Guardian Investigative Journalism
- Wed, 22 May 2013 16:14:25 +0000: BBC Newsnight journalists win award for spiked Jimmy Savile investigation - Media: Investigative journalism | guardian.co.uk
Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones, as well as two other journalists, win scoop of the year at London Press Club awards
Liz Mackean and Meirion Jones, who worked on Newsnight's spiked Jimmy Savile investigation, have won scoop of the year at the London Press Club awards, sharing the prize with two others involved in exposing the late Jim'll Fix It presenter's sexual abuse of children.
In an unusual move, the London Press Club awards judges gave the 2013 scoop of the year award jointly to Mackean, Jones, Miles Goslett – who eventually broke the Savile abuse story in the Oldie magazine – and Mark Williams-Thomas, the former policeman and child protection expert behind the ITV Exposure documentary that finally propelled it into a full-blown national scandal last autumn.
Bill Hagerty, chairman of the LPC judges, said that even though reporter Mackean and producer Jones' investigation never saw the light of day after being shelved by then Newsnight editor Peter Rippon in December 2011, subsequent events showed the story they uncovered was "dynamite".
After collecting the joint award at the LPC event in central London on Wednesday, Mackean, who recently took voluntary redundancy from the BBC, said: "BBC command and control would not be delighted by the award being given to Meirion and myself. It just goes to show you cannot keep a good story down."
She added that the BBC "failed to act and should have run the story".
Jones, who has now moved to Panorama, also praised Hannah Livingston, the Newsnight researcher who worked on the Savile investigation.
He said it amazed him that in 2013 there was still no UK law compelling anyone who witnessed child abuse, or heard of others abusing children, to report it to the police.
Both Goslett and Williams-Thomas paid tribute to Mackean and Jones. "These are two of the best journalists this country has," Williams-Thomas said.
Goslett took the story that Newsnight had dropped its Savile investigation to several national newspapers. It was eventually published in the Oldie magazine in February 2012.
Williams-Thomas had worked with Mackean and Jones on the Newsnight investigation in late 2011 and, after their film was spiked, took the story to ITV, where it was eventually broadcast as an Exposure documentary in early October 2012, with devastating consequences.
List of winners
Daily newspaper of the year
Sunday newspaper of the year
The Mail on Sunday
Scoop of the year – Jimmy Savile abuse scandal
Miles Goslett, the Oldie
Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones, Newsnight, BBC2
Mark Williams-Thomas, Exposure, ITV
Business journalist of the year
Tom Bergin – Reuters
Blog of the year
Fleet Street Fox – Susie Boniface
Arts reviewer of the year
Chris Tookey – Daily Mail
Broadcast journalist of the year
John Humphrys – Today Programme, BBC Radio 4
Edgar Wallace award
Caitlin Moran – the Times
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- Fri, 19 Apr 2013 19:00:00 +0000: North Korea first-hand: what it's like to visit the world's most secretive nation - Media: Investigative journalism | guardian.co.uk
This week the Pulitzer fiction prize went to Adam Johnson, whose novel was inspired by his time in North Korea. First-hand accounts of the 'hermit kingdom' are still rare – here are a few
Adam Johnson: When I arrived at Pyongyang's Sunan airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn't gone so well. On the plane, a Soviet Ilyushin Il-62 from the 1960s, I'd been handed a copy of the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's daily newspaper. The front page informed me that hunger and flooding were widespread in South Korea. Help was on its way, however, as Kim Jong-il was reportedly sending sandbags and food supplies to poverty-stricken Seoul. The poles of reality, I understood from that article, had now been reversed, and even though I'd spent three years writing and researching a novel set in North Korea, I realised I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in "the most glorious nation in the world".
As we drove south toward the capital, the roads were largely abandoned. I had yet to learn to recognise the sight of a tank trap or the guard towers placed at the corners of cornfields. I was unaware of North Korea's "Let's turn grass into meat" campaign, so I assumed the roadside portraits of dancing rabbits and goats were intended to delight local children. As we drove, one of our guides, a clean-cut young man, informed me that I was now in the most democratic nation in the world, where crime was unheard of and healthcare was universal. He stared earnestly into my eyes as he explained that no one in his country wanted for anything.
