Mark Lee Hunter, Adjunct Professor, INSEAD, Co-founder of Story-Based Inquiry Associates granted the following interview to The Mongolian Observer, in which he expresses a very candid view of investigative journalism in Mongolia and the over-arching problem of corruption in the country which enhances the role and responsibility of journalists to investigate for the benefit of the nation.
Can you please, first, tell us about your manual for investigative journalists Story-Based Inquiry?
I gave a presentation at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference at Amsterdam in 2005, that was about hypothesis-based inquiry, that is how we can use hypothesis to structure investigation. The speech was a hit, the people I admire and business were coming up to me and saying “Hey, that was great talk.” That was a nice moment. A year later one of the people who heard that talk called me and asked me to write an investigative manual for a group called Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, they were just starting up a new training manual and they proposed a couple of collaborators to me and I brought a couple of others because I wanted the book to be a networked book, I wanted to have a wide audience and I wanted to represent the best people in the network around me that were doing innovative stuff. So, I solicited material from them and I put my framework on it. The framework was hypothesis, mapping sources especially the open sources, creating a database to keep the information together and then turning the database into an outline.
None of this was original in terms of what reporters do, except maybe the hypothesis part. Most reporters don’t make expressive hypothesis because they think they are supposed to gather the information first and then decide what it means, which I think is an incredibly wasteful procedure. In fact, most people do have an idea what they are going to find, they just won’t admit it and so I thought I’d make it explicit, manage a tool and actually see what you are doing instead of doing something and pretending you are doing something else.
Reporters have odd scruples sometimes.
The other thing was I stripped out all the specific information sources that people put in other investigative manuals. A lot of investigative manuals are compilations of national sources and I thought, virtually every country has a lot of the same sources. They all have libraries, they all have government statistics offices, they all have land registries, they all have corporate registries, there are the courthouses too, these are the basic open sources. The idea there was to keep it short because I’d spent time on doing investigative journalism training in the developing world, and for someone in Europe buying a packet of A4 paper is nothing, for a guy in Africa it’s a lot of money. I thought let’s make it cheap to print, it doesn’t use up ink cartridges, it doesn’t use up all your paper and print it out. So, keep it down to 80 pages, make it easy to read and use, so that was the idea.
I wrote it for ARCH, they commissioned me to do it, and they came to me and said UNESCO wants to publish this but you have to give your rights, I was delighted. So, UNESCO published it, I went to bed on August 8, woke up on August 9 and typed the name in the Google and 200 websites came back. Overnight it was published on 200 websites and I thought “Wow”. I was of course very happy about that. That’s how it started.
Has your book been translated into other languages?
The translations came later. What started happening after that was we started getting phone calls and emails from people in different countries saying, “We are looking for a manual to teach people investigative journalism, this one is short, it’s clear and covers everything we need, so we’d like to use this.” I put them in touch with UNESCO, the third or fourth time this happened, my contact in UNESCO, a wonderful woman in media Xianhonghu said to me “This is out of control” (and laughs)
People kept calling up and still do. The last ones were the Japanese, so now there’s a Japanese version, there’s a Mongolian version, they in 13-14 languages – Macedonian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese. This is very satisfying, it’s nice that people appreciate the book and most of the people who translated it are journalists. I am very happy about that too, they use it to train people, and they use it for their own operations.
You have been to Mongolia several times, which means you must be quite familiar with the political, social and economic situations in Mongolia. What do you think are the problems in Mongolia that journalists should or could take up?
I learn more every time I come. First you see the general situation, you see that there is a big problem with corruption, as in many developing countries. You see progressively that the nomadic culture of Mongolia, which is one of the world’s historical and cultural treasures, is being pushed aside by extraction. I don’t have anything against extraction companies, but it doesn’t look as if this way of life is being protected sufficiently. That’s very clear and it looks as if the system that is supposed to be protecting the rights of the people is not functioning equitably, this seems to be the case as well.
