Turning leaked documents into television

Text by Paul Kenyon

Piles of leaked paperwork don’t make for good television, not in themselves, but buried inside might be stories galore; fraud, money-laundering, misuse of power, corrupt politicians – a treasure trove for any investigative journalist. The trick is to make it into engaging television.

Maasranga Television employs some of Bangladesh’s most respected investigative journalists. Every year they clean up at the national television awards. Until recently, their reports were broadcast as part of the daily news; short pieces competing for airtime against global stories. But now they are launching their own weekly investigative strand, “Onushondhan”, a series of half-hour programmes that represent an exciting new challenge.

When I arrived for a month-long consultancy, the “Onushondhan” office, a private space to one side of the newsroom, was awash with paperwork. Practically every day one of their talented journalists would stagger in with more boxes of documents. “Leaked from a source” they would say, clearing a space for themselves amongst the heaps they already had. Maasranga journalists acquire leaked paperwork like no others. It is the foundation of much that they do. Journalists in Europe and the US could learn much from them, in an industry where traditional investigative skills are being lost to Googling.

Previously Maasranga journalists had chosen the strongest evidence from the pile, and simply filmed it: graphics of figures and percentages, along with “wallpaper” shots to help them to the finish line – a hard watch even with the most sensational story. But we needed to push on from that. A half hour programme has more in common with a feature film than a two minute news piece. It requires characters, plot, tension, moments of light and shade, a denouement. It is, in many ways, an entirely different discipline.

 

Filming each of their investigations as a “voyage of discovery”, in other words following the journalist as the story unfolds, was a technique the team was keen to develop. It’s a relatively simple, but often dramatic, way of filming which provides acres of footage even for stories that don’t easily lend themselves to pictures.

Filming the journalist working late at night in a moodily-lit office, or driving around town looking for clues, or searching through government documents, all these can cover up a multitude of visual weaknesses.

In the end, though, it was the notion of “doorstepping” that became the focus of much discussion. This is the word used in the UK for confronting an unsuspecting criminal with evidence of their wrongdoing. In Europe and the US, it is the moment of drama teased at the top of the film which keeps the audience viewing until the end. It often ends up with the criminal either fleeing or punching the reporter – both of which rate highly.

We discussed various tactics for achieving this moment of surprise. It’s not easy. It requires planning, courage, and bullet-proof evidence. In Bangladesh it also requires the unerring support of whoever owns your TV station. And Maasranga have that.

I left before the series aired, and had bonded so well with the team that it felt like a real wrench. I can’t wait to see the first series of Onushondhan. It would have been great to watch it in the buzz and the heat of the newsroom in Dhaka, but I will be watching it on my laptop on a chilly spring day in London instead.

Fojo Media Institute
Fojo is an independent institution at the non-profit public Linnaeus University, one of Sweden’s biggest universities. In this capacity, Fojo stands free from commercial and political interests, free to make independent decisions on how to serve journalism, freedom of expression and democracy. Fojo works to promote free, independent and professional journalism around the world.