Ian Burrell: Holding power to account is Exaro's creed. But is there a readership for it?
Despite all that has happened recently, Exaro News takes pride in its Fleet Street address. Even if the editor-in-chief of this groundbreaking initiative in online journalism is the author of a prescient book, The Fleet Street Sewer Rat, which highlighted the dark arts as long ago as 2005.
Mark Watts says he isn't bothered that he did not achieve the fame of Nick Davies of The Guardian after focusing his attention on "bin raiding rather than hacking," even though he was aware of the latter practice. His book was primarily an exposé of the methods of Benjamin "Benji the Binman" Pell, who John McVicar memorably describes in the foreword: "Meeting Pell for the first time is like going to the beach for a swim and being confronted with a tsunami – most people just want to get out the cross and the garlic, and head for the high ground."
Watts and his colleagues at Exaro News believe that journalism can thrive without relying on such characters. "Holding power to account" is its slogan, and at the top of the website it spells out its credo: "Investigations – not spin, not churnalism, not hacking – about what should be transparent but isn't."
The star name in its editorial team of 30 full and part-time staff is David Hencke, the veteran investigative reporter who won numerous awards when working at The Guardian. Exaro is recruiting more staff and Watts says it can benefit from redundancies at News International and the Guardian Media Group.
It is a key moment for Exaro as it moves to a subscription-based model that it hopes will sustain its future. Watts believes subscribers will be "ABs" with an unsatisfied appetite for investigative journalism. Perhaps more significant could be the corporate subscribers who have underpinned the paid-for digital journalism of the Financial Times. Exaro will supply such clients with "all sorts of data resources," says Watts.
After opening its offices last year, Exaro has spent its first months giving a taste of the journalism it hopes to provide on a larger scale. Highlights have included the revelation of a deal between the Foreign Office and Libya's National Transitional Council (picked up by the Sunday Times) and a failing scheme to train Members of Parliament (followed up by the Daily Mail). Hencke has challenged the Treasury's calculation of the national debt and interviewed the Press Complaints Commission chairman Lord Hunt. Mark Lewis, lawyer for Milly Dowler's family, wrote a counter-intuitive piece saying phone hacking could be justified in the public interest.
It is high-minded stuff. Exaro will need this to establish its news credibility, partly because its founder Tim Pendry is a public relations man. Watts has a strong record as a freelance investigative journalist but worked as a presenter for Iran-backed Press TV ("I ensured my programme had complete editorial integrity"). Associate editor Keith Perry is a Fleet Street veteran who recently worked on the news desk at the News of the World. "It's wrong to assume that everyone at the News of the World was up to no good, because that's rubbish," Watts points out. Exaro's lack of political agenda is crucial. "It's not ideological," Watts says. "It's very much straight reporting of the data and the documents we uncover. It's about holding government – in the broadest sense, with a lower case 'g' – to account."
Making Exaro financially secure is largely the responsibility of David Baxter, its chief executive. Watts is convinced the market is there. "The media industry has lost its way when it thinks all the public wants is celebrity news," he says. "As traditional media has ignored subjects that should be given more attention, or has been unwilling to put resources into long-form investigative journalism, the demand for that sort of thing has not gone away."
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