“But you can’t just stick stuff out, it has to be checked” – an interview with Ben Leapman

At the recent Future Human : Data Journalism event in Shoreditch (yes, I  know, trendy right) I managed to catch up with Ben Leapman, Deputy News Editor at the Telegraph and major player in the MP’s expenses stories,to talk to him about what he believes is the future of Data Journalism.

Here for your audio pleasure is the full, un-redacted and uncensored conversation:

How would you cover all privacy bases when releasing large Data Sets?

Working for a traditional, newspaper as I do, we carefully scrutinise everything we publish.  When you’re writing a news story about a private individual you don’t disclose their address, to give an obvious example. When The Telegraph got its leaks of the MP’s expenses, the un-redacted version it did ultimately put a large volume of material online – for readers to look at the raw material, the receipts- but it very carefully redacted out things like address, even though The Telegraph had the un-redacted version. It made sure it redacted out confidential details; peoples credit card numbers and address, because clearly it would be unfair and a security risk to disclose certain things.

At the same time, at the other end, we are faced with weekly writs from celebrities who don’t want personnel details of theirs disclosed and get injunctions to prevent you disclosing it, and I think that’s quite an alarming trend

Is it possible to ever fully redact potential confidential information from something as large as the ‘Embassy Cables’ leak?

I think Wikileaks have behaved very responsibly in not just sticking this stuff online without looking at it, but going through it and removing names of individuals and redacting. You can argue about whether you think they’ve drawn the line in the right place but essentially they have made an effort to redact and do it responsibly. In that sense they have been more like a traditional newspaper than just like some blogger who gets something and puts it online. They’ve done it intelligently and responsibly to that extent.

[For possible context on these comments read here]

Would you say there is still room for public interest filtering when it comes to data filtering?

Absolutely. It’s seldom where the story is dependent on the bit that you’re redacting out. In some cases there will be a story that’s so sensitive that you can’t really tell it without breaching someone’s confidence, and then that becomes very difficult and maybe you don’t tell the story. We’ve always had the D-notice system, moving back a bit from the recent data journalism. Under the D-notice system if newspapers got a story that was potentially against national interest to disclose you’d get a polite call from a chap in the MOD who was very nice and said : “oh well done chap on this story, very good, but I think there’s a bit of a problem with that. We might need to lose this detail and that detail” and he’d work with you and maybe you’d have to lose something.

That was what was always done and I guess it does have to be done. We live in a Democracy, in a free world, and we are under threat from terrorism and people who do not want to live in our free world in the way we do and you can’t just put stuff up on line that can jeopardise that.

Can current Privacy Legislation survive in the current trend for releasing large data sets?

I think there’s a very clear distinction between; privacy of individuals who are embarrassed that they’ve fathered an illegitimate child and they’re a footballer and they do not want that known; and  very very sensitive stories disclosing nation secrets or names of informants who, for example, are afghan and who have been giving secret to the British or American armies who may be killed for doing that. It’s all the difference in the world.

For the celebrity end of that the current privacy legislation goes too far and gives them too much protection. But in these other cases they are not protected by Law, and it’s not a matter for legislation it’s matter for the media to behave responsibly, which I think by and large it does. If we’re now the case where individual bloggers are putting stuff online themselves then I hope they behave responsibly.

But if that needs new legislation, and maybe it does,  but it’s very hard to legislate for people acting [alone]. The Media industry can be regulated and legislated over because it is a very big industry. You can be sued for Libel, there is money there. There are news editors you can jail. If there’s some individual putting stuff online, those sanctions don’t really apply.

How do you go about keeping data journalism journalistic?

With all the new techniques, and they’re very powerful and it’s a great thing, ultimately it’s the traditional reporters emphasis on checking facts and verifying things and selecting things. Picking out what is important and making sure it’s right. Double checking it and projecting it in way readers will understand.

That will remain what’s important no matter what the techniques are for gathering that information. A carefully constructed argument will hold more weight, and persuade more people, than even the most telling of sets of figures. It’s just the way people absorb information.

But they’re both essential.

Thought experiment: 500,000 leaked government documents land on your desk. Would you go through all of them before releasing anything, even if it means putting many of your journalists out of action for months at a time?

As we saw with he way the Telegraph group handled the MP’s expenses leaks, it did spend weeks and weeks with a large number of reporters going through stuff to check and verify. But you are also dealing with stuff that is timely. If you’re talking about leaked information about stuff going on with the Egyptian government then you’re talking about holding back something back for a month to verify it, it can allow the world to move on.  You’re dealing with stuff in real time.

That’s the difficulty of being a newspaper editor, or the editor of anywhere, you have to strike that balance and make sure you get it right and get it accurate and get it told properly in way people can understand- quickly. It’s a juggling act.

But you can’t just stick stuff out, it has to be checked.

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About Sam Francis

Freelance journalist. Former MA Investigative Journalism student at City University, London. Lover of data, admirer of information, seducer of computers.
This entry was posted in Freedom of Information, How to, Wikileaks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “But you can’t just stick stuff out, it has to be checked” – an interview with Ben Leapman

  1. Pingback: Privacy in the age of Data Journalism (1) – a Beginner’s Guide | The Data Day

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