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How Not To Close A News Organisation

Posted 6th November 2016

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“We are open for business.”

— David Hencke, Exaro ‘Head of News’, 18th July 2016

“We are absolutely devastated. We were going ahead with plans and had only just put up a story the previous day, with a lot more in the pipeline, and suddenly we are told it’s closed just like that.”

— David Hencke, Exaro ‘Head of News’, 21st July 2016

This article is not the story of Exaro – the investigative news site set up in 2011 to, in their own words, “hold power to account”. That story heavily involves Exaro’s investigations of paedophilia and child abuse, and that’s a topic on which I have precisely no insight on whatsoever – either the investigations themselves, Exaro’s conduct during them, or the official police investigations. There are many people who are far more qualified to discuss those matters. I mean literally qualified, with actual qualifications. There is nothing I could ever add to those discussions.

Still, what I want to talk about is something which does impact on the aftermath of those investigations. Whether you think Exaro’s conduct was exemplary, reprehensible, or some complex line between the two, the fact now remains: aside from the usual rescue from the Wayback Machine, there is no primary evidence of those investigations left online. It has all disappeared.

Let’s back up a bit. Exaro was shut down on the 21st July this year. The closure was widely reported in the press, but curiously was never actually mentioned on Exaro’s website itself. The site’s front page resolutely lead on a story about the regulation of private tutors, and did so for months. There was no mention anywhere on the site of the organisation closing. You would think that this piece of simple disclosure would be the first thing on the agenda once the site closed, as a courtesy to its readers. But no, they did nothing. Even worse, they were still soliciting investigative material, with no warning that anything sent would be falling into a black hole.

Exaro front page in October 2016

All of which I find odd. I find it absolutely, fundamentally strange that a news organisation could close, and not even find five minutes to post a message informing its readers. Not only is it just rude, but I think full disclosure to your readers is an absolute requisite for a news organisation, especially one which frankly painted itself as better than others.1 To appear to be a going concern and ready to investigate material sent to them when they were actually closed for good was nothing short of ridiculous.

Even weirder, shortly after this their Twitter feed disappeared, to be replaced with someone called Linda Lavallee talking rubbish. Either the account was sold, hacked, or all tweets were deleted with no warning; no explanation reflects especially well on the organisation.

And then, last week, Exaro’s website went offline. Five years of investigations, just gone, like that. An archive of any sort is not to be taken offline lightly; five years of Big Brother reviews would be something I’d be reluctant to yank offline. But five years of serious investigative journalism?

In other words: Exaro didn’t inform its readers about its closure, screwed over its social media presence, and then deleted its archives. This is the exact opposite of how a news organisation should deal with closing its doors. If ten years of snack reviews can remain online nearly five years after closing – along with a goodbye message – I’m sure Exaro could have at least dealt with things slightly better than they have, debts or no debts.

Unlike most pieces on Dirty Feed, I really do feel the need to address the “Does this really matter?” argument. On most topics, I’m simply content to go off on a weird direction, and assume that some people will come with me, and others will click away. That’s fine. But on something which touches on a subject like this – both the topic of child abuse itself, and the legitimacy of Exaro’s investigations – of course it’s worth asking: how important is this?

Answer: of course, this isn’t as important as either of those things. But I would argue that how a news organisation closes is still an important topic, especially in terms of informing its readers and dealing with its archive. And the topic is especially important when dealing with material of this nature. There are real issues to do with the preservation of material… but also, one of simple respect to the subject matter. It’s difficult to interpret the action as the owners saying anything other than “Actually, hey, all this stuff we did wasn’t important after all”. Which isn’t what you’d expect the people in charge of it to think.

Whatever your opinion on the work Exaro did, it became part of the public discourse on an important story. (In fact, over its five years online, many important stories.) The site should have done more to inform its readers of its closure, and its archive should have been dealt with better than just falling off the net after three months with no warning.

It was an absolutely terrible way to close a news organisation.

  1. From their About page: “Exaro is an online service that investigates issues that are important to business in particular and to the public in general, but which are being inadequately covered – or ignored – by the mainstream media.” 

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Jamie on 6 November 2016 @ 5pm

The trouble with the Exaro “investigations” is that they will be easily — very, very easily — found to be libellous in future. And deliberately libellous, which just compounds the problem. By deleting the site, the writers and editors and backers have ever-so-slightly reduced the risk of being ruined by their libellous postings; leaving them up is an invitation to sue.

In print days, a book (or occasionally a magazine or even a newspaper) could be pulped once it was discovered to be libellously wrong. Now we have to decide: do we keep libel online (possibly with a disclaimer or a correction or something) or do we delete it? The former has the problem that it’s still libel even with a disclaimer. The latter protects – to some degree – against this, but leaves gaps in history.