Suddenly, a vehicle on the road caught my eye. It was a dump truck headed north toward the countryside, and its bed was filled with residents of Pyongyang. The truck was decades old, and lacked a tailgate, so the people in the back were crammed together to avoid falling out. One bump would send half of them tumbling on to the road. As the truck flashed past, I saw clearly a man in a suit holding a briefcase. Beside him was a woman in a white labcoat. Despite the wind, her eyes were open as she stared without expression at the horizon.
"Where are those people going?" I asked our other guide.
"They're volunteers," she answered. "They're going to help with the harvest."
"They volunteered?" I asked.
She seemed not to understand the question. "Everyone must volunteer," she told me.
One of the limitations of being human is that we're each stuck in our own experience, forever forbidden from knowing the true thoughts of another. It's for this reason that the power of storytelling holds such sway over us, especially in the form of the novel, which, of all art forms, is perhaps most capable of communicating the private lives of others. On that North Korean highway, I wondered who the woman in the labcoat was, what she had been thinking as the wind whipped her hair, where she'd been headed that morning when Pyongyang's Minister of Mass Mobilisation conscripted her to work in the rice fields. And I understood the only way I'd ever find out is if I made her a character in my novel.
I'd started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il-sung, and is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong-il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn't matter that the story was a complete fiction – every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labour camps were filled with those who hadn't played their parts, who'd spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude, or who'd acted as if they lived in despotism rather than the purest democracy.
When I visited places such as Pyongyang, Kaesong, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. But I hadn't imagined the pain and sadness I would feel on being surrounded by thousands of people for whom a spontaneous moment was too dangerous to contemplate. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. They all wore the distant, expressionless gaze of the woman in the dump truck.
In the Puhung Metro station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story? Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature and to whom? These mysteries – of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings – are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.
Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books, articles and histories. I sought out interviews and personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors such as Kang Chol Hwan and Shin Dong-hyuk proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political, nuclear and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships or forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Travelling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest labourer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one prewritten by the party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan, the soldier, the sailor, the bureaucrat, the general and the actor, to the woman in the labcoat. What should have been obvious at the outset (but didn't become apparent until I was deep into the book) was this: all narrative paths led back to Kim Jong-il. In the end, the narrative of North Korea didn't make sense without its author, and I realised that to achieve my goals I would have to bring to life the great scriptwriter himself.
Most of what we know of North Korea comes from the stories of defectors, whose accounts are nearly impossible to verify. For journalists, this inability to confirm even simple facts makes writing accounts of daily life in the DPRK a daunting task. I believe this is where the imaginative reach of literary fiction can help: to the novelist, oral history, myth, legend and rumour are all useful in creating a human portrait, however elusive. The nation is a mystery-generating engine, and the more I study the place, the more questions I have. How can we truly know anything about North Korea? Who am I to speak for a people whose experiences are so different than my own? Is the portrait I've created accurate? I don't think we can know until North Koreans are free to tell their own stories. And until that day comes, I believe the more voices that attempt to articulate such a difficult reality the better.
Adam Johnson's novel The Orphan Master's Son is published by Black Swan, priced £8.99. Buy it for £7.19 at guardianbookshop.co.uk
John Sweeney, writing in the Daily Mail after his controversial undercover visit to North Korea with LSE students
Down, down inside the Pyongyang Metro stands a statue of the Eternal Ruler of North Korea, Generalissimo Kim Il-sung – dead these past 19 years but still calling the shots. Brainwashing cast in bronze.
The regime's florid propaganda blares from loudspeakers: "The pure white snows of our sacred mountains' artillery will wipe the filthy enemy from existence." Or something like that.
No ordinary North Koreans talk to us. Almost 400ft below the surface, it's hard not to feel that we're trapped inside a doomsday cult like the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, or Jim Jones's Peoples Temple in Guyana. Only this one is a cult nation, armed with nukes, and the clock is counting down to Armageddon.
Basketball star Dennis Rodman, who became "friends for life" with the North Korean leader during a visit earlier this year
"He [Kim Jong-un] just wants to be loved. He just wants to sit down and talk. That's all."
Sophie Schmidt, teenage daughter of Google chairman Eric Schmidt, who travelled to North Korea with her father in January, and wrote a blog post titled "It might not get weirder than this"
"It's impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like. Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments. We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (two, so one can mind the other). The longer I think about what we saw and heard, the less sure I am about what any of it actually meant.
