Until this week, if you Googled his name, one of the top stories to have come up would probably have been him screaming at a leading figure from the Church of Scientology during the filming of a documentary on what he terms “the cult.”
Or it might have been his departure last month from the BBC, following a scandal in which supporters of British far-right agitator “Tommy Robinson” (real name, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) secretly filmed Sweeney getting drunk and denigrating his employers, at a time when the focus of the story was supposed to have been in the other direction.
This week, however, you’ll likely get a new top hit. The investigative journalist has once again been thrust into the headlines, this time as a whistleblower, after accusing his former bosses at the BBC of suppressing stories on Russian interference in British democracy.
Sweeney, it seems, has no intention of simply drifting off into obscurity after three decades spent at the very top of his profession.
Already an author of 10 books — including three novels and seven non-fiction works covering his various worldwide investigations — last month he published his 11th, a co-authorship titled “Murder on the Malta Express: Who Killed Daphne Caruana Galizia?” It focuses on the fearless Maltese journalist and her virtually single-handled attempts to speak truth to power in her country, before being brutally murdered by a car bomb in October 2017.
Sweeney’s esteemed journalistic career dates back to 1977 when, not even 20, he undertook an internship at The Economist. But he says he couldn’t get any bylines and as someone who was already “enormously cocky” and “too much of a troublemaker,” he quickly got bored.
“What is happening inside Kosovo is so cruel it is unspeakable.”
John Sweeney, the Observer, April 1999
It was in local journalism that he really learnt his trade. Despite having studied Government, Politics and Philosophy at the London School of Economics, it was the four years spent at the Sheffield Telegraph in the early ’80s that he describes as his “education.”
Sweeney would ultimately become a household face in the UK as a daring reporter and storyteller on the BBC’s flagship Panorama and Newsnight TV shows during his 17 years at the British public broadcaster. But in this region it was his coverage for the Observer of the wars in Kosovo and other parts of Yugoslavia during the ’90s that he is perhaps best known.
In April 1999, while reporting from a refugee camp in Kukës, Albania, he met some of those who had managed to escape the massacre at Krusha e Vogël, near Prizren. His powerful writing about what he found helped the world to understand the plight of Kosovar Albanian refugees suffering at the hands of Slobodan Milošević’s murderous regime. His article on April 4, titled “Little Krushe’s darkest day” opened with the following words:
“A nation tumbles, hobbles, totters across the border, and the agony is numbing. You cannot take it in, you cannot do justice to it, and they, the refugees, cannot find the words. What is happening inside Kosovo is so cruel it is unspeakable.”
A few months later, he would make a two-part documentary about the Krusha e Vogël massacre that would lead to him giving evidence in The Hague that ultimately helped to convict five Serbian generals of war crimes. The documentary also won an Emmy award, just one of multiple accolades he has picked up in his career to date.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
Sweeney was back in Kosovo last week as a guest speaker at K2.0’s international “Media Now: Shifting the Paradigm” conference, during which we talked to him about his work in Kosovo, darker democratic times and his hopes for the future of journalism.
K2.0: It’s one of your first trips back to Kosovo since you were here reporting on the war and its aftermath in 1999. Looking back, 20 years later, what do you recall about your first visits here?
John Sweeney: I covered the breakup of Yugoslavia from 1991 onwards, and I was fully aware of the murder and mayhem that was happening in Kosovo. It was very very difficult to get in, and I didn’t get in until 1999.
I reported for the Observer and I picked up a story about the massacre in Krusha e Vogël. I picked it up because I saw men walking along the road [in Albania] who looked absolutely exhausted, and I stopped the car and got out, and I said: “What’s your story?”
There was something about their despondency, their misery, their melancholy, which was so deep and so profound, I sensed it. I talked to these guys and they told me about the massacre, and they told me about the man with the burnt hands. This was a man who had hidden underneath the bodies of the dead, and his hands were scarred by the fire.
And in the mess and hell of Albania at that time, full of refugees, we worked and worked and worked, and eventually, with my great Albanian fixer Agim Neza, who passed away [recently], we did a fantastic film where we reconstructed the massacre with the stories of the women, and a particular grandma — I’m going to call her Grandma Batusha, from memory — and she described what happened.
