Project description

My portfolio demonstrates my ability to use computer assisted reporting, combined with good old fashioned investigative techniques such as digging through public filings, to find and report public accountability stories that would otherwise remain hidden.

My investigation into Russian influence in the House of Lords with Times defence correspondent Lucy Fisher, showed members of the Lords that were being directly paid by Kremlin-linked companies were lobbying British ministers on behalf of Russian interests.

With the Times social affairs correspondent Greg Hurst, I was able to show that privately operated mental health firms were paying out large bonuses to their senior staff members, and in one case offshoring income to tax haven Belize, despite providing sub standard care to their residents.

My piece with Katie Gibbons, showed another private mental health provider, Priory Group, had ignored around a dozen warnings issued to it by coroners after the deaths of its patients, with high risk fixtures which patients could use to hang themselves not being removed from wards, and ward layouts with poor visability which had contributed to the deaths of patients being left unchanged.

With Mark Bridge, The Times’ technology correspondent, I was able to show the embattled Chinese tech company Huawei had engaged in sustained lobbing in Westminster, donating hundreds of thousands of pounds to British politicians and political groups, and meeting ministers dozens of times, despite serious concerns about the security of its software.

At the BBC, I was able to use source-led freedom of information requests to reveal that hospitals in the capital had to buy in more special extra-large mortuary fridges to deal with the number of obese corpses they were dealing with, as a result of the obesity crisis.

I used the same technique with my investigation into local government finances at The Times, using source-led freedom of information requests, paired with programmatic analysis of published spending filings of struggling councils, to show councils were spending millions of pounds on consulting firms to advise them on how to save money, despite serious cuts to services, and paying other consultants for crucial public work such as analysing clown festivals and pantomimes.

I was able to show, using mapping of London crime data, the geography of knife crime in the capital, and how a number of weapons possession offences were highly concentrated along one road in north London, the A10. With my colleague Gareth Furby, we were able to talk to key community figures along the road to find out why, and forced the Metropolitan Police to admit it had had to increase its presence in the area to tackle crime along the artery.

This work combined source handling to provide intelligence for stories, computer assisted reporting techniques, largely programmes written in R, to analyse documents and to convert them into a form that could be efficiently queried, and a thorough aptitude for public record request filings, to deliver unique, data-led public interest investigative reporting.

What makes this project innovative?

These stories were innovative in that they used new and previously underused computer assisted reporting techniques to drive solid investigations. For the Russian investigation, I wrote a programme to scrape the House of Lords register of interests, cleaned the dataset to extract company names, and then name matched this list of companies with the company ownership register to reveal those owned by Russians. This revealed a number of previously un-reported Russian links to members of the House of Lords, without having to Google each individual company on a Lord's declaration on interest, a task that would be so time-consuming it would not be worth doing. For the investigation into Huawei, and into Priory care, I wrote a programme that downloaded non-searchable PDF documents and badly formatted Excel files from government disclosure logs, and uploaded them into a searchable Google drive folder. Google drive converted PDF image files into text using OCR software, and allowed me to efficiently search across documents. Querying this searchable Google drive folder then allowed me to identify the dozens of meetings Huawei had with the British government, as well as the hundreds of thousands of pound in donations given the British politicians through All Party Parliamentary Groups and in the case of Priory, identified the coroners reports that were critical of the company, and allowed me to cross reference these with Care Quality Commission reports rating the units concerned. With social care spending, I was able to use the CQC’s care unit rating dataset to identify privately operated mental health providers that were rated as inadequate or requiring improvement, returning about 20 companies. This made reviewing their accounts feasible, and allowed me to identify the firms with questionable financial practices rapidly and comprehensively. For my work on knife crime, I was able to use existing street level crime data to map weapon possession incidents, and look for patterns. Not only did this allow me to focus my investigation into one area, to allow a narrative investigation that avoided speaking in broad brush terms across the capital, it allowed us to present the investigation to the audience in a clear visual manner, exploring the geographic nature of the crime in a way which had not previously been reported on. For my work on local government finances and obesity, using previous stories about individual authorities making errors, and tip offs from sources as a base, I was able to use carefully directed freedom of information requests to map the system that was broken, the inability to deal with the volume of obese corpses on the one hand, and the poor accountability of spending on consultants on the other. This allowed me to focus my efforts on building data sets that didn't already exist to provide proper accountability in my reporting.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

My work regularly prompts legislative scrutiny, driving proper accountability of previously under reported issues. My report into Russian links in the House of Lords lead to a full investigation by the legislature's commissioner for standards into the actions of the peers concerned. Likewise, my work on Priory and profiteering private mental health firms lead to questions to ministers from MPs on the issue, forcing the government to properly address these problems in a way that it previously had not.

Source and methodology

Included in innovation section.

Technologies Used

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Project members

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