Journalist Barbara Demick, on a North Korean love story
If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
North Korea faded to black in the early 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea's creakily inefficient economy collapsed. Power stations rusted into ruin. The lights went out. When the sun drops low in the sky, the landscape fades to grey and the squat little houses are swallowed by the night. Entire villages vanish in the dusk.
North Koreans complain bitterly about the darkness. They can't read at night. They can't watch television. But the dark has advantages of its own. Especially if you are a teenager dating somebody you can't be seen with.
When adults go to bed, sometimes as early as 7pm in winter, it is easy enough to slip out of the house. The darkness confers measures of privacy and freedom as hard to come by in North Korea as electricity.
I met many North Koreans who told me how much they learned to love the darkness, but it was the story of one girl and her boyfriend that impressed me most. She was 12 years old when she met a guy three years older from a neighbouring town. Her family was low-ranking in the country's Byzantine system of social controls. To be seen in public together would damage the boy's career prospects as well as her reputation as a virtuous young woman. So their dates consisted entirely of long walks in the dark.
The girl would emerge just as soon as she could extricate herself from the family. Stepping outside, she would peer into the darkness, unable to see him at first, but sensing with certainty his presence. She wouldn't bother with makeup – no one needs it in the dark.
The young couple would walk through the night, scattering ginkgo leaves in their wake. What did they talk about? Their families, classmates, books – whatever the topic, it was endlessly fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.
This is not the sort of thing that shows up in satellite photographs. Whether in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or in the East Asian Studies department of a university, people usually analyse North Korea from afar. They don't stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love.
This is an edited extract from Barbara Demick's book Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, published by Granta at £14.99. Buy it for £9.99 at guardianbookshop.co.uk
- Wed, 17 Apr 2013 08:53:00 +0000: David Leigh, doyen of investigative journalists, steps down - Media: Investigative journalism | guardian.co.uk
Away in Los Angeles last week, I missed out on the formal announcement of David Leigh's retirement from The Guardian. Having got wind of his decision in early February, I wrote a short appreciation, which I'm pleased to post now...
David Leigh, The Guardian's award-winning investigations executive editor, is retiring after a journalistic career stretching back 43 years.
Now 66, Leigh has been garlanded with honours after being responsible for some of the most high-profile investigations in British newspaper history.
One of the most memorable was the revelation of improper contacts between Saudi Arabian arms dealers and the former Conservative minister, Jonathan Aitken, which led to him being jailed for perjury.
Leigh also oversaw the exposure of secret bribery payments by the arms company BAE, which won him the 2007 Paul Foot award for investigative journalism in company with a colleague, Rob Evans.
And he played a key role in ensuring that the Wikileaks revelations published by The Guardian in 2010 were turned into excellent and readable articles.
Overall, Leigh has won seven press awards, including Granada's investigative journalist of the year, the British press awards campaigning journalist of the year and an award from the UK Freedom of Information Campaign. He received the first of his British press awards in 1979 for an exposure of jury-vetting.
In 2010, he was one of the winners of the Daniel Pearl award for his story about the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast by the oil firm Trafigura.
Aside from The Guardian, he has also worked for The Scotsman and The Times and spent nine years from 1980 at The Observer as its chief investigative reporter. He then spent time as a producer for TV's leading current affairs strands, This Week and World in Action.
He is the author and co-author of several books, including The Liar (an account of the Aitken affair); Sleaze (the story of the Neil Hamilton case); and Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy.
His 1988 book, The Wilson Plot, helped to highlight attempts by the British security services and others to destabilise Harold Wilson's government in the 1970s.
In 2006, Leigh became the Anthony Sampson professor of reporting in the journalism department at City University London.
So why is he going? He says he just feels it is time. The editor, Alan Rusbridger, [who last week described his contributions to the paper as "outstanding"], asked him to stay on, and he will certainly maintain a relationship with The Guardian.
But Leigh is eager to do something outside journalism. And what is that, I asked? "I'd like to learn the guitar," he says.
On a personal note, having followed Leigh's work and read almost all his books, I wish him well. He is one of the finest practitioners of our craft and will be sorely missed, not least as a mentor to other reporters who he has inspired over the years.
