathrow.

This originally appeared in the book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive?, which also includes another chapter previously published on the blog: Has investigative journalism found its feet online?.

Investigative journalists traditionally work in the shadows, quietly squirrelling away information until they have gathered enough to stand-up their story. That silence reassures sources, guarantees targets do not discover they are being scrutinised and, perhaps most importantly, prevents competitors from pinching the scoop.

But an alternative modus operandi is insurgent. It is counter-intuitive to traditionalist mind-set, but far more consistent with the prevailing way readers are beginning to engage with news.

Investigating in the open means telling the people what you are looking for and asking them to help search. It means telling them what you have found, too, as you find it. It works because the ease with which information can be shared via the internet, where social-media is enabling collaborative enterprise between paid journalists and citizens who are experts in their realm.

Journalism has historically been about the hunt for sources, but this open method reverses that process, creating exchanges of information through which sources can seek out journalists. There are drawbacks, of course. This approach can mean forfeiting the short-term scoop. At times, the journalist must lose control of what is being investigated, how and by whom, and watch from a distance as others make advances on their story.

They have to drop the fallacy that their job title bestows upon them a superior insight to others. But all these are all worthwhile sacrifices in the context of what can be gained.

This is illustrated by Guardian investigations into the deaths of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper seller who died at the London G20 protests in 2009, and Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan detainee who died while being deported from Heathrow on 12 October 2010. In both cases, eliciting cooperation through the internet – particularly Twitter – allowed us to successfully challenge the official accounts of the deaths.

In the second part Lewis explains how he used Twitter and Flickr to pursue his investigation into the death of Ian Tomlinson.

UPDATE: The stories described in these posts can also be seen in this video of Paul speaking at the TEDx conference in Thessaloniki:

Sri Lanka war crimes and the future of international journalism

Here’s a quick thought about a problem of international reporting: sources. Your viewers and readers are in your country, while your sources are largely not (there are exceptions such as CNN or the BBC, but humour me).

In order to make contact with the people and evidence who can help answer your questions, you have to rely far more on your personal network than, for example, a home affairs or education correspondent.

But the globalisation of modern news – and the ability of people to search on the internet for information related to their own experiences – has changed this. Now, if you report on an issue in another country, people in that country can see what you’ve written and contact you with further information.

In a nutshell this reflects the way that journalism has moved from a ‘push’ medium limited by transmission and distribution infrastructure, to a ‘pull’ (search) and ‘pass’ (social media) one.

Three particularly strong examples of this: Channel 4’s ongoing reporting on the civil war in Sri Lanka and evidence of war crimes. Video footage that was obtained as part of that journalism was, eventually, seen by someone who recognised one of the bodies. (A particularly good lesson for budding journalists is how photos of those bodies were dated using EXIF data, and correlated with documentary evidence from the Sri Lankan MOD – material that don’t lend themselves to broadcast, but can be put online)

Second, Paul Lewis’ investigation into the death of a man being deported to Angola. One of the passengers on the plane where he died was a US citizen who works in Angola. He contacted Lewis after coming across a tweet calling for witnesses.

Third, Paul Lewis again, and the death of Ian Tomlinson at G20 protests. This was again provided by a US citizen who happened to be in the UK at the time and came across the story after he returned home.

Curiously, of course, these two latter stories are not examples of international journalism in terms of their subject – but they do highlight how the web can make international newsgathering part of home affairs stories too.