All of this, we were still inside Albania, because NATO hadn’t gone in yet. And this film won an international Emmy, and it was part of the evidence against Miloševićat The Hague — the basic evidence was drawn up, and it relied in part upon our evidence.
And then, when NATO entered Kosovo, there was a massive traffic jam — everything was stuck. So I walked to the front of the traffic jam and there was a British Army tank, and I said, “Hey chaps, can I hitch a ride?” And I rode into Kosovo on the front of a tank.
His mother screamed and screamed and screamed — it was piercing. I’ll remember that to my dying day.
I ended up here [in Prishtina]. Milošević’s goons were still here in the Grand Hotel, so that made for a prickly night. After a couple of days, my friend James Miller, the cameraman, came from London and we went down to Krusha e Vogël, and we were basically the first people in.
I knew the names of the Serb killers who had killed people locally. I went into their houses, I found a list on paper, of the payroll of the local militia. These were the men who had killed their Kosovar [Albanian] neighbors.
Some of that evidence you gathered would subsequently be an important part of convicting some of those responsible for the massacre.
The Hague was later able to marry those names with pay, and through that chain of paperwork, starting with the material that I’d looted in the house, [prosecutors] managed to compile the evidence that led to the successful conviction of five Serbian police generals, who were war criminals.
One detail in this; at the end of our time there, people came back. The substance of our film was watching and filming the poor relatives coming back — this was the women and children, hoping and hoping that their men were around but hadn’t got in touch — and realizing when they came back that their homes were burnt to a cinder.
And there was one awful moment when one of the men, who was disabled and in a wheelchair… they saw the spine of his wheelchair in the cinders in this burnt down house, and his mother screamed and screamed and screamed, and… I remember that… it was piercing — I’ll remember that to my dying day.
At the end, the KLA came back too, and they burnt down the Serb homes, and we showed some of that footage of the burning houses. And, when I came to give evidence, and explain my role in securing the first part of the evidence chain — the money, essentially, follow the money — I was accused by their defence lawyers of being partisan and being pro-Kosovar [Albanian].
And I was able to say, “Well, no,” because we put in [to the documentary] the KLA burning the Serb homes in Krusha e Vogël, and that is evidence that we were fair. So I’m proud of that.
This was a peaceful village, this was an unprovoked attack [by the Serbian forces], and this was a war crime — no question. You can’t get peace without justice, and justice demands the perpetrators be prosecuted.
I want to link your reporting on the situation in Kosovo in 1999 with a question of journalism. There are journalists who say that they will never be “advocacy journalists,” because, in their eyes, to be an “advocacy journalist” means to lose independence. But reading lines such as your powerful opening words written from Kukës in April 1999, when you painted a poignant picture of the suffering you were witnessing first hand, aren’t all journalists “advocacy journalists” in some way, because we are advocating for people who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice?
I was working for the Observer then, and I was a feature writer for the Observer, where I used to do a lot of foreign stories. So, that reads to me like an advocacy piece; nevertheless, when you get into the content of the story, that’s all true. So I think I’m doing both there.
But, it was very difficult to explain to the world that you could tell that something evil was happening here in Kosovo, without having direct evidence — because we couldn’t get in. The reason we couldn’t get in was because the Milošević Serbs were stopping us, and if you tried to get in you could get shot. Actually, I feel as though I should have said, “Get me in there,” but the problem was that I didn’t have the contacts or the experience that I have now; I think I would have tried to get in there [if I had them].
When I worked at the BBC, I would not have written like that, so horses for courses. Because the BBC is more disciplined about the balance between the two. What you can do at the BBC is set out the evidence and then write a punchy payoff line, having set out the evidence. And actually, I think that is how I would do that today. But I didn’t have that discipline [back in 1999].
I respect and understand the journalists who say you shouldn’t do advocacy journalism.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
There is a problem in places such as North Korea. I can’t tell you precisely what is happening in the North Korean prison camp system, but we can see it from space, and we can talk to people who have been there who say that it’s a hell beyond our imagination. And that is when I think it is proper to try to punch through to people that this is some kind of hell on earth.
So, when you can’t get access, when you are prevented by the people who are doing the murdering — or you suspect that they’re doing the murdering and there is strong evidence of that — then that kind of writing is OK. But I wouldn’t write like that now, with the experiences that I’ve had.