- Tue, 16 Apr 2013 00:18:10 +0000: Pulitzer prizes reward the year's best US journalism - Media: Investigative journalism | guardian.co.uk
New York Times and Minneapolis's Star Tribune among the winners of the $10,000 awards given by Columbia University
The New York Times won four Pulitzer prizes on Monday, including the award for investigative reporting for stories that detailed how Wal-Mart used bribery to expand in Mexico.
The Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was awarded the public service Pulitzer for its reporting on off-duty police officers' reckless driving.
The Pulitzer in breaking news photography went to the Associated Press for its coverage of the civil war in Syria. AP director of photography Santiago Lyon called the winners – Rodrigo Abd, Manu Brabo, Narciso Contreras, Khalil Hamra and Muhammed Muheisen – "some of the bravest and most talented photographers in the world."
A New York-based online non-profit news organisation that covers energy, InsideClimate News, won the Pulitzer in national reporting for stories on flawed regulation of the nation's oil pipelines.
The Pulitzers, American journalism's highest honor, are given out each year by Columbia University on the recommendation of a board of journalists and others. Each award carries a $10,000 prize except for the public service award, which is a gold medal.
The New York Times, which has won more Pulitzers than any other news organisation, was also honoured for international reporting for detailing the wealth of relatives of top officials in China's Communist party; for explanatory reporting, for a look at the business practices of Apple and other technology companies; and for feature writing, for an account of skiers killed in an avalanche in Washington state.
The Pulitzer in breaking news reporting went to the Denver Post for its coverage of the shooting at a cinema last summer in Aurora, Colorado, that left 12 people dead.
The Star Tribune of Minneapolis captured two Pulitzers: It was honoured in the local reporting category for its coverage of a spike in infant deaths in poorly regulated daycare centres, and Steve Sack won for editorial cartooning.
The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens won the prize for commentary with his columns on American foreign policy and domestic politics.
In the criticism category, Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post was honoured for his essays on art.
The prize for editorial writing went to Tim Nickens and Dan Ruth of the Tampa Bay Times of St Petersburg, Florida, for a campaign that helped continue fluoridation of the drinking water for the county's 700,000 people.
Tampa Bay Times editor Neil Brown said that they composed "clear and forceful editorials."
"Tim Nickens and Dan Ruth went to bat for hundreds of thousands of people, many of them poor, who were being deprived a chance at better health," Brown said. "If we don't do this work, if the Times doesn't speak up, who will?"
Javier Manzano, a freelance photographer, won the feature photography prize for a picture distributed by Agence France-Presse of two Syrian rebel soldiers.
The full list of winners of 2013 Pulitzer prizes for journalism
Public service: Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Breaking news reporting: Denver Post staff
Investigative reporting: David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab of the New York Times
Explanatory reporting: New York Times staff
Local reporting: Brad Schrade, Jeremy Olson and Glenn Howatt of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis
National reporting: Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan and David Hasemyer of InsideClimate News, Brooklyn, New York
International reporting: David Barboza of the New York Times
Feature writing: John Branch of the New York Times
Commentary: Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal
Criticism: Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post
Editorial writing: Tim Nickens and Daniel Ruth of the Tampa Bay Times, St Petersburg, Florida
Editorial cartooning: Steve Sack of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis
Breaking news photography: Rodrigo Abd, Manu Brabo, Narciso Contreras, Khalil Hamra and Muhammed Muheisen of the Associated Press
Feature photography: Javier Manzano, freelance photographer, Agence France-Presse
- Sun, 24 Mar 2013 00:00:00 +0000: Shane Smith: 'I want to build the next CNN with Vice – it's within my grasp' - Media: Investigative journalism | guardian.co.uk
Twenty years ago Shane Smith set up a hip little Montreal magazine called Vice. Then along came the internet and Vice reinvented itself as the edgiest, wildest online media brand in the world. It's staffed by twentysomethings and aimed at a global youth who have no interest in mainstream media. Which is why he is courted by everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Google. Here he explains what drives his brand of gonzo journalism
One evening in October of last year, after a reported couple of drinks in a Brooklyn bar, Rupert Murdoch was giving a good impression of a man who thought he had seen the future. From his car on the way home he tweeted: "Who's heard of VICE media? Wild, interesting effort to interest millennials who don't read or watch established media. Global success."
