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It’s exactly 10 years since I walked into the Old Bailey for the first few days of the phone-hacking trial in which News UK CEO, Rebekah Brookes, former Number 10 head of communications, Andy Coulson, and a dozen or so others stood accused of voicemail interception and bribing public officials.
I had no idea then that I would end up live-tweeting the entire eight months of the ‘trial of the century’, let alone that a decade later I would be working with some of the witnesses and helping to expose many other hidden crimes, including a 20-part podcast Untold: the Daniel Morgan Murder which revealed how the murder of a private investigator in 1987 and its cover-up exposed tabloid law-breaking and police corruption in what former Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the “criminal-media nexus”.
Having spent 25 years writing drama for stage and TV – even though these were heavily researched by attending open heart surgeries, helicopter evacuations, and police surveillance operations – this kind of journalism was much more dramatic than any undercover cop show or medical emergency script.
As someone with pretensions to writing more thoughtful pieces on urbanism and religion, or new technology and culture, journalism was also far more thought-provoking.
My former friend and mentor, the late historian Tony Judt, once said to his colleague Timothy Snyder that the role of the public intellectual in the 21st Century has been replaced by the investigative journalist. I certainly thought by then investigators like Nick Davies in the Guardian, who worked on the WikiLeaks story as well as breaking the phone-hacking scandal, did more to inform public debate than any intellectual.
But the key thing about breaking into crowdfunded journalism was being in connection with the people: their role in my coverage of the trial, and then a book, and then the Daniel Morgan podcast, and another book on that, was moral support as much as financial.
It was this experience that led the founders of the new journalism crowdfunding site, Byline.com, to ask me in as an advisor in 2014. After a year-and-a-half, they asked me to take it over.
Like them, I realised that there were many reasons that crowdfunding journalism wouldn’t work in isolation. So I talked to an old friend, Stephen Colegrave, about whether I should get involved. As a former punk rocker, commercial whizz and policy wonk, he said ‘yes’. But immediately spotted the problem of getting lost in the tsunami of digital news content. One night he texted me: “Why don’t we do a festival?”
Back in 2016, I thought it was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard. Three years later, at our third Byline Festival of journalism in Pippingford Park, surrounded by a maelstrom of 8,000 visitors and 700 performers, I thought it was even more crazy. But we had, by then, made connections with so many great journalists like Carole Cadwalladr, and added to our phone-hacking whistle-blowers new ones on Cambridge Analytica and Brexit.
So we decided on an even crazier idea: to launch a newspaper.
Evolution, they say, is a series of successful accidents. Certainly, the last five years of planning, printing and evolving Byline Times have proved that there are certain principles that, looking back over our haphazard journey, have guided us.
The first principle is the principle of truth. In the information age, the currency of veracity is easily degraded, and (as we first pointed out on Byline.com in 2016) misinformation over the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years earlier and interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election and Brexit vote, was rife.
There was then, and still is, a post-modern penchant for claiming everything is subjective, and therefore there is no such thing as ‘objective truth’.
Well, try telling that to victims of atrocities in Myanmar, Xian, Syria, occupied Ukraine, Western Israel or Gaza. Try telling that to a judge under our onerous defamation laws when defending an article you’ve written exposing a corrupt politician or a lawless oligarch. Accuracy matters – more than balance or fairness which matter too – because there is so much information out there which remains untold and hidden.
That’s why – as I say in my social media bios – I was “wrenched out of fiction by the fierce urgency of fact”. Though we can never get to absolute truth any easier than absolute zero, we can still move closer to truth. And a fridge is colder than an oven.
Beyond that, there’s an even bigger theme inspiring our journey from an online site to our launch in retail this week. I’d like to say it’s a sense of community: all those readers and supporters who have followed us for years and championed our investigations.
I’d like to say it’s the amazing team we have slowly put together. Ella Baddeley, who first joined us organising the festival. Hardeep Matharu, who more than anyone is responsible for the quality and standards of the paper. Adam Bienkov, who brought his incisive but calm deep knowledge to our Westminster coverage as Political Editor. Caolan Robertson, whose empathy and directorial skills have created documentaries like our one about the frontline of Ukraine, nominated for 13 awards. Josiah Mortimer, whose verve and energy as Chief Reporter has kept Byline Times breaking news when we’ve been distracted.
There are too many to name. Adrian Goldberg who has made our podcasts for three years, our designers at Yes We Work, writers like Otto English, Peter Oborne, Chris Grey, Jake Arnott, Penny Pepper, John Mitchinson, Alexandra Hall Hall and so many others who trusted us when we were a scrappy little start-up.
It’s not just the principles of truth or community. Or maybe it’s a combination of both. But, as Hardeep wrote recently: Byline Times is more than just a newspaper or a media brand or a commercial operation – because these principles are baked with love.
Peter Jukes is the Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Byline Times