Editor’s note: This year, Carole Cadwalladr, features journalist at The Observer, broke the story that became the Cambridge Analytica scandal. With the help of a whistleblower, she revealed that the data analytics firm had misused data it had harvested from 87 million Facebook users without their consent for political purposes. The firm was behind Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and also played a role in Brexit. Cadwalladr’s reporting led to the firm’s closure and the appearance of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg before the US Congress. She was interviewed by Jacob Phillips at the UK’s Byline Festival.
How did you get into investigative journalism?
I’m not an investigative journalist and I very much hesitate to call myself that. I am very much a features writer and I cover it (Cambridge Analytica) from a features perspective, which has been quite helpful in a way. This is such a complex story, so telling it at a feature length where you can explain some of the complexity and use the narrative was a helpful thing in the early stages of the story.
Some of the first longer pieces I did about Robert Mercer really went viral in a way that if I had just been a traditional news journalist doing traditional news reports I don’t think would have. So, for this kind of story it’s been quite a good match to the subject.
Would you encourage young people to try and become investigative journalists?
Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. I always thought that investigative journalists were macho, grizzled older aged men doing secretive things, but actually what has been really positive is there is a new generation of investigative journalists who have emerged. Many are women from non-traditional journalistic backgrounds. The only thing I had was talking to people, but stories come from people. That’s a way into it. One of my colleagues said early on to me investigative journalism is just journalism plus time.
People at home or younger journalists have the time to really get their teeth into something and I would really encourage it, it’s so important. The only good thing that has happened in the world right now is we have realized how important journalism is and how it needs to be better funded with more people doing it.
I used to be very pessimistic and try and put young people off going into journalism and it’s still really tough but there’s now a real public service ethos about it.
Do you think we are going into a new era of investigative journalism?
Something like Byline is a really interesting case model which really works for younger journalists. This consists of doing the journalism and then using it to raise money to support future journalism projects. James Patrick (who I admire) is this ex-police officer who has been investigating various things to do with Brexit and data. He’s supporting a family of four by crowdfunding through his platform. It is difficult but it is possible.
What do young people need to know about Facebook and social media?
There’s that advertising group by Facebook at the moment saying “fake news” is not our friend. What I would say to young people is that Facebook is not your friend. They are a large, aggressive multinational harvesting your data to make a shitload of money. It is not about connecting you to your friends. It is about using you for financial gain. Realizing that you are a pawn in that transaction is really worth remembering and keep thinking about what you are reading in your feed. Always ask the question: Where is that coming from? Is this authentic? Is this fake news? Who is posting it and why are they doing it?
What does it feel like to nick £100 Billion off Facebook? What are your next steps?
I have made a resolution to keep going hard at my investigative journalism until Brexit. I am so disturbed and troubled by the vast law breaking that is not being investigated properly and I am just doing everything I can to expose that. I feel this necessity to keep going as long as I can and get politicians to take it seriously. I think it is now starting to have that effect.
Jacob Phillips is a former editor at University of York’s student newspaper Nouse.