‘We never broke any rules’

Paul Kenyon is not an ordinary journalist. His CV reads like a mixture of James Bond and Punked; he has sleuthed his way around some of the most violent dictatorships on the planet, and was the first person to film Iran’s secret nuclear facilities. He has tracked migrants across the Sahara along a trail of dead bodies and discarded water bottles, gate-crashed a wedding to expose it as a visa scam, and even faked his own death.

 
Kenyon is a fairly chipper character, perhaps surprisingly given the bleak material he deals with first hand. Smiling, he recounts his run-in with Iran’s security services after filming a documentary on the country’s nuclear facilities. “They ran up to us shouting BBC! BBC! as we got to the airport, then dragged us to a side room and went through our luggage till they found the tapes. It was the most terrifying experience of my life.”
 
Eventually, the crew were  allowed to return to the UK, once they had been relieved of their more sensitive recordings and been persuaded never to go back to Iran. Luckily, they had sent the cameraman back a day early with another copy, and he’d managed to slip past the guards.
 
I ask where he picked up the kind of skills needed to sneak past security agents quite accustomed to beating people until they do what they want to film a facility kept secret from even the UN. In part, he says, the job is self-selecting. “Most investigative journalists I know are rule-breakers and have a problem with authority, and through school, through university, you develop tactics to get around those rules. It’s instinctive; if someone says this is the room that you’re not allowed to go into, that’s the room you want to go into.” Even so, that taste for rule-breaking takes honing. “I’ve had loads of training from ex-police officers, learning how to avoid getting detected, how to trail a car in traffic, how to follow someone without being noticed.”

Kenyon rarely reports from the UK, instead working mainly in Africa and the Middle East. I ask what draws him to foreign reporting. “In Britain we can be quite blinkered, only interested in our own lives. I suppose it’s slightly idealistic, but I think that it’s important for people to be able to put their own lives into context and see how fortunate we are, which is a bit of a cliché but its true.’ As much as anything, though, it’s about the desire for a good story. He tells of “rich seams of corruption, there for the taking”, with an oddly bittersweet eagerness that I suspect you need in order to be willing to report from some of the grimmest parts of the world.

He seems a little embarrassed about his early work. He made a name for himself in his first show, Kenyon Confronts, with a program that exposed a life insurance scam in Haiti. Not beating about the about the bush by questioning the scammers, he simply faked his own death and filmed the funeral that they arranged for him, which came complete with a service and a band to play a requiem. He even got a shot of himself mourning his own tragic demise in the back of the church. That, he says now, was “a bit sensationalist”.

His recent documentaries, made mainly for Panorama, are far broader in scope than exposés of individual cases of wrongdoing. He spent weeks following a group of African migrants along the trail from Ghana to the southern coast of the Mediterranean. His aim now is to give airtime to the voices of the people often hidden from the West, rather than just the wrongdoings that go on outside of Europe. “It annoys me when people in the Daily Mail or whatever claim that African migrants are only in the UK so they can get their hands on benefits. They don’t; they come to work, because they don’t even know what benefits are.”

He tells of the respect the migrants receive in their hometowns. “These men are viewed as heroes in their village; their families save up to pay for their travel, so that they can send money back to the village from Europe”. Some make the journey several times, only to be deported home from Libya or Italy to wait for another chance to make the journey.

The migrants he tracked are not motivated solely by money. They have a sense of their place in the world’s history and politics that rarely makes it into discussions of migrants, idiosyncratic as their beliefs are. “One man told me that there was nothing wrong with going to Europe for money, since the Europeans had been taking what they wanted from Africa for centuries; he was even convinced that there are huge vaults under London and New York containing preserved trees to guarantee the first world’s wood supply.”

He laughs about the twists and turns of getting permission to film in Libya, where he investigated the trafficking of African migrants, as well as covering the civil war. “We’d try every contact we had in the government there and get no response for months. Then, in the end we got a call in the middle of the night saying that we could come, telling us even what flights we had to be on. They were all mad.”

Are British minds starting to broaden in step with globalisation, I ask. Kenyon is optimistic,  “Over the last ten to fifteen years and very much in the last five, there has been a real change. People are starting to think about the stuff we have taken for granted, that we import very cheap T-shirts from Cambodia, coffee and chocolate from Mexico and Africa. You’ve got to ask yourself why they’re so cheap, and they’re so cheap because they don’t have the same standards of labour as we do, because there’s huge exploitation in those countries, in some cases even slave labour.” Paul tracked a group of child slaves from the families from which they had been taken to cocoa farms in Ghana, and eventually freed several with the help of Ghana’s police (who then claimed all the credit).

I ask how he feels about the backlash against aggressive journalistic techniques that erupted after the News of the World was shut down, and whether he feels that his own methods have much in common with the nastier end of what went on at the tabloids. He laughs, “The tabloids crossed a line that we don’t go near; phone hacking is, obviously, completely illegal. Of course, investigative journalists might hire private detectives, but then whether you want to call them a private detective or call them a freelance journalist doesn’t really make a lot of difference. I don’t even know what the difference is.”

I ask about blagging, one of the methods singled out in the coalition’s Leveson inquiry as an example of unethical tabloid tactics. He hesitates, “Well, of course, when you’re working undercover you are pretending not to be a journalist, but there is a difference. Everything we went undercover to expose was serious crime, or failing that, the next level below, which has to be pretty serious anti-social behaviour. We didn’t just go after celebrities.” Kenyon is a staunch believer in the right to deceive in the name of the public interest, however much that term may have been stretched by the tabloids. “Yes there are similarities, but we never broke the rules.”

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Paul Kenyon spoke at the Oxford Media Society last week