The months since have served to emphasise the Digger's clairvoyance. If you hadn't heard of Vice media back then, it is likely that now you have. In America, in particular, two archly millennial Vice stories have made the "established media", Murdoch included, look distinctly 20th-century by comparison. The first involved the on-the-run internet millionaire, John McAfee, whose paranoid tale of drugs, murder and subterfuge in the jungly paradise of Belize dominated the daily news channels and blog sites for a few weeks before Christmas. When McAfee surfaced, having gone into hiding after being sought for questioning over the death of his neighbour, it was in the company of not only his 18-year-old girlfriend, but also a couple of young reporters from Vice. While the rest of the world's media, as well as the Belize police force, had tried to track McAfee down, Vice had helped to smuggle the fugitive over the border into Guatemala, and also, in true chaotic gonzo fashion, succeeded in inadvertently revealing his whereabouts in a blogged photo, which carried the message, "We are with John McAfee right now, suckers!"
The second Vice scoop was perhaps even more incendiary. Last month a documentary film crew from Vice blagged its way into North Korea in the company of the NBA legend, and celebrity rehab casualty, Dennis Rodman, and the Harlem Globetrotters. The Vice crew once again could hardly believe its fortune when Rodman ended up befriending Kim Jong-Un, the recently installed supreme leader of the world's most repressive regime, and now, apparently a basketball fan. Over the course of a couple of days, outtakes from this unlikely bromance were sent from the Hermit Kingdom via Vice.com and provoked predictably manic viral attention.
When I visit Vice's offices in Brooklyn, co-founder Shane Smith has spent the weekend both defending Rodman's "basketball diplomacy" and revelling in the media storm that has attended it. The story, a trademark mix of laddish farce and harder-edged foreign affairs is, he suggests, pretty much the perfect Vice exclusive. "The thing is: Dennis Rodman is absurd. North Korea is absurd. And our whole mission statement at Vice is the absurdity of the modern condition. So it made perfect sense for us." Smith is amused and frustrated in about equal measure by the generally outraged response of Fox and CNN and the New York Times and the rest. Above all it demonstrated, he says, a certain kind of unease – perhaps even envy – at the Vice philosophy of what he calls "immersive" journalism.
How much, I wonder, did Rodman, the lavishly pierced and tattoed former lover of Madonna, know about the trip in advance?
"Well I think he was keen to go play a game with the kids there but I don't suppose he quite got the gravity of what he was doing and where he was going. He's not a diplomat. And frankly we did not know that Kim Jong-Un would show up. When he did, we thought: 'Oh, OK, what happens now?' And then, when he said, 'Hey, everyone come back to my place for dinner!' we were quite gobsmacked."
In some ways it was a logical conclusion to what has been a long-term obsession for Smith. He visited the police state a couple of times in 2007 to film The Vice Guide to North Korea, a documentary of pre-conceived weirdness which did not stray far from what heavy-handed minders allowed. Smith was, in any case, subsequently banned from returning, but felt he had unfinished business in Pyongyang. He believes the Rodman stunt served a wider purpose, giving his film crew "unparalleled access" to the regime for a documentary on which they are still working.
"People turned round and said we ate food with this guy [Kim Jong-Un] and people are starving in North Korea. So you are saying no diplomat can ever eat food with a bad leader? That's half the world gone. It's just we had an idea of how to get in and how to get access and it worked. But when people like [former Clinton spokesman, now a TV political journalist] George Stephanopoulos ask Dennis Rodman about foreign policy and people are surprised he doesn't understand all the subtlety, I mean who is shocked by that?"
Is it journalism in any sense, though, or just a curious, contrived spectacle? "Well," he says, "we are getting a story that everyone is interested in seeing and nobody else could get. People call us 'adventure journalists' or 'daredevil journalists' or whatever. But in an insane world the mad way often works …"
Smith has high hopes that the Rodman documentary will surpass the million-plus hits reached by Vice's 2009 interview, by Smith himself, with Joshua Blahyi, known as General Butt Naked, the cannibal warlord of Liberia. "Both are crazy stories with sad and tragic underpinnings," he says. "But a news story for us is the same as for everyone; we like our stories to punch you in the face."
