Bellingcat: an extraordinary journalistic tour de force

10 Oct 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Bellingcat: an extraordinary journalistic tour de force

As citizen newshounds crack one of the biggest stories of the year, Raymond Snoddy wonders if a new model for investigative journalism is ready to flourish

There is already a strong candidate for scoop of the year, or if you want to personalise it, journalist of the year.

It does not come from the great news machines of the BBC, the Times, Sunday Times or Daily Mail, although those organisations will undoubtedly produce contenders.

This scoop emanates from a small office in Leicester housing a total of five full-time employees, although they can call on many more analysts and contributors.

They are Bellingcat and they are citizen journalists for goodness sake, and they grew out of the work of a single blogger, Eliot Higgins.

They have attracted some attention in the past for using public sources to expose forged data on satellite images on the downing of Malaysian Flight 17 over Ukraine and tying Bashar al-Assad to the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta.

Splendid work, but there has been nothing in terms of impact to compare with the meticulous reporting that would put most detectives to shame that has enabled them to identify the GRU officers responsible for the Salisbury outrage.

Their “network” includes the Russian investigative website The Insider – staffed by outrageously brave people - which has helped Bellingcat trace Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin to his Archangel village. There they were able to confirm the identity of the second novichok attacker.

Charmingly they also found news of the doting grandmother who has shown locals the picture of Mishkin receiving Russia’s highest military award – hero of the Russian Federation from President Putin. The grandmother has now, one hopes, been moved out of harm’s way.

Two weeks earlier The Insider traced the first of the Salisbury attackers, Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga to his Siberian village and confirmed his identity.

The stories have gone round the world and provided splashes for national newspapers and led countless television news bulletins.

Who cares what they call themselves, the level of detail was so great that it has come close to silencing the increasingly preposterous denials from Russian official spokesmen and television outlets such as RT.

A few obvious questions flow from such an extraordinary journalistic tour de force.

Was all, or most, of this stuff already known to the intelligence services but confined to confidential briefings at the top of government, something not designed for the public domain?

Or is it possible that the small band in Leicester actually managed to go further and deeper in a shorter time than the overburdened spooks?

There is a middle way of course. It is not inconceivable that one of those many Bellingcat contributors, might, entirely legitimately, have cultivated an intelligence source and got a little informal help.

It might be in the interests of Western intelligence to have exposed in public just how inept GRU top operatives can be – an approach clearly taken by their Dutch counterparts.

The romantic notion is that a bunch of citizen journalists had the heads of MI5 and MI6 spluttering over their cornflakes as they found out the truth in The Times.

The other big question is where the activities of citizen journalist teams such as Bellingcat leave the established media with hundreds if not thousands of professionally trained journalists at their disposal.

How come none of them were able to crack such a huge story?

Naturally a small team freed from the profit motive can dedicate themselves entirely to one story at a time, compared with organisations which have to cover everything and do it 24-hours a day.

But that doesn’t seem like an adequate explanation. Dedicated investigative teams schooled in the latest data analysis appear to have become less common, at the very least in the established media.

Are the national press and broadcasters, almost self-consciously out-sourcing investigative journalism but are then happy to publish the findings with a small credit along the way?

Perhaps it’s the economic reality of where we are and that such collaboration, formal or informal, is not only a necessity, but something to be welcomed.

By coincidence at almost the same time just such a collaboration between Channel 4 and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism produced an important story.

The Bureau had noticed that there was no central register for deaths of rough sleepers and therefore no way of knowing the true scale of the problem.

With considerable effort, combining what records did exist with the help of local journalists, the Bureau was able to reveal that 449 rough sleepers have died in the past 12 months in the UK, and although the total comes as a shock it is probably an underestimate.

There were fairly instant results with the Government promising more money, although as usual it is very difficult to know whether new money is actually involved, or whether a new label is being attached.

It is exactly the sort of work that collaborative teams of investigative journalists should be doing – bringing together existing, fragmented facts to create a new, more complete picture and produce a story that makes uncomfortable reading and few in government want to hear.

They were a very mixed bunch the men and women, mostly men, who died in doorways or tents and they included a travelling musician, a quantum physicist, a former soldier and a Big Issue seller. They ranged in age from 18 to 94.

Movingly the BIJ tried to tell the stories of all of them like an online tombstone, although not all identities could be established.

The story received considerable attention and was covered by the Daily Mirror, the Metro and the BBC, although there was not much sign in The Sun, the Daily Mail or The Times.

The BBC has also become seriously involved in collaborations with the local press. As director-general Tony Hall noted this week in the inaugural lecture in honour of Bob Satchwell, former executive director of the Society of Editors, the BBC has put 126 reporters back into town halls.

So far they have filed more than 30,000 stories, many of which would not have been covered because of the shrinking of local news teams.

The partnership with local news groups has also included the creation of a data team in Birmingham “producing important public service journalism that’s being used across our industry.”

Good work all of it but the main prize has to go to Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat.

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