Do you think there is a fertile soil for promoting investigative journalism in Mongolia, as you mentioned that corruption, as in many developing countries, is a big problem in Mongolia too?
A number of things have to happen. My guess is people that will have to start new media. There are sections among the mainstream media, Mongol TV is doing investigative work, Eagle TV is doing some, MNB a little bit, but in provinces there is a problem, it’s very hard for people to have an independent voice in the small communities where the powers-to-be can retaliate directly. That’s one issue. The second issue is there are a lot of domains that are not being covered at all. And the mainstream media will not cover them, they either don’t have the expertise, or they don’t know how to market it. I think that the gap will be filled by smaller specialized publications that are for specific communities and this will require different business models. I don’t know if they will be funded by rich individuals or not, but I certainly know that they are going to have build communities of people who care about the issues, they could be NGOs, students or users of different systems, we will see what format will take. But there will be small operations and they will have to work through partnerships, rather than through large fixed costs.
You just mentioned the word “retaliate”. In the rural areas of Mongolia, the communities are small, in Ulaanbaatar it is larger but still Mongolia in general is small in terms of population and we tend to know each other quite well. Similarly, in UB especially if journalists work to expose corrupt cases, officials, there is surely going to be retaliation.
The usual retaliation that hits investigative journalists is they lose their jobs. But then they get other jobs because if you investigate, you have a very valuable skill, this is something that people don’t realize, young people especially are scared when they lose their job. You can get a better job (laughs). There’s also people can sue you, but if you do a good job they are not going to win, and if you do your job correctly, they’ll find out soon enough they are wasting your money. The third way of retaliation is to cut you off socially. People don’t want to talk to you, they may avoid you, but honestly that doesn’t matter much either because for every enemy you make, you make and admirer and the admirers are usually not interesting people. I am speaking from experience, I do some of these things in France, which hasn’t stopped me from having a very good life in France, and being with people I respect. The final thing, sometimes reporters are subject to violence, I haven’t heard about that in Mongolia. In Cambodia, in Russia, in Azerbaijan – reporters have been subjected to violence, outside of war zones. War reporting has become incredibly dangerous, even more than it used to be, because journalists are being targeted in war zones now, that didn’t use to happen, but the political murder and imprisonment of journalists is rising in a number of countries, and I must say I think the Trump Administration is incredibly stupid about this, their campaign against the fake news is a signal to dictators that they can lie over the media. They would just say this is what is fake news and this is what Trump would like to do. This is terrible.
In Mongolia at the dialogue there were government officials from the police, the anticorruption agency and the prosecutor’s office. They were saying that journalists doing investigative journalism do not have the legal background and so they must be careful. What do you think of his comment?
I took time to talk to this guy and I found him intelligent and sincere, and really concerned. His personal mode, as far as I could tell on the basis of the brief encounter and listening to him, didn’t worry me so much. It’s a historical fact that investigative journalism has often been misused for personal profit, for blackmail etc. That’s rarer now, but he’s right to raise the question of how well trained journalists are, what their knowledge is and their expertise is, this is a problem not only in investigative journalism, most business reporters have less knowledge in business than the people they are covering. So, this is a serious issue everywhere. But, I would also say that this guy has very little direct experience of first-rate investigative reporters, probably the only one he has ever seen is Lkhagva. The past training of Mongolian journalists did not include investigative expertise or skills, in other words, what this guy has probably seen during his existence is very bad journalism. Of course, he is concerned, I think I would be too in his shoes. But I think he is open to the idea that maybe things are going to get better. I hope he is, if he is not he’ll find out anyway. There are better journalists here as they are everywhere.
Investigative journalism is raising the standards of what journalists do, in many ways and with astonishing speed in the last 10 years, it’s amazing what’s happening in the last 10 years, the rise in the skill levels and ambitions. And I saw anything like this as I have been in this field for 40 years.
What do you think of the newly established Mongolian investigative journalism center?