I’m not saying that’s wrong. But I have gone through the BBC, and I think when talking about this, I would go straight into the evidence. But that’s a scene setter.
So in many ways, it depends on the media, the editorial approach, and both can be equally OK, as long as you have the evidence to back it up?
Yes, you’ve got to have the evidence.
There are still more than 1,600 missing people in Kosovo, and 10,000 civilians were murdered. That’s a huge number… the idea that 10,000 people could be murdered.
So, all we did was set out to find out everything there was to know about this massacre at Krushe e Vogël. And I knew all the names of the dead, their families, where they lived, and I had an absolutely clear view in my mind, powerfully evidenced that we were absolutely on top of the evidence and that there was no doubt from the witnesses. And there was also the sense of cross-corroboration, that little pieces of evidence build up, and you understand.
So, we had a clear sight of this particular massacre — this was a war crime. I have no doubt about the weight, and the truth of the evidence and the truth of our films talking about this.
You’ve talked about the importance of reporting truth. Now let’s move to challenging lies. Today, we have Donald Trump in the White House, dishonest Brexit conversations and politicians seem more and more prone to telling untruths. It’s something that’s not necessarily such a new phenomenon in this region. But for the media everywhere there is a similar challenge: Does the media — or certain types of media — have a duty to explicitly call out lies when they see them?
In Britain, we are wrestling with this problem right now, and there is no easy solution to any of it. The moment you call someone a liar, that’s bad. All of us in our lives tell white lies all the time, and I understand that and get that. But in the public sphere, I am very careful.
My dad was a scrupulously honest man, and I think I’ve inherited that. I’m very very careful. This is also the weight of being a BBC reporter, which has been lifted from my shoulders, but I’m not forgetting that discipline for a second, it’s a good discipline. I’m very very careful when I accuse somebody of doing something that I have strong evidence for doing so, evidence which is hopefully available in the public domain — sometimes it isn’t.
In Sadam Hussein’s Iraq they had a policy of doing mass funerals for dead babies, because the media liked the story. They used to hold back dead babies in the morgue until they had about 30 or 40, and then they had the funeral — this is against the tradition in Muslim countries, and it’s a disgusting thing to do.
To call our politicians liars, I hesitate to do that, because I think it debases the conversation.
A colleague of mine from an American network was taken aside by a mortuary assistant and shown trays of dead kids, waiting for the moment when the secret police thought it appropriate… that they had enough dead babies to do one of these [mass funerals]. How on earth do you quote your sources for that story? But I believed that story to be true, and it was true, after the fact.
Boris Johnson told lots of white lies in his private life, it seems, and that is starting to communicate across to the public sphere. There’s an issue with Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism — he says he isn’t [antisemitic], but there are many Jews who say that he is, too many for it to be something that you can easily dismiss. So this is a problem.
To call our politicians liars, I hesitate to do that, because I think it debases the conversation. Now the problem is that on social media, all the time people Tweet stuff at you and you find it amusing or striking, and I Retweet it, but I wouldn’t utter it in a broadcast report.
The elephant in the room — it’s an elephant-sized problem — is that social media is completely unpoliced and outside the rule of law.
I tried to make a documentary about Tommy Robinson, and I’m cross with the BBC because they should have broadcast that. Now, there were difficulties, because I was tricked by one of his supporters and secretly filmed — it was embarrassing, but not, I think, shameful what I said on the secret recordings, and I think we should have been open with the viewers and said, “Yeah, Sweeney’s screwed up, he’s a bit of a fool, but this guy [Tommy Robinson], this is bad…”
Now, the extent of the lies that have been told about me by Tommy Robinson supporters on social media is extraordinary. Most of the people are anonymous, they could be Russian bots — that’s quite likely for at least some of them — but dealing with this is a nightmare.
So there’s a problem: Is it wrong to call someone a liar on the BBC? I think it is. Because you have to prove dishonest intent to call somebody a liar, it’s not just enough to say they got it wrong.
I get things wrong, all humans… journalists are all human, and we get stuff wrong. I’m too human a reporter, but all good journalists are, I think. We all have our flaws — I’ve got plenty!
