Felicity Lawrence has reported on some of the most challenging issues facing the modern world, from corporate power – especially in the food system – to migration, the re-emergence of slavery, climate change, and global tax avoidance.
She was recently awarded the coveted Orwell prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils, for her latest piece on migrant gangwork in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and its human and political consequences.
Announcing the prize, the chair of the judging panel, Claire Ainsley, said Lawrence’s work was “the definition of fearless investigative journalism – a modern day social evil which Felicity has spent more than a decade exposing. A story told from all angles: the local residents, the state and the migrant workers themselves.”
Lawrence joined the Guardian in 1995 and worked as a section editor until 2000 when she became our specialist consumer affairs correspondent. In 2006 she was made a special correspondent concentrating on investigations and long-form writing.
Do you remember your first day at the Guardian?
I arrived at the Guardian in 1995 after five years out of newspaper journalism, working first in northern Pakistan with Afghan refugees, then on maternity leave, followed by a brief spell on magazines. I’d previously worked as editor of the Telegraph magazine, but while I was away had missed the arrival of computers in newspapers. So I have a vivid memory of realising I had a very great deal of catching up to do under the fierce but funny eye of Deborah Orr, then editor of Guardian Weekend.
Can you sum up the Guardian in a sentence?
The Guardian strives to be the progressive voice that holds power to account, publishing truths without fear or favour, however inconvenient; it’s my spiritual home.
What distinguishes investigative reporting from general news reporting?
I think the line between investigative journalism and news reporting is a bit artificial, in fact. All good reporting is investigative, and all good reporters I know ask questions people would rather not answer rather than just recycling PR or managed news. Reporters working on investigations are given more time to dig deeper, build trust with whistleblowers, gather evidence, and to keep asking when the answers aren’t satisfactory. Investigations aren’t always “news” in that much of what we do best at the Guardian is exposing what has become the norm without people realising its significance. It’s often just what’s under our noses – and has sometimes been for years – but it’s hidden by vested interests, or unnoticed and unacknowledged by the establishment.
What does the future hold for investigative journalism?
Now that the extent of fake news is understood, people want original investigative journalism more than ever. I think it has a very positive future in terms of demand, made even more vital by the weakening of the state. If we don’t follow the money, show who is pulling the levers of power, and where that power is being abused or at the root of injustice, I’m not sure who else will.
Are there articles of which you are particularly proud?
I am probably most proud of two things. The first, is a series of investigative pieces published over more than a decade, which document migration, its impact on the lives of migrantsand on host communities, and the way migration has been exploited to erode labour rights globally. This work has taken me from salad farms in Sussex and Spain to factories in Thailand and plantations in Costa Rica. The second is the work I’ve done exposing the extent to which global corporations have dodged tax while banks have run secretive tax avoidance factories that contributed to the crash. Tax was considered too dull to bother with when I first said I wanted to write about it; now it is understood to be a core challenge to modern democracy, and the Guardian team played a huge part in shifting attitudes.
My journalistic approach is to listen to as many people as possible through extensive interviewing on the ground. From those interviews, I try to understand the big trends of change, and to look at the macro picture and whether it is confirmed by other research and statistics. From there, I burrow back down to find the best grassroots examples to explain what’s going on It might be Serco falsifying data in an NHS contract that highlights the failures of outsourcing public services; or Pepsico, owners of Walkers, offshoring its profits from English sales of English-produced crisps, that explains the arcana of corporate tax avoidance. So I don’t have a single piece I am most proud of: one thing tends to lead to another. You pull on a thread and it keeps unravelling through different pieces over years.
Which of those journalists you have worked with do you most admire?
Publishing original investigative work is always a team effort that goes way beyond the reporter, and publication is often just the beginning; the tough battles carry on long after that. So I have admired and learned from my successive editors-in-chief at the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger and Katharine Viner – it’s their courage that allows us to take the risk always involved in original exposés. David Leigh, the Guardian’s former investigations editor, guided me through my first serious undercover investigations – we spent hours in lorry parks sharing a thermos of coffee while tracking down rogue meat. John Vidal was always breaking new ground in the environment patch and has been a generous collaborator; former comment editor Becky Gardiner has a gift for zooming in on your weak spots and making you sort them out. The long reads team who edited my Orwell prize piece contributed countless improving thoughts. My first investigative mentor was ex-Sunday Times senior editor Geoffrey Cannon. A key part of the Guardian being able to take on powerful vested interests is having the right legal team – Gill Phillips leads ours brilliantly.
I have also really enjoyed collaborating with and learning from a new generation of young, committed investigative reporters, such as Ella McSweeney, Alice Ross, and Annie Kelly, who have tried to drag me up to date with digital skills.
Above all, I admire the sources – brave public-interest heroes, unsung of necessity – who have blown the whistle through the years.
Are there stories you wish you’d written, or articles you’d particularly recommend?
I wish I’d written Jane Mayer’s pieces in the New Yorker and her book about the dark money of American billionaires subverting democracy, and Carole Cadwalladr’s brave and alarming British take on the same theme in the Observer.
My regular must-read list includes half the Guardian, but for fearless, original, or just really well-written pieces whose techniques I study it’s George Monbiot, Ian Jack and Aditya Chakrabortty at the Guardian, John Lanchester and James Meek at the London Review of Books and Richard Brooks at Private Eye.
What are the biggest challenges facing investigative journalists in the UK today?
Financing work that is expensive and resource-heavy in an age when Google and Facebook are gobbling up advertising revenue; the chilling effect of punitive libel laws combined with deep corporate pockets and executives who increasingly respond to legitimate scrutiny with legal threats; the politicisation of government communications which hinders the proper flow of information.
What are you currently working on?
The crime and illegality that fills the vacuum created by the state in retreat. Information that whistleblowers – old and new – take the risk of bringing me.
Q&A by Matthew Taylor