Does he ever feel that he weights his stories more to the punch in the face, and less to the sad and tragic underpinnings?
"The easy answer is no. If you look at the story we did about the slave labour camps of Liberia," he says, [another strand of the Vice Guide to Liberia] "we broke the story, it was an important story. This guy General Butt Naked killed 20,000 people and ate some of them. I don't know how you would go about further sensationalising those facts."
Shane Smith is a burly 42-year-old Canadian, whose vast glass-sided office is dominated at one end by a stuffed grizzly bear in front of a blown-up photo of the snow-capped Rockies. He is a direct and charming talker, but he carries just the vaguest hint that if there were any literal punching in the face to be done, he would not be taking a step back. The Vice offices are in a corner of recently gentrified Williamsburg, on a street decorated with expensively commissioned graffiti and bookended by slightly contrived boho cafes. The office itself is on the site of a former brewery, but any sense that this is a sort of slacker's paradise is dispelled when you step inside, and teams of intense twentysomethings are busily convening everywhere you look to discuss this magazine spread, or that mobile platform, or the latest YouTube offering or marketing collaboration.
Vice has come an awful long way from its origins as a free and underground music magazine in Smith's native Montreal 20 years ago. He created it with a couple of friends – having persuaded the city fathers to let them take over an earnest community title called the Voice. In the two decades since Vice dropped its middle "o" it has grown from being a "hipsters' bible", given away on street corners and in record stores, to a global brand with offices in 34 countries. The high-traffic online and documentary film incarnations of the Vice sensibility are about to spawn a 24-hour terrestrial news channel available in 18 countries. A documentary series in partnership with august HBO will include the Rodman and McAfee films. There is also a record label and an ad agency, Virtue, which numbers Nike and Dell among its clients. Announcing some of those departures at an industry event in Abu Dhabi last year, Smith envisioned "a changing of the guard within the media," and announced his ambition for Vice to become both the largest online media network in the world and "the voice of the angry youth".
To back up this fighting talk, Spike Jonze, the disruptive intelligence behind the film Being John Malkovich and the Jackass franchise, was installed in 2007 as creative director. Two years ago a consortium that included Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP advertising group, and Tom Freston, founder of MTV, invested a reported $50m in Vice media. Since the company purchased Vice.com (formerly a porn site) the same year, revenues have doubled to a reported $200m in 2012, on which insiders suggest an unverified 20 per cent profit margin. Smith talks of 3,000 contributors, though the official payroll is about 850. The average age of a Vice journalist is 25, but scanning the screen-staring ranks of the magazine's newsroom that seems on the high side. It is easy to see why, on his visit here, Rupert Murdoch might suddenly have felt all of his 82 years.
Smith retains a centralised control of his ever-shoutier multi-platform mouthpiece. "We have a global editor, then we have domestic editors and content directors each country that we are in," he says. "They send in the stories they want to do and we say 'great, let's do it', or 'no, let's not do it'. And we make a call that this would be good for online, this would be good for mobile, this would be good for the mag, this would be good for TV and so on."
He remains insistently involved with every stage of that decision-making. "We are releasing so much content now," he says, "that there is a probability otherwise that it will run away with itself. You know, if you are Henry Ford you better give a shit about making cars. And if you are making grapple grommets you better give a shit about grapple grommets. We are in the business of creating content so I better give a shit about that."
Before meeting Smith I've been trying to get a proper immersive sense of what that content might include. There is above all a sort of attention-deficit quality to Vice's output, shifting abruptly between tones and sensibilities. To take just the current magazine for example, lengthy closely reported articles about expat Jewish Americans settling illegally on the West Bank and the rise of Swedish fascism rub up against vaguely cruel spreads about Elvis lookalikes and high-concept fashion shoots. There is a voyeuristic Dazed and Confused edge to a lot of it, done with the production values of National Geographic, and occasionally the kind of easy misogyny that has seen the magazine banned from campuses (though Smith insists that the readership, particularly online, "is not skewed as much to the male as you might think – no more than 60 per cent"). Regular features include "Do's and Don'ts" which offers a surrealist commentary on random snapshots of people, fashion victims and other candidly photographed unfortunates, in the street or in clubs or bars, sometimes bleakly funny, sometimes laced with the kind of bullying rhetoric of anonymous blogging. Alongside that there is an indefatigable effort to find a musement in the world – there have been popular "Vice Guides" to everything from anal sex to Mecca – and a commitment to understanding, however brutally, or surreally, the margins of global culture. The writing owes something to the golden age of British style and music magazines, the Face and NME and the rest, self-consciously erudite or smugly postmodern, and something to the packaged curiosity, and patient storytelling, of Reader's Digest.