It’s in the works. What these centers serve to do in other parts of the world is to raise capacity. First, they track talented young people and sometime old people, you know the news business has been downsizing, so there is a lot of good people who is looking for work. They track these people, they train them and do projects so people get more skills, this is a very important role. They can also be places where journalists exchange skills, where they train each other, this has been a historical function of the IJ centers. Now that Mongolia is part of this movement, we’ll see how far and fast it advances, but it will advance. Yesterday there was nothing, now there is something. There’s this guy Lkhagva, I admire him, he is global level, he works with the best people around and there would be others like him and I certainly hope he is going to encourage and train others.
You have been having training sessions for Mongolian journalists in investigative journalism. What do you feel of their capacity, and their future?
Well investigative journalism is not complicated, it’s just more work, you have to do certain things – you have to be more organized, you have to plan ahead, you have to take more time with your sources and find more sources. Conceptually it’s not as difficult, what makes it look difficult is that you have to manage more information, you have to find ways to see clearly through all the things that are there, that’s the chief difficulty. It’s not really complex, artificial intelligence is complex, investigative journalism is not especially complex.
It’s not rocket science. It’s more like popular mechanics.
So, you believe that with investigative journalism in Mongolia things are going to get better?
The idea is that you are trying to make people accountable for what they do. You never achieve that with 100% success, but you can do somethings, you can make people more aware, you can make them more powerful. By the way, you don’t just have to chase crooks, you can uncover problems that haven’t been seen, maybe nobody is paying attention to sewage. So, you do an investigation into the sewage system, how it works, that’s pretty worthwhile work. I had a friend in Egypt who did an investigation about shops that take worn out truck tires, cut new grooves in them and sell them. These things are an invitation to highway deaths. Because he did that story, a village that specialized in manufacturing these tires was shut down. I am sorry for the people in the village who lost their jobs but their job was killing people. That’s a pretty nice thing to do as well. That’s not a story about corruption, maybe because of that story some people didn’t get killed.
Eventually the society will benefit, that’s what you are saying?
Eventually or even fast. Some people benefit right away. When you do an investigation, let’s say it’s about injustice, someone was unjustly treated. You can’t reverse what happened to them. Maybe you can get some justice for them. But the least you can do for them is let them know that they are not alone, that they are being recognized, that their life is not a meaningless thing like an insect that you can step on, that someone cares about them. We can always do that. Sometimes, we can get a law changed, sometimes you get a bad person to stop what they are doing, sometimes you fix the mistakes that a good person unknowingly made, there is a lot of ways that investigative journalism improves things for people.
Finally, how do you see investigative journalism in Mongolia, having been here several times, and also having had training for and interacted with Mongolian journalists?
I see a lot of desire, and a lot of hope and a determination that the country is going to change for the better. That’s a very exciting moment, and I hope something comes of it. I prefer reform to revolution. There are a lot of journalists out there who would like Mongolia to be a less corrupt and a more just place. The corruption in Mongolia is known notorious internationally. It’s not a secret to anyone. I don’t want to insult Mongolians, but what I want to say is that I have met a lot of great young people here and they want to go away. This is a hidden disease. When you lose your best young people, what’s left? When your best young people want to go away, this is like slow rot and I have seen it happen in other places. I travel a lot. There’s a lot of countries where the best of the young people are trying to get out. That’s good bye to your future. Maybe there are some people who think we are not going to learn investigative journalism because it’s going to make harder to go on doing business as usual, maybe they should start thinking how we can transition to doing a different kind of business, how we can move towards something that the kids we love will stay in the country and come see us when we are old. Who wants to see their kids once every two years, when they come back from London or Paris, or wherever they have fled to.
This country has incredible people. The reason I have come back four times is because working with Mongols is a thrill. They are very direct, they are very smart, they work very hard. It’s neither a sacrifice nor a charity on my part to come work here. I wouldn’t come back if I didn’t find it agreeable to work with Mongols. The conditions that they are working under have gone worse in the four years that I have been coming. Everybody talks about that. The currency is losing value, my friends here tell me that employment is a problem. The world has tremendous economic troubles right now, but corruption just makes it worse.