The Guardian reporter Paul Farrell described his investigation into Australia’s off-shore refugee facilities as “traumatic” and “consuming” in a lecture to Macleay journalism students.
The “Nauru files”, which is comprised of more than 2000 leaked documents, exposed the frequency and severity of incidents in Australian off-shore detention centres. The 8000 pages of material documented assault, injury, sexual assault, self-harm, and squalor, disproportionately affecting children. Mr Farrell claimed to have read the files in their entirety four times.
“If I’d done that on my own, I would’ve gone completely mad, it’s really fucking grim reading,” he said.
Farrell admitted the material took its toll emotionally, and physically. He urged students to be aware of the consequences of investigating sensitive material.
“You need to monitor your own mental health and well-being. It did really get me down. After we published this story, the come down from it, all the pent up adrenaline and stress was just brutal. I had to take a week off afterward because I got really sick,” he said.
In addition to impacting his health, tackling the Nauru Files led to Mr Farrell finding himself the subject of an investigation at the hands of the Australian Federal Police, who were intent on identifying Farrell’s confidential sources.
It is an offence to disclose Commonwealth information in Australia, and it is punishable by up to two years. Furthermore, “whistleblower” protection laws in Australia are
Furthermore, “whistleblower” protection laws in Australia are considered less comprehensive and mature than in countries like the USA, and the UK.
“The stakes are incredibly high,” Farrell said. “The AFP accessed my phone and e-mail records. They wanted to find my sources. The risks are very real for journalists.”
He encouraged journalism students to start thinking about encryption, and anonymisation, to circumvent government interference. Mr Farrell also offered inspiration for those looking to break into the industry and make a difference, drawing on his early failings.
“Most of my early journalism was very, very, bad. That’s what happens when you’re learning and trying to understand things,” he said.
He brought attention to the opportunities and possibilities available to young journalists today.
“You can do journalism that matters in whatever kind of area you’re interested in,” he said.
Mr Farrell emphasised the importance of teamwork, and developing trust among sources and colleagues, singling this out as the most important element of his success.
“You can’t do stories like this on your own, you need to be able to collaborate,” he said, explaining he had only received the Nauru Files due to the trust and relationships he had established. “One of the most important things, if not the most important thing in journalism, is the relationships you build up over time. The biggest thing about investigative reporting is trust. People see through bullshit really easily,” he said.
The Nauru files received a large amount of global attention and persuaded the Labor Party to call for a Parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of refugees in off-shore detention centres. In addition, the investigation revealed Wilson security were also culpable of overlooking much of the torment suffered by refugees.
Farrell described “very clear misconduct on behalf of the security company tasked with protecting asylum seekers.”
He attributed part of the success of his investigation to the versatility and wide-spread appeal of the “transmedia” format. He identified the use of podcasts, data interactives, features, listicles, and digital media in telling the story, saying it “crossed borders, and mediums.”
“Everything has to exist in a multitude of formats and mediums. We reach people we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to reach,” he said. As an example, Farrell referred to an article exploring the 12 most harrowing incidents on Nauru through the use of images.
The Nauru files have become one of the most significant Australian stories of the year, and continues to pick up steam, most recently featured on the ABC’s Four Corners program on Monday.
Three years ago, in collaboration with the Guardian, New Matilda, and The Global Mail, Paul Farrell launched the Detention logs. The website aims to focus attention and publish documents specifically on immigration detention centres, and encourages “open journalism”, enabling contribution from student, citizen, or freelance journalists. Anyone is able to contribute to their ongoing investigation by clicking on “adopt an incident”, in addition to having access to the documents published on the website.
In spite of the toil and pitfalls of investigative journalism, Farrell suggested the rewards outweigh the risk.
“The greater the risks were, the greater the stories were, and over time it led me to the Nauru files,” he said. – Sergio Magliarachi
Photo by James Mott.