News & Opinion

James Ball on investigative journalism: "You've got to be really obsessive"

The journalist and author speaks to Paul Blanchard on the Media Masters podcast about his experience of breaking the NSA files – an investigation which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Describing The Guardian's investigation as an "immensely complicated reporting job", Ball explains how the story unfolded, the process of sifting through tens of thousands of documents and the consideration that went into what to publish.

"We were looking through for the stuff that was in the public interest, that didn't cause danger", he says, going on to add: "Lots of stuff in there showed that [the security services] were doing the stuff that they say they're doing... we published where we thought it raised questions."

Adding to the complexity, Ball and his team had to ensure at the outset that their whistle-blower – Edward Snowden – was reliable. He says their feeling was: "We either have a huge story or we're going to fall for a fraud and never work again."

Prior to working on the NSA files at The Guardian, Ball worked for Julian Assange at WikiLeaks, giving him first-hand experience of some of the world's most high-profile whistle-blowers. He describes them as "people that are going against the grain of an organisation and most of us don't like doing that".

But what does it take to be an investigative journalist? In Ball's view, "you've got to be really obsessive. You've got to really wade through tons and tons of stuff and just keep going, long past any normal person would want to get on with their life".

Having left WikiLeaks at the age of 23, thinking that he'd worked on the biggest story of his career, Ball says that going on to work on the Snowden story was a case of lightening striking twice: "You sort of feel like 'probably I will never work on anything that size again', but you never quite know."

Work on the Panama Papers and Russia-related stories followed, making it clear that "there is always stuff to dig into". As Ball puts it: "When things are good for investigative journalists, it's awful for everyone else - sorry about that everyone!"

Listen to the podcast here.

by Jessie Sampson 24/01/19

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