Tough choice. I don’t pretend to have an answer: the journalist and historian in me has a different view to the private citizen* who could be libelled at any point.**

(*=Gay guy, because a lot of Exaro’s stuff was just homophobia linking homosexuality wrongly to paedophilia)
(**=A libel akin to the Blood Libel levelled against Jewish people, and just as likely to be made at random to similarly devastating, bring-a-mob-to-your-door, effect)

John Hoare on 6 November 2016 @ 5pm

I’ve got to be honest – the thought about libel hadn’t crossed my mind. Mainly because I assumed if any libel proceedings were going to take place, they would have done so by now.

Perhaps that’s a misguided thought.

Tim Pendry on 8 November 2016 @ 11am

For what it is worth (since I try to be a stickler for the facts which is why I initiated Exaro in the first place), the closure was not at all anticipated or planned but happened suddenly and without warning when the majority shareholder withdrew funding. For the reasons for this, you must ask it but those reasons appear to have had nothing to do with the content.

I should know. I was a Director (but no longer) and still (though it seems to mean little now) a minority shareholder. At a Board Meeting only a month or so before the closure, there was unanimous agreement on a fully funded programme of work for the six months to December 2016. The implementation was only delayed by a month to resolve other internal issues.

A few weeks later I got a phone call to ‘attend’ (actually a conference call) an emergency Board Meeting at which the decision to wind up was to be approved because of the withdrawal of all funding by the majority shareholder [New Sparta] – a reversal of the previous position but actually one which was well within New Sparta’s rights.

The decision was not one that could be countered since if there is no money there is no money but I abstained on the principle that I had not been adequately informed of the full situation in a timely manner before the Board Meeting as a Director should.

There was no substantive discussion of the implications and the ‘Meeting’ (formally correct) was a simple one line Resolution on a winding up. I then resigned as Director (immediately after that Board Meeting) because I could no longer take responsibility for a company when provided with insufficient and timely information to make sound judgements.

My parting ‘advisory’ was to warn that one could not just shut down an investigative journalistic web site without reputational damage (including unwarranted speculation) and that such a shut down had to be carefully planned.

It seems that there were no plans in place before the decision – which rather reminds me of the last Government’s attitude to the possibility of Brexit. The thing just closed.

I also advised that the site was a public interest good (in my opinion) and some means should be found to preserve it if it could not be ‘sold on’ (which wasn’t going to happen). I would have assumed that someone would have double-checked for libel, put up a notice as to what was happening and close down any remaining public-facing functionalities.

From the date of my resignation, I have had no say in the business except as minority shareholder. For whatever reason, it has still not been wound up although the Board I attended resolved to do so.

On the libel point, I understand this is a red herring. There were no issues of concern sufficient to stop the six months programme at the Board Meeting referred to above when the matter was last reviewed. Libel was not on the agenda at all in the Board Meeting that actually resolved the winding up (the one item on the agenda).

Personally, there is no bad feeling about this, just mild irritation that those advising the majority shareholder seems to have failed to think through the reputational implications of a sudden withdrawal of funds and perhaps that I was not consulted on this aspect of the case when that is precisely what I do for a living elsewhere with no little success.

The rest of the Board appears not to have heard or listened to the concerns of myself and journalists by putting in a plan for some form of public communication that would explain the closure of the organisation more effectively on the site itself or in a news release. This is unfortunate but not a hanging offence in corporate law.

I understand that Mark Watts on the one hand and David Hencke and Mark Conrad on the other are seeking to pursue other routes for continuing their investigative journalism along separate lines. In both cases, I wish them well.

As for the Company, as of today, I have no idea what is going on – a minority shareholder has few rights in law when a Company is in this position but there has been no clarification of when the Company will now be formally wound up (clearly the Board reversed the specific timetable in my absence on a later occasion for whatever reason).

So, I have some sympathy for the thrust of your piece but I would suggest that commentators stick to the facts and try and avoid chasing down speculative avenues that lead to nothing.

There is certainly more cock-up than conspiracy in all this and New Sparta (and, before that, Jerome Booth) must take credit for nearly five years of funding at a time when major media groups were cutting back on investment in investigative journalism. That is why irritation is minor and professional – in all other respects, they should be thanked for their past commitment.

Again, for what it is worth, I certainly considered Exaro to be important. Amidst the controversy, which included some very poorly informed media attacks on me and others, Exaro produced some great work that set the agenda in a number of areas beginning with the exposure of the use of private company tax arrangements by public servants. It was not all about child abuse by any means.

It is now part of our contemporary history, I am pleased that the Internet Archive Wayback Machine at least holds an earlier but quite recent iteration of the site. David Hencke’s recent briefing on that iteration is worth noting. I do not regret creating it or setting it up or sustaining it as best I could albeit with decreasing say over the years.

If there is a ‘mea culpa’, it is that I was probably too accepting of funding without a better business plan in place and that I allowed editorial far too much power in relation to commercial management in that original business plan.

As they say, that was then and this is now. Five years was not a bad run under current conditions. But the criticism of the Company’s latter day public relations and communications is well taken by this ex-Director.

Tim Pendry (Private Capacity)