Richard Baker, investigative journalist at The Age

Richard Baker outside Media House, headquarters of The Age, Collins Street, Melbourne. Photo by Joshua Resnick.
“I think it’s important that journalists shouldn’t view people and stories as scalps.” Richard Baker, investigative journalist for The Age, talks to Joshua Resnick about what it takes to be an investigative journalist.

Do the stories come to you? Or do you hunt for them?

A lot of the time they do come through tips. People get in touch when you’ve been writing particular areas for a while. You’re a bit of a magnet for people when issues arise on similar themes: foreign bribery for example. As time goes on it’s more, people come to you. But when you start out, generally you have to drive a lot of your own stuff.

Do people use encrypted methods to contact you?

Yeah quite a lot, there wouldn’t be a day go by without something coming through on it. Whether they are all good quality or not is debatable. It’s certainly a popular tool for people to contact you or pass on information in a way that protects their identity but allows you to contact them back.

How do you follow money trails?

It depends where they go. There are ways to block it out. If it ends up the trail leads to the Cayman Islands, it’s hard to penetrate that: but domestically there are a lot of ways. You use registries to confirm and to use as building blocks. Unless you get a tip. The trail might end, but it gives you enough to ask questions or prove a relationship between two people that are denying a link.

People are more important than documents. That’s what I’d always advise aspiring journalists. Be a good people person, and then you cover your bases. Because if you’re a good people person, then you’ll still get the documents that people have, but you get the story from the real person as well. It’s better work. I always do it like that.

Are you pushed to do multimedia?

You do multimedia, you do whatever. I’m a big fan of telling stories in different ways. We spent half of last year telling an investigation for a podcast. It was a great way of telling a story and it got a big audience. It’s called Phoebe’s Fall. It’s done about 1.3 million downloads which is pretty good. That was about six 30 minute episodes to investigate a death and all the issues around it. We’re trying to scope out another one as well.

Did it take its toll on you emotionally? How did you separate your work on the podcast with your personal life?

Yes, it was tough subject material and it dominated my work and parts of my private life for a while. Makes you appreciate what you have though. I’m pretty good at putting my work and private life in separate boxes. That comes with years of practice. But any work worth doing will have an impact because you put your heart and soul into it. Anything less and it ain’t good.

How do you keep the balance between entertaining an audience and showing sensitivity to the subject?

We always had taste and sensitivity in the back of the mind. There was a deal of salacious material that might have created a stir with the audience but we chose to leave it [out] as it didn’t change the facts or the story. Always got to keep in mind that stories about people who aren’t here involve lots of people who loved them and still are here.

Any stories that haunt you? Any you could have done a better job on?

There’s plenty I could have done a better job on. Haunt me? No not really, there’s plenty where you wouldn’t resolve from doing them but you worry about the impact you have on people. Particularly the children of people you’re writing about. Say you’re bringing down a politician or a doctor, and for good reason, but it still has a really… you know, flow on effect. That person is a person, they may have done some bad things but they may have done some good things too.

Destroying someone’s career has an impact on their family, so that weighs on you. I think it’s important that journalists shouldn’t view people and stories as scalps, so much as people. It means you think carefully about what you put into print and what you say. It’s a good thing to have. It’s not a haunting so much, but a reminder to be fair and decent.

How do you deal with a source coming to you, knowing that their lives might be destroyed by the story?

I don’t think you hide from the fact that there could be downsides. You do all you can to protect them. You apprise them of the potential fallout – ways to minimise the fallout – before the story comes out. Then don’t drop them until the story is done. It’s important to maintain the relationship.

Any advice for future journalists?

Don’t accept no for an answer. There are so many paths to being broadcast or published these days. It’s actually easier than ever despite the doom and gloom around the mainstream media. Don’t put limits on yourself and always reach out to people, don’t be lazy, don’t always sit behind technology. Do things face-to-face.