‘I am never satisfied with the official version’

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  • Published 16.10.16
Spotlight Man: Robinson
Pic: Sonia Sarkar

The 11-year-old newspaper delivery boy followed a gruelling schedule. Before dropping the papers at every doorstep in his Boston neighbourhood, he would sit under a street lamp and read them. So, years later, when Walter V. Robinson, that newspaper boy, joined the Boston Globe as an intern — and then worked his way up from a political reporter and metro editor to foreign correspondent reporting from 30 countries — he already knew what news was all about. Robinson won global fame in 2001-2002, when, as the head of the paper’s investigation team, Spotlight, he and his team exposed a rampant child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. In 2003, he won the Pulitzer for the expose, which became the theme for Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight.

At 70, Robinson, played by Michael Keaton in the film, isn’t done with investigative reporting. ‘Like you, I am still eager 
to be the first to find out what’s happening,’ Robinson told Sonia Sarkar on the sidelines of Uncovering Asia, a conference on investigative journalism in Kathmandu that both attended last month. Excerpts from their conversation:

Q. How accurately did the film capture the investigation done by your team?

A. There were fears that a Hollywood film would sensationalise the work we’d done. But it didn’t. The director’s team did extensive research. They spoke to us several times. We gave them papers supporting our investigation, which they too investigated. And then they made the film. Tom McCarthy is a wonderful filmmaker. Next time you plan to do any investigation, call me and I will put you in touch with him. He will do the investigation for you in two hours. (Laughs)

Q. Do you think the film will encourage victims of sexual abuse in other parts of the world to speak up?

A. Spotlight opened in the United States last November. In January, it had a staggering opening around the world. With each opening, our email inboxes were flooded with messages of victims from across the world — France, Italy, South Korea, Australia and India. They were victims of sexual abuse by heads of other religious institutions too, not just the Church.

Q. What message does the film have for journalists?

A. Spotlight speaks to us all, as journalists. And it speaks for us all. It is about what we all do — journalism that makes a difference. Spotlight is for editors to revisit their decisions, to start doing investigative 
reporting because we cannot do without it.

Q. How did your investigation start?

A. In July 2001, the Boston Globe editor, Martin Baron (portrayed by Liev Schreiber in the film), was pursuing a column on lawsuits pertaining to a priest who was allegedly involved in sexual abuse. When he learnt that the judge had sealed the court records to prevent the personal records of the priest from going public, he asked the paper’s Spotlight team to investigate. That was it: investigate one priest. We called everyone who knew anything about him and sexual harassment of children. And we realised that it was just the tip of a large iceberg. We got to know about sexual harassment by a dozen priests. That changed the course of the story. A dozen priests turned out to be 87 and then 135 and then 175... and finally, just in Boston, 249 priests.

Q. What was the impact of your investigation?

A. Our phones rang constantly. There were calls from victims. It forced Cardinal Bernard Law, who covered up years of sexual abuse by paedophile priests, to resign as the archbishop of Boston in 2002. But we also got calls from conservative Catholics who were angry at the church. They thanked us as they were empowered by the truth that a powerful institution  which survived on secrecy, deception and corruption had lost all that they had because of our report.

Q. Do you think many religious institutions worldwide are up to something that needs to be probed?

A. Yes, that’s likely. Any large rock that’s not been turned over and looked at is likely to have something underneath. We forget that religious institutions are run by ordinary mortals who make horrible decisions. The Church in America was the most iconic institution for everyone. And for too many years, reporters never asked them any tough question.

Q. Reporters in this age of digital and mobile journalism — where quantity overrides quality — do not get enough time to investigate stories...

A. I think editors need to pay attention to the fact that readers want investigative reporting. 
In many newspapers, reporters who want to do investigative reporting do it in their own time. That’s a shame.

A still from Spotlight

Q. Do you think the Internet and social media have made reporters lazy?

A. They are not lazy but they forget. Since they are flooded with so much information, they forget to pursue good stories. They forget to meet people face to face. People won’t tell reporters stories unless they look into their eyes and they feel that they can trust them. That’s one component of reporting that has suffered with the proliferation of the Internet and social media.

Q. Does serious investigative journalism have a future in the US?

A. In the US, we have a free press. Yet someday we may be free but we may not have the press. We may have freedom to do investigative reporting but we may not have reporters to do that. Often, editors think investigative reporting is a luxury. Newspapers are in perpetual financial trouble and therefore investigative reporting is not encouraged. It’s a fundamental mistake made by the newspapers because readers rank investigative reporting high in all surveys. Even if there is information about corruption, there is barely anybody probing it. That’s really a serious problem for our democracy right now.

Q. Some fear that if the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, is elected President, freedom of the press will be compromised. What do you think?

A. He would like to do that. But he doesn’t know that we have a Constitution. He hasn’t read it. He doesn’t know that the Supreme Court has spoken a lot on libel to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press, so he cannot do a thing.

Q. What are your tips for investigative journalists?

A. Never take “NO” for an answer. If somebody says, they don’t want to tell you something, go ask their friends, their resources. Exhaust all possible resources. Basically don’t give up on any story. Never take NO from your editors either. But you have to be a little subversive with them. Also, reporters must pursue stories of national significance. Look for the big picture.

Q. After so many years, are you satisfied with your work as a journalist?

A. No, I am always trying to find out what others cannot. I always like to know what’s there behind official explanations. I am always chasing those stories that people do not want us to know. I am never satisfied with the official version.