The difficulty is restraint in the refereed public space of public service broadcasting, and the Wild West on social media. And that’s really difficult for us in Britain — it’s a nightmare for people in this part of the world.
And as a journalist, are the rules different on social media compared to on the BBC? Are there things that you would write yourself on social media that you wouldn’t put in a BBC report?
Now that I’ve left the BBC, I’m mucking about a bit too much I think, and I should reign myself in. But at the same time, I doubt whether I’ll ever get employed again — that’s OK. I might end up with [freelance] contracts.
The problem with me with this Tommy Robinson thing, was that I fell into a chasm [between] the tightly regulated BBC and lawlessness. So that’s a massive problem, because you’re being attacked on a very very gut level by people: Somebody said “Kill yourself,” somebody accused me of being a paedophile — I am not.
So, the attacks on me were nonsensical, absurd and horrible, and I’m still struggling in some sense to deal with the extent of the attacks. While within the BBC system, the argument was: “Do not defend yourself, until transmission.” And it was a kind of torture, and I cracked up a little bit about that. I’m being open and honest because as a reporter when you’re in the public domain, it’s the best way. Hot water keeps you clean.
The whole democratic world is struggling with this. The people who seem to be not troubled by this are the authoritarian powers, Russia, China, where some of this hate comes from.
You’ve faced a lot of threats from people while working on your stories during your career. In recent years, we’ve seen murders of journalists in European Union countries, including Daphne Caruana Galizia’s killing in Malta and other journalists in Slovakia and Bulgaria. Are we living in darker times for our democracies? Or are journalists becoming more skilled and therefore more of a threat?
I think that what’s happened is that we’re in a darker time and we’re in a much more dangerous time.
It’s possible to forget, I think, that journalists worked the kind of Red Brigades stuff in the ’70s — that was heavy. No journalists were killed in The Troubles [in Northern Ireland]. Loads of journalists were killed — 45, I think — in the war [that started] in ’91 between Serbia and Croatia when Yugoslavia broke up.
But the killing of journalists in peaceful European Union countries is a new thing, and I find it very frightening.
I blame Donald Trump. I blame him for the poison that he has created for journalism.
With Carlo Bonini of Repubblica andMaltese blogger Manuel Delia, I’ve co-authored this book, “Murder on the Malta Express: Who Killed Daphne Caruana Galicia,” and essentially what’s happened is that the political opposition [in Malta] has collapsed or somehow, in some very strange and dark way, been coopted by the government and doesn’t really oppose the government on its policy of allowing dirty money to flourish inside Malta; the great single oppononent of this tsunami of dirty money washing into this tiny island-state was Daphne, and she was silenced for the trouble she was making.
And this book felt like a very very worthwhile thing to do. [Maltese businessman] Yorgen Fenech was [just] arrested while fleeing in his yacht; he’s perhaps Malta’s richest man, and he has been arrested in connection with her murder — the precise charges haven’t been publicised yet. I’m sure he will deny wrongdoing.
The murder of [Jamal] Khashoggi, who goes into the Saudia Arabian Consulate in Istanbul [in October 2018] and is suffocated then dimembered with a bonesaw, and then noone has found his body and the suspcion is that it’s been dissolved in acid. This was… a terrible thing and this was the first moment… not Daphne, but Khashoggi’s murder chills me to the bone.
I blame Donald Trump. I blame him for the poison that he has created for journalism, his allegations of “fake news” against the BBC, CNN, Washington Post. His hatred, his gut hatred, of being called to account [and subjected] to proper scrutiny has poisoned the atmosphere and has given the green light for authoritarian states and murderers to do what they will. So, we are in a dark time.
We’ve seen after Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in Malta, there was the Daphne Project where journalists came together to continue some of her stories. How important is it in this setting for journalists to show solidarity with each other?
It’s very important. I think the Daphne Project was brilliant.
Our book was written in the spirit of the Daphne Project, and watching what they did was wonderful. After this Tommy Robinson investigation had gone wrong, I was leaving the BBC and working my way out of it. And I felt very sad and depressed, but what helped me get back on my feet again was writing the book about Daphne. Not inside the Daphne Project, but following the spirit of it.
We’ve got to look after each other even more today than ever before, because today is a darker time.
