Career Notes 10.11.20
Ep 19 | 10.11.20

Geoff White: Suddenly all of the pieces start to line up. [Journalism]


Geoff White: My name is Geoff White and I'm an investigative journalist covering technology. We're quite geeky, my brother and I, you know, we had a ZX Spectrum, which I've still got. I'm actually looking at the ZX Spectrum at the moment. So clearly we were we were geeky as youngsters. I just got interested in journalism, I guess a little bit at university. I did work experience a couple of newspapers, and I'm not quite sure what it was. I think, like a lot of people had the idea that journalism was quite glamorous. It is and it isn't, you know, maybe come on to that later. But, yeah, there were some there were some glamorous bits, I suppose, and some less glamorous bits. But the heart of it all is communication is basically taking stuff that's that's known about by a certain group of people and communicating it to the general public and just, you know, being able to use use words to craft a story, to get something over to people and get and get their attention and say, "Look, this is important. You should read this." I think that was what was what was the heart of my my attraction to it.

Geoff White: I started doing I started at local newspapers, which, you know, is the classic. I don't know whether you have these in the US to the same extent, but the kind of local news, you know, cat stuck up tree kind of thing. Went on to magazines and then then started doing bits of radio and television. And I kind of stumbled into the technology beats. There was a reporter at the time who was doing technology and he needed a producer to work with him. In television, you often have a reporter and the producer, the reporter is on camera and the producer works behind the scenes. And I actually worked for an Internet advertising company before that. So I built my own website lovingly in HTML and handcrafted my website at HTML, so I sort of knew which end of a computer was which. And so the bosses saw that. And so we paired up and said to be on. Since then, I haven't looked back. That's been my career really for the past 10 or 12 years.

Geoff White: Honestly, the favorite part is, is being a real pain in the ass for people who believe that their power and their money exempts them from having people being a pain in their ass. I have to say with some of the technology companies, you know, when you phone them up and you say, look, I've discovered this particular thing, that the reaction sometimes is one of almost bewilderment, that that you you're accusing them of anything other than saving the world. The problem is when you sort of point out the unpleasant truth, which is, well, hang on, you've got a massive problem with X, you know, with monopoly practices or with child protection or whatever, it sort of burst their bubble a bit. It's like, oh, we're not saving the world. We've got issues. So, you know, that's the that's the bit that I really enjoy almost popping that bubble and saying, no, you're you're no better than anybody else, mate. You've got to I've told you about a problem. Now you have to fix it.

Geoff White: There's a really interesting crossover between techies who are turning to journalism and journalists who are turning to tech and that the stream is going both ways, a bit of a revolving door. I mean, I think for techies who are getting into journalism, the wonderful thing about now is that the old model of the gatekeepers where you had to get a job as a journalist on newspapers, only newspapers could afford the printing presses. And you had to get a job, you know, the BBC, because only they had the radio licenses. All that's gone. You know, you can start blogging and you can start making videos on YouTube and you can release your own podcast. This is the wonderful thing. If you're interested in getting into journalism, you just start. You don't need any boards to give you, you know, the keys to the office. And you can practice, you know, if you're blogging and if you're making on podcasts, you can make those early mistakes. You can screw it up. You can listen back to and think, oh, that was very good. You've got a little grace period online to sort of practice your skills for journalists getting into tech. We really have a job of work, of taking quite complicated and quite advanced but important things about tech and making them clear to the public. There's quite a lot of tech security journalism I read where you get to the end of it, you think, well, that sounds very worrying, but what does it all amount to? You know, A, how do, you know, what does this cause to me as a member of the public? And B, how can I fix it and make myself safe from it? So there's there's lessons on both sides for journalists going to tech and techies going into journalism. There's, I think, different approaches.

Geoff White: One of the things about writing a book which has been really interesting is looking in the rearview mirror. Suddenly all the pieces start to line up. There's this great quote from this book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The guy says, you know, if you look ahead and forward in life, everything seems chaotic and you don't quite know where things are going. But if you look backwards, you can sort of trace a line through the dots. And if you extend that line forwards, that's probably why you're going to go. And I just found that really interesting that looking back over cybercrime and cybersecurity, that I've covered all these things that I sort of at the time covered and then kind of went on to other things have all started to fall into place, you know, as a timeline: the emergence of Bitcoin Covid it wasn't sure about it, it turned out to be big. The Dark Web again, it emerged, covered it, and then covered it and covered it a few more times, and then suddenly it turned out to be big. The personal data stories that we covered, you know, I covered them, and then suddenly Cambridge Analytica comes out and so suddenly in the book, all these pieces have lined up and I can tell a story that that that actually feels like a narrative. It feels like it was, you know, like a timeline was when I was going on covering as a journalist, it felt like individual stories, you know, popping out of the woodwork and me reacting desperately to them.

Geoff White: One thing I really hope is that people think I was fighting for them. So for me, my my my sort of employer, if you like, is the public. My, my audience is the public. I really hope that when all is said and done, they look back and think, well, yeah, actually, he covered stories and stories that helped us, the public, you know, who didn't have massive amounts of money, massive amounts of power and a huge lobbying campaign in political circles. Because that's, you know, for me, that's what journalism was all about. You know, the people who buy our papers and read our, you know, stories and listen to our podcasts and stuff that the rank and file public, that's who you're working for. So long as they feel I did a good job for them, that would be a good result for me.