From favelas to orphanages: inside the stories of injustice
Chris Rogers tells Matthew Bell of the trouble stirred up by his new book, Undercover
Sunday 21 March 2010
Over the past six months, Chris Rogers has learned what can happen to those who cross "people in high places". It's nearly the end of our interview when the 35-year-old reporter begins to describe scenes straight out of a Jason Bourne film. "I've had a taste of what they're capable of," he says cryptically, "I've realised that you can be shut down – you can be gagged and your life can be made absolute hell."
What is he talking about? Is he being a mite paranoid? "You do get a little paranoid. Every time I'm on the phone and I hear a distant beep – that's the line being bugged. I've had emails that have gone missing. My bins have been searched through. I've been followed on the Tube."
From most people, this would sound like the fantasies of an over-excited conspiracy theorist. But in his investigative work for ITN and the BBC, Rogers has exposed human rights abuses on a shocking scale in Romania, Turkey and elsewhere; he has sparked diplomatic rows and has been sued by Buckingham Palace. It's not surprising there are people who would like him to pipe down.
The publication on Tuesday of his book, Undercover, concludes a lengthy battle with the palace, which fought hard to prevent its release. It tells the story of how Sarah, the Duchess of York, joined Rogers on an investigation in Turkey into the appalling conditions in which thousands of orphans are housed. The documentary caused a diplomatic row between the UK and Turkey, forcing the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to call a meeting with his Turkish counterpart. Turkey still demands the extradition of Rogers and the duchess for the "violation of privacy" in their secret filming, which carries a five-year jail sentence.
"I've gone through six months of hell," says Rogers. "This is a book the palace and Turkey never wanted to happen." Although the duchess and Rogers are friends, he has just emerged from a legal battle in which they appeared on court documents as the opposing parties. He is unable to elaborate but says the case has now been settled. It has cost him tens of thousands of pounds and his house is on the market to raise more. In October, his wife left him after a two-and-a-half year marriage. "It's a shame, but that's a trade-off of the job. She was supportive but in the end just didn't get it. I think it's tough, as a journalist, to have a close relationship with somebody."
But there are journalists and there are journalists: Rogers is a paid-up member of the awkward squad and admits to thriving on adrenalin. Over a 20-year TV career he has developed a speciality in exposing human rights abuses, and is about to fly off to Brazil to follow a lead.
It was there, as a 16-year-old, that he first experienced the burning sense of injustice which has spurred him on ever since. He had won a competition to present a BBC show, and was flown out to live in a favela for a week. A teenage girl he met and danced withwas shot dead while he was there. "It had a real effect on me. I saw a lot of street children, a lot of bodies in boxes. The death squads were going out and killing street kids. It's a well known story now, but at the time I couldn't believe nobody was reporting it. That is when I got interested in journalism; I wanted to tell the story."
He left school at 15 and lied about his age to join the BBC as a trainee, becoming a Newsround reporter at 19. Since then, he has done stints at Sky, where he was on call for 9/11, and at ITN. Now he works on contract for the BBC, where he says he has the scope for the long-term investigations he thrives on.
Rogers has acted variously as aid worker, missionary and on several occasions as a child trafficker or pimp. His methods came under scrutiny in 2008 when, in an ITN investigation, he was filmed buying a Romanian girl for €800, who was then handed over to a rehabilitation charity. Romanian police accused Rogers of kidnapping the girl, whom they claimed was 25, although he maintains she was 14 or 15, and had been abused "10 times a day since the age of nine".
"There's always a danger of becoming too involved. I'm there just to tell the story. I'm not supposed to be an agent of change. But sometimes it's difficult to stand back." In conversation and in his book, Rogers tells of horrific scenes he has witnessed in orphanages in Romania and Turkey, scenes it is hard to believe still exist within the EU.
After our interview, he is off to cover a story about the RMT, the railworkers union. It seems a rather mundane assignment for someone who has taken on governments, and been intimidated and followed by unknown agents. "The day will come when I give it all up and settle down with a pair of slippers," he says. "It is rattling. I definitely upset the people at the top. But all that only encourages me to keep going."
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