We had almost a week in the Dolomites, the three of us [co-authors of the book], when we sat down at our computers and worked through her stories, and every now and then we just went “She’s so brave!” and also, so “on it” — she was really really good. But actually, the exercise of digging through the evidence and assembling it together in a proper way, in a book, was tremendous, and it was exhilarating, and it helped fix me, it helped me get back together again, so it was a beautiful experience, and I am massively in favor of the simple principle [of solidarity between journalists].
I’ve always followed, since driving around the roads of Croatia and Bosnia during the war in ’91, [the idea that] if one of your colleagues — you may even not like them — has a flat tyre, you stop, you give them a lift to the next gas station and you look after them. You fuck them over as much as you want on silly old newspaper stuff, but if they’re in trouble you look after them.
I’ve always, always kept to that. And I don’t think there’s any international colleague who’s ever accused me of not respecting that simple thing. We’ve got to look after each other even more today than ever before, because today is a darker time.
Journalism, and particularly investigative reporting and war reporting, can be very isolating, and there are very few people who can relate to your experiences. You say that journalists need to look after each other, but how do you try to also look after yourself?
Well, you’ve already seen that my great secret is a love of fun, a love of jokes, the absurdity of war. If you’re in a frightening situation, you start seizing up mentally, but if you crack jokes about it… you need a dark, dark sense of humor, but yeah, guilty, I’ve got one — you crack jokes about things, and that helps.
I deliberately learn a whole series of phrases, one of which is, “I speak the language like a Spanish cow!”
I did a workshop [earlier today], and I found myself talking to all these young journalists and saying, “If you’re in a war, you crack jokes.” If you’re in a car and there are four of you, you crack jokes. And if you’re irritated with someone else in the car, you can have a go at them in an insider joke, or banter or whatever, in a way that you can’t really do if it’s formal. You communicate better through humor.
When you hit a roadblock, it’s not like a fucking comedy, but at the same time, if you can get the people with the guns to get it that you’re good human beings, or funny or nice, that helps. So I deliberately learn a whole series of phrases, one of which is, “I speak the language like a Spanish cow!” I knew that in Albanian and I knew that in Serbian.
I haven’t been in this part of the world for a while, but in Russian… [speaks in Russian]. It means: “I speak Russian like a Spanish cow — I’m a stupid drwarf.” And people just kind of laugh — this is a KGB guy, or an FSB interior soldier with a gun pointing roughly in my direction, and they say, “Well, you’re not a stupid dwarf,” or ‘You’re not a dwarf,” and then you’re relating to them as a human being.
You make mistakes. In ’91 [in Croatia], at the end of Osijek on the road towards Vukovar there was a series of little villages, there was one called Borovo Selo that we went to, and I started launching into the Chetniks, that they were real killers and sort of fascist fucks, and this guy stopped me. Everybody had guns and massive bandelliers of machine gun bullets across their chests, and lots of slivovitz. And they said, “Excuse me — we are the chetniks!”
I found myself shrinking, exactly like John Cleese, and saying, “I’m… I’m terribly sorry, I’m terribly sorry!”
So, you get it wrong, but it was kind of funny, and I played it in a funny way, and they said, “Aaaaahhhhh,” and they all had a great big laugh.
I was with a friend from the Evening Standard, and [afterwards] he said, “You absolute fucking idiot!” and I said, “You’re still alive, so stop moaning.”
By the way, that happened once — not again!
Let’s move to the future of journalism. Today there are all sorts of new technologies that are available for journalists to make use of. We’ve seen, with things such as the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, big data journalists working behind their desks trawling computers for a lot of their information. You describe yourself as an old fashioned reporter…
… Old school!…
… old school, I do apologize! But you’ve worked across a number of decades and have had to adapt to changes as you go along. So what should the balance be between incorporating new approaches and the old fashioned methods of being out there on the ground working sources.
In the war between people and machines, I’m on the side of people.
I feel human relations… you go drinking with friends and they spend the entire time on their phones. It’s a problem. [Twitter, Facebook, Instagram] — they dominate our lives through these brainwashing machines they call mobile phones.
Now, am I on Twitter? Yes, I’ve got 40,000 followers. Do I spend too much time on it? Yes. Is it stopping me from reading books which are way better than Twitter? Yes. Is it bad? Yes. Am I addicted? Yes. Can I kick the habit? It’s hard.