Smith and his less visible co-founder Suroosh Alvi have the unusual ability both to curate this slightly dysfunctional mix and sell it smoothly to advertisers and anyone else who might listen. He gestures intermittently toward his and the magazine's "DIY punk origins", but you guess he was always more Malcolm McLaren than Johnny Rotten. "We were a quintessential Gen X magazine, and we are now a quintessential Gen Y company," he will say.
How does he define that particular alphabetical shift? I wonder.
"Well," he says, "20 years ago we were the hipsters' bible and all that crap, and then we went online, and famously, or famously at least in Vice lore, we reinvented ourselves. We like to say, in reference to Dylan, 'We are not afraid to go electric'. We let our very high-profile editors go. We handed the thing over to kids straight out of school and let them run our magazine. And that has allowed us to become this Gen Y platform. It took us 10 years to get to a million copies of the magazine, and it took us one year to get to 10m uniques [online browsers] a month."
And how does he measure success himself?
"For me personally, you always think when you are starting out, I am going to make a nebulous amount of money, buy an island, wear an Amadeus wig and go naked and be crazy. But, you know, I was talking recently to Spike [Jonze] and he said 'Take money out of the equation. And ask yourself what would you do?' and I realised two things: first I would pay money to do the job I am doing, and second I wanted to build the next CNN, the next ESPN. And I also realised that given the digital revolution that is not only within my grasp, but I am frontrunner to get there. Once I realised money isn't the report card, and putting your imprint on the world's cultural fabric is possible, that is when we stopped scrabbling around on the periphery begging for money, and thought 'let's go for it'."
It may not sound much of a business plan, but the money duly followed "in buckets". It's in Smith's interest to say so, but you pretty much believe him when he suggests that every private equity firm or media corporation around has tried to buy Vice at one time or another. Rupert Murdoch was only the latest mogul enthusiast for the company, he suggests.
"We have had everyone in here. Hearst, Time, Condé, Google. It was funny, we were in a meeting with News Corp and Rupert walked in, and I said, 'You should come by the office some time, check out the shop'. And he said, 'Well let's go now'. So we drove out here and I walked him round, we had a drink in a bar round the corner. And I suppose because he is recognisable people started tweeting…"
Smith explains Murdoch's fascination with Vice as only natural. He has the feeling that in the "boardrooms of every major media company they are saying, 'OK we need Gen Y, we need online, we need social, we need mobile, and we don't have any of that stuff. We need it globally, we need scale and we need to be able to monetise all that.' So they look around to see who ticks those boxes and eventually they come to us. They come out here and see all the kids working 18 hours a day and everyone really passionate. They think, 'Yes, we have cracked the internet code!' And they are so used to everyone saying yes, to people who have been waiting for their Amadeus wig all these years, that when we say actually we are not really interested in selling, they keep offering us more millions."
Smith developed some of his business acumen in his gap year after studying political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, when he apparently set himself up as a black-market currency trader in Budapest at the time of the fall of Soviet communism. For a while he says, he was earning more in a day than doctors there earned in a week. That kind of thing. Having been "a real leftist, working for Greenpeace and all that" he consequently developed something of a taste for edgy capitalism. Even so, when he returned to Montreal and started the magazine, he couldn't understand how anyone could buy a car, or why you would want a mortgage. "But once you have a family and kids you realise the importance of those things."
Smith has two daughters, now, aged three and one. I wonder, eyeing the grizzly bear at his shoulder, if fatherhood has put him more in touch with his feminine side?
"It is funny," he says, "I was in Libya with a bunch of mujahideen jihadists doing a story when I heard that my second baby would also be a girl, and when I told them they were all so thrilled, 'Allah has blessed you!' And I said I thought it was kind of interesting in such a male-dominated culture for them to be so excited that it was to be a daughter. They said "No! A man needs daughters, they will love you forever and never leave you, unlike sons who are off at the first opportunity."
