A year of triumph for investigative journalism

The Times Editor John Witherow talks to newsworks review about the biggest stories of the last 12 months and the qualities that make a great journalist.

Born in South Africa, John Witherow started his career working for the BBC in Namibia. He then moved to Reuters, working in London and Madrid, before he began his 30-plus year stint with The Times and Sunday Times.

At The Times, he covered the Iran-Iraq and Falklands wars, before moving in the mid-80s to The Sunday Times, where his various roles included defence and foreign editor. In 1995, he was appointed editor.

Under his editorship, The Sunday Times broke a number of agenda-setting stories: cash for honours, cash for questions, and House of Lords expenses fraud.

In early 2013 he was made acting editor of The Times, and confirmed in the role in September that year.

What made you proud in 2014?

We sent our foreign correspondent Anthony Loyd and our photographer Jack Hill to investigate barrel-bombing in Syria in May. Anthony and Jack became the story: they were betrayed by their fixer, kidnapped, Anthony was shot twice and wounded, both were beaten before they miraculously escaped.

We retold their story in the newspaper and as a magazine piece by Anthony. It isn’t the story we set out to cover, but the tale of treachery, confusion and risk exposed the high price of western journalists and the modus operandi of local rebels and Isis forces. It is war reporting at its finest.

Which story made the most impact?

In August, Andrew Norfolk’s (below) four-year investigation into a hidden pattern of child abuse culminated in an independent inquiry that found at least 1,400 girls were sexually exploited in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, over 16 years. The report became headline news worldwide, and vindicated Andrew’s exposés about the failure of agencies to acknowledge years of endemic offending.

Our journalism and Andrew’s investigative work has transformed the way such crimes are tackled by child-protection authorities, the police and the judiciary. Two major criminal investigations, four resignations and four suspended councillors have followed. In parliament, the exposure of the Rotherham scandal was described as “a triumph for investigative journalism”.

Who’s influenced your career?

Rupert Murdoch, who appointed me editor of The Sunday Times and The Times, an Andrew Neil, who proposed me for The Sunday Times.

The three qualities of a good journalist?

An eye for a lie and a tooth for the truth; a willingness to get up the noses of authority; a wish to entertain and inform.

The best book/film for an aspiring journalist?

The film The Front Page – A comedy with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon that encapsulates the fun and sheer madness of journalism in a bygone age.