Your scoop? Nah. It's ours if we want it

'Ethics' and 'large media organisation' are terms that look less and less comfortable together. Paul McCann profiles a recent conflict involving star foreign reporter Nate Thayer, Pol Pot and America's ABC News

Nate Thayer is the kind of reporter that makes idealistic youngsters want to be journalists. He has risked his life in jungles, crossed the front lines of a civil war, been expelled from his home for exposing corrupt ministers and made secret rendezvous with genocidal killers. All for what is universally acknowledged to be the scoop of the decade - finding Pol Pot.

Now his lustre has been burnished all the brighter by his refusal to kow-tow to the might of the American TV network ABC. Furthermore he has become the first person in 57 years to turn down a prestigious Peabody award because it would have been shared with what he believes is a duplicitous media monster.

When he found the hidden Khmer leader last July, Thayer was described as having spent 10 years on the trail of Pol Pot.

"In fact that is rather a lot of hype," he says. "It's not like I had an obsession with Pol Pot. I was a Cambodian correspondent and lived there for six years. I also lived in Thailand for another five years so obviously there were plenty of other Cambodian and Asian stories that I covered.

"But I had always thought that Pol Pot was one of the last great interviews in the world. Here was a household name the world over who had never explained himself. He was perhaps the most effective 'secret leader' of the twentieth century.

"So all the time I lived in Cambodia and Thailand I kept one eye on Pol Pot. I made numerous trips into the jungle and built up contacts with Khmer Rouge leaders. And I made constant requests for access or an interview with Pol Pot.

"The break came in June 1997 when I was expelled from Cambodia for exposing connections between the Prime Minister and heroin traffickers. I decided to write a book so I spent a lot of time just sitting in a room with the Khmer Rouge's clandestine radio station on in the background. I heard then that the defence minister had been deemed a traitor and executed so I immediately went to my Khmer Rouge contacts who told me about serious infighting within the leadership and that Pol Pot had been overthrown.

"They even announced Pot's overthrow on the radio but no one believed them and that became the basis for my argument for getting access. No one would believe he had been overthrown unless a western journalist got in to prove it.

"From there I began the process of getting into one of the most impenetrable places in the world. The only foreigners to have been there before were the three guys who were kidnapped and executed. It was made all the harder because last July a civil war broke out in Phnom Penh and I had to fly to Bangkok and try from there by illegally crossing the border, not to mention the front lines of the Phnom Penh civil war and the front lines of the Khmer Rouge civil war.

"Once me and my cameraman were in a hotel over the border I had to phone a number in Europe to tell them my room number before being infiltrated into the jungle.

Thayer never did actually interview the leader responsible for the deaths of an estimated one million Cambodians. Instead, he filmed two hours of Pol Pot being denounced at a classic Maoist show trial.

Nevertheless, his story was dynamite, and as soon as it became known that he had footage, pictures and a story he was bombarded with hundreds of calls from news organisations. His main priority was to have the print story go in the Far Eastern Economic Review, which he had worked for as a freelancer for years and which had supported him for six months while he tried to get to Pol Pot in the jungle.

But he sold the North American television rights to his footage to ABC for $350,000 - "Mainly because ABC's Ted Koppel is as good as it gets on American TV. He seemed like the last honourable guy."

But now Thayer is seriously pissed off at ABC. The network's PR department got hold of the footage and did a major number on it. They made enhanced video-grabs which they gave to newspapers under an "ABC Exclusive" tag. This meant that, using ABC's released material, the New York Times was able to run Thayer's story before he had even started writing for the Economic Review. And by putting out the video grabs and downloading images onto its Web site, ABC ruined Thayer's chances of selling the stills from his trip into the jungle.

"Basically they said 'f*** you' to my lawyers because they knew their lawyers could eat a freelancer alive," says Thayer. "It was an outrageous ethical violation. They then refused to pay me my agreed fee until I signed something saying that they had done nothing wrong. It took 10 months to get my money and they only paid up because they knew when I had won the Peabody that it would turn into a PR nightmare."

ABC claims that its pre-broadcast publicity was perfectly normal behaviour and Thayer was naive for not understanding this.

Thayer believes the network's behaviour speaks volumes about the state of US television news. "ABC have one correspondent for the whole of Asia so they take freelancers' work and try to take credit for it. The function of people like Koppel is to prove that there is a serious side.

"But in reality to them the function of journalism in a free society is no more than delivering audiences to advertisers."

Suggested Topics
Pro-Russia rebels guard a train containing the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 crash in Torez, Ukraine
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
Damon Albarn is starting work on a new West End musical
artsStar's 'leftfield experimental opera' is turning mainstream
Life and Style
Paul and his father
artsPaul Carter wants to play his own father in the film of his memoirs
Ben Stokes trudges off after his latest batting failure for England as Ishant Sharma celebrates one of his seven wickets
Arts and Entertainment
Members of the public are invited to submit their 'sexcapades' to Russell T Davies' new series Tofu
Sky's Colin Brazier rummages through an MH17 victim's belongings live on air
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
arts + ents'The Imitation Game' stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley
i100... and no one notices
Arts and Entertainment
Friends reunited: Julian Ovenden, Richard Cant and Matt Bardock in rehearsals for the Donmar revival of 'My Night
with Reg'
theatrePoignancy of Kevin Elyot's play being revived just after his death
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Content Manager - Central London

£35000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Central...

Business Manager / Member Services Manager

£35 - 40k: Guru Careers: A Business Manager / Member Services Manager is neede...

Account Manager - London

£40 - 50k: Guru Careers: An Account Manager is needed to join the leading comp...

Digital Marketing Executive

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a talented and imaginative Digital Mar...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor