Three-D Issue 27: Gavin MacFadyen Obituary

Just occasionally a cliché does the job, and as John Pilger said of the late Gavin MacFadyen, at the memorial to Gavin in December: “They don’t make them like that anymore”. Gavin was in every way larger than life and the obituaries which have appeared in the New York Timesthe Guardian and many other publications reveal a man who lived his 77 years to the full. He was a 1960s radical embodied. His adult life was devoted to causing grief to the corrupt, the greedy, and the complacent. Whatever the mission it was conducted as an adventure – with gusto, mischief and a booming laugh.

g-macfadyenBorn in Chicago in 1940 to a single mother who was a classical musician, Gavin took his surname from the man his mother married when he was nine. Well versed in Trotsky’s works, he joined the Teamsters Union in 1959 to get work as a truck driver. He then led a convoy of trucks filled with food supplies to an embattled civil rights outpost in Tennessee that got shot at by the police for their trouble. Gavin was an unflinching revolutionary socialist and he took his political fight to wherever it was needed. He went to London in 1960 where he shared a house in London with Michael Kidron the economist and Marxist theorist. I heard of him long before I met him as he was a key figure in the ‘golden age’ of the late lamented Granada TV’s World in Action current affairs programme. When I joined in 1990 he had already departed for Hollywood where he variously acted, working with Michael Mann and made documentaries. Gavin produced over 50 current affairs investigations in his time.

Above all he was an investigative journalist of the radical school. His journalism was not a job, it was a crusade. Neither was his journalism about objectivity, it was about what he saw was the truth. In 2003 Gavin co-founded, with the financial investigator Michael Gillard senior, the Centre for Investigative Journalism (TCIJ). The signature event is the summer school in London every July which has become the annual congregation for the radical tradition of investigative journalists with a long stream of world famous speakers: Seymour Hersh, John Pilger, David Leigh, Lowell Bergman, the late Anna Politkovskaya, Mark Shapiro, Chuck Lewis and many more. I got to know Gavin through the summer schools and also helping to set up the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. What I recall particularly of Gavin was his enthusiasm, his ability to bring networks together and despite of his lack of interest in money for himself, his ability to fundraise. He was unflinchingly loyal and was there to support Julian Assange and Edward Snowden in their conflicts with the US national security apparatus.

The importance to investigative journalism to Gavin’s vision of a righteous world is hard to over-estimate. But while others said investigative journalism was dying, Gavin found ways to revitalise it, often bringing back new ideas from the land of his birth. The TCIJ have been running data journalism courses – then called computer assisted research – since they launched the summer school. Each year they flew across the Atlantic key tutors like Brant Houston, Aron Pilhofer and (unfortunately also recently deceased) David Donald – all then associated with the US’s National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (NICAR). I remember attending these sessions and was one of the bewildered who would watch say, Pilhofer’s virtuoso use of Excel to produce stories from masses of glaucoma inducing numbers. In the early days workshops were often sparsely attended, with the conference goers preferring the dering-do talks by leading investigative journalists. However, gradually there was a change, and as Gavin later observed that by 2007 “…a surge in interest in computing. The rooms where those skills were being taught were packed and that’s the first time that’s happened… The whole landscape has changed and journalists see the value of using electronic tools that we’ve taken for granted and don’t really know much about.” From those workshops the seeds for a new set of technology skills for journalism flourished, and as we have now seen with the Panama papers prepared journalism to handle massive data leaks.

gavin_pic_1Gavin did worry about the authorities’ malign intention to hamstring investigative journalism and he was profoundly concerned even up to his death that the Investigatory Powers Bill was about to enacted into law. He believed that the victories of the 1960s and 1970s for civil liberties were in danger of going into reverse and the draconian nature of the IPB was the most serious threat to date. In the wake of the Snowden releases I carried out a research interview with Gavin over the likely impact on journalists and their sources. Snowden’s disclosure, he said had revealed the unprecedented scale of the mass surveillance and that had serious implications for journalists. “Journalism will never been the same,” he said. “There has never been anything like this, except in the worst totalitarian regimes, to compare to the threat to free inquiry now.” He continued: “None of us are being dragged away in the night so you don’t have the sense that this is real. But what we now know from Snowden and they are now no longer denying, is an incredible threat to us and to our sources and to the democratic process. Knowledge is power and when you give them all that knowledge – my God – without constraint with no fear of perjury these people are never brought in front of committee and jailed yet they lie all the time.” Gavin said mass surveillance by the NSA Five Eyes network undermines promises made not only by journalists, but other professions including lawyers, that are required to give client confidentiality. “It no longer just that you and I can’t speak to our sources with some degree of fear, neither can the lawyers and others. It is total. Anything important and these people (GCHQ) are listening in all of the time if they want to”

Never one to be fatalistic Gavin’s response to the threat by the Five Eyes was to look to how to protect journalists and other professionals. “We are now looking at countermeasures,” Gavin told me. He had quickly learnt how to use encryption on his computer. He said that journalist must use encryption methods like TOR:

“The notion that this is sort of marginal thing you have an option to do, I think that has been by-passed now. I mean if any journalist, who is operating with serious sources, not dealing with travel writing or things like that, and does not use these methods is just inviting catastrophe later. That is how serious it is. It’s hard as we do not have to deal with this in our daily life and we are not be dragged away at night so we don’t have a sense that this is real. That’s how far we are from reality.” 

Indeed the TCIJ network set up encryption training for journalists and soon afterwards for other professionals. “Lawyers are being trained on TOR1 and OTR2 and we are about to start training them here,” (UK) he told me enthusiastically in 2014.

The lack of public outrage over the threat of mass surveillance in the UK revealed in the Snowden documents shocked Gavin, but he knew where to point the finger. “The establishment machine, particularly in this country (UK) denigrates any expression of concern,” he observed. Above all he blamed the British media for its complacency. Snowden, he said has exposed “more dramatically than any us we would have ever expected” is “the inadequacy of the mainstream press, its embarrassing proximity to power and its refusal to embarrass power on the whole. There are major exceptions and we all know them.” Even some of the liberal media had failed to support The Guardian and he singled out Chris Blackhurst for criticism. Then editor of the Independent, Blackhurst had said in response to The Guardian’s publication: “If the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest, and might harm their operations, who am I (despite my grounding from Watergate onwards) to disbelieve them?” Blackhurst wondered; “…what it is, exactly, that the NSA and GCHQ, are doing that is so profoundly terrible?” Gavin thought Blackhurst’s comments naïve to the point of disbelief.

Even in the months after his terminal diagnosis he was planning for the future. He discussed with me setting up a secure archive where investigative journalists could store their life works without fear of seizure by the authorities.

Let’s hope that Pilger is wrong and that there is new generation cast from the same mould as Gavin and they do make them like that now. Gavin mentored his interns, who are now scattered across the media and the globe and it is to them we will now turn to hopefully see a new generation of brave young journalists to carry on his work. It is needed more than ever.

Gavin MacFadyen passed away on 22 October 2016.

The research paper is Lashmar, Paul (2016) No more sources? The impact of Snowden’s revelations on journalists and their confidential sources. Journalism Practice. ISSN 1751-2786


1 TOR is software for enabling online anonymity. Tor directs Internet traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer network consisting of more than five thousand relays to conceal a user’s location or usage from anyone conducting network surveillance or traffic analysis. 

2 Off-the-Record Messaging, commonly referred to as OTR, is a cryptographic protocol that provides strong encryption for instant messaging conversations.

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