The two best places I’ve been to for dealing with the habit are North Korea and the Congo. You go to Lubumbashi and you can get the internet. But the 200-300 kilometers from Lubumbashi to wherever we were going — nothing! And then you go, “That’s OK” and you start talking to people.
So, there are massive advantages with the internet and social media, I get it — wonderful. But at the same time, we’ve lost a lot. And journalists have got to do both. There are real people with real stories who know what’s going on, and at the same time you’ve got to be up to speed with that stuff. Journalists who just sit and milk data — that’s not for me.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
Linked to that, people’s attention spans are now a lot shorter, and often investigative reporting is detailed stuff, it’s hardcore, and people need to invest time into reading it or understanding it, particularly when you’re following the money and there are highly complex financial translations and relationships going on. Do investigative reporters in particular need to change the way they’re telling their stories today and tell them in a more interesting way? Do we, as journalists, need to change something?
We don’t have to change, at all. But, never forget storytelling.
One day I’m going to write my memoirs, before I forget all the stories. I was thinking about [when] I went to see my Aunty Margerie in Liverpool, where my family is from [originally]. My grandma was a theatrical landlady, or rather a landlady near the theater, and she had lots of actors and also artists and things like that.
She had a lovely old house for a time. And one of her tenants was a sculptor and my grandma was a fanatical cleaner, and she dusted this statue that this sculptor had made — it was a male nude — and she knocked off the willy and stuck it round the wrong way!
Aunty Margerie told this story to me out of nowhere, and she’s something like 85, 86, 87 — I don’t know, but she’s old! And in my family the telling of the story is the supreme act of existence. So the idea that you don’t tell the story as best as you possibly can feels that it’s against my religion — it is the thing you do.
Now, the problem is that sometimes you want to burnish stories and smooth the edges, because there are always some sort of tricky edges. Certainly as a BBC reporter, I used to fight that kind of instinct.
But, there is a problem with investigative journalism that sometimes you lose the wood for the trees, you put in too much detail, and one of the things I was good at was not necessarily hunting the stories, but taking the stories and telling them in a way that the audience could get. So you’re watching the audience, you’re trying to help the reader or the listener or viewer and trying to help them.
I did a story about torture in Algeria, and you can’t use people’s original names, so you call Abdyll “Muhammed.” And that’s an instant distancer [to an audience that is majority Christian]. So, I elected to call one of these guys, who had been horribly tortured by the Algerian state, “Peter.”
Because we told the truth about the Kosovar Albanians doing something wrong, it meant that we were fair.
It’s a simple storyteller’s knack, but it’s a good one, because for a post-Christian society like Britain or wherever, you use Christian names, then “Peter” people get, he’s a human being, you have a little bit of detail about the person and then they become more alive.
So, absolutely, that’s an important thing, and I think that getting some humanity into the story is very important.
If you had one piece of advice to a young journalist in this region who was just starting off in their career, what would it be?
My one piece of advice would be… when we showed, in our film, the KLA burning down the Serb homes, that was a difficult editorial decision; [but ultimately] it meant that it helped convict the war criminals, because it showed that we were fair and it showed that we were willing to be critical of the side with which, as human beings, we easily most identified with, because they had been massacred.
Because we told the truth about the Kosovar [Albanians] doing something wrong — burning down other people’s houses — it meant that we were fair. So that’s the one thing. Don’t forget that, remember it, and do it.
Finally, there’s a lot of discussions amongst media professionals and people talking about the media that this is an industry in crisis, and that there is a crisis in confidence in the media — there’s a lot of doom and gloom. But I get the impression from you that, despite everything, you’re actually an optimist about the profession and it’s future?
I think pessimism… the Dalai Lama said this… pessimism is too boring!
I am worried, we live in a darker time. I’m physically worried in a way that I’ve never been before. After Khashoggi’s killing in particular, I felt: You better watch it John!
At the same time, we are part of the defense against the real fake news. Against the attack on democracy and the rule of law and free speech that we’re witnessing right now. Because we believe in scrutiny and fact and truth.
We are on the right side of history. Despite all our faults, we are the goodies. And we must not forget that.K
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.