Smith himself is a case in point in that regard. Though he talks about a very happy childhood, he also claims to have left home and got himself a job and a place to live aged 13 – "I was in a bit of a gang, a headstrong guy". Not for the first time, in talking to him, I have the sudden sense that his father, a pioneer computer programmer amongst other things, might have been something of a tough taskmaster.
He laughs when I suggest that. "He was. My dad has always been like me but on steroids, a lot smarter than I am, a lot tougher than I am, sort of a George Bernard Shaw: taught himself everything. But the thing was he was never happy. It's my luck that I am that much stupider than him. When I graduated, I had a paper published in this political journal and everyone was so proud, and I remember coming home and he just destroyed my thesis. He knew more about it than I did even though I had been studying the subject for years. And he wasn't trying to knock me down, he just knew a lot about everything, theoretical physics, whatever, but he could never get it across. I my case I kind of lobotomised myself with booze and drugs early on but the one thing I had, I could sell ideas."
Still, Smith suggests, he can hear his father's voice in his head, when things have been tough, when the magazine was failing to begin with, or when he has tried to launch in new cities. "When I was a kid my dad told me two things," he says. "Life isn't fair and you have to be both the strongest guy and the smartest guy. He thought it was important that I could build a house from scratch, so I worked alongside him as he built one. From when I was eight years old we would go and get a car from the junkyard and work out how to get it running. That was the weekend."
Given he was forced to grow up early, it's understandable perhaps that the dominant sensibility of Smith's creation should have been a kind of permanent adolescence. He recently had the idea for a TV series about the generally parlous state of the world, and the mostly juvenile political response to fixing it, entitled "Where are all the adults?" Then he realised that perhaps he had the opportunity to be a grown-up himself. With this in mind he seems to visualise a future in which Vice comes of age with him, and becomes the voice of a more politicised generation, the one just now realising that it has been shut out from the opportunities enjoyed by those who have gone before.
"In the beginning," he suggests, in biblical fashion, of the first web generation, "there was this era online of let's just be cool and criticise everything, and we were very guilty of that. But as Josey Wales says, 'There comes a point when it is time to get busy living or it is time to get busy dying.' So we have been trying to say, OK we are going to go out and actually do stuff, get involved. We don't mind if people hate us, we would prefer them to love us, but we don't want indifference."
What kind of stuff will they do, though, beyond Rodman-style stunts? It is Smith's and therefore Vice's contention that we are approaching a kind of reckoning. The stories he is drawn to tend to have a red-in-tooth-and-claw apocalyptic component, whether he is documenting a two-week traffic jam in Mongolia, or featuring, as the current online offering does, the sewage flooded graveyards of Gaza, or describing what happens when you wear semen-scented perfume for a week. If you read only Vice, I'm pretty sure paranoia, possibly agoraphobia, would set in quite quickly.
This brand of stylised bleakness is evidence, he suggests, that "the cheque has now arrived – economically, geopolitically, environmentally – and the coming generation, Gen Y, are realising they are going to have to pay it. Would I like Vice to be a major part of the media that reflects that? Absolutely. If you look not just at the Arab spring, but at what I call the youth spring that has started in Europe, young people are starting to find a voice, and they are not looking to the traditional media to reflect that. CNN was made by the Gulf war. I think the economic crisis will prove to be our Gulf war. It is making young people very angry and we want to be the voice of that anger."
His commitment to the absurdity of the modern condition is one part of that rage, he says. "A lot of what happens in the world is full-on crazy and doesn't get reported on. We want to change that." He doesn't believe that the outsider generation Vice is speaking to will adopt old-style party-based politics any time soon, but will assume instead a far more eclectic and scattershot range of anger and passion. "Going forward it's clear that advocacy will be a hugely powerful force. If you dislike what General Motors is doing, you can overnight create a movement to tell people to buy Ford. What we want to do is provide more and more information to this generation to help them to bring that kind of advocacy."
Smith is clearly a man who warms to themes. Having started him on this line of thinking, he quickly gets into his stride, lecturing me now on the complacency of the western world, now on Vice's crucial role as agit-proppers-in-chief.
"In the early days it was kicking against the pricks," he says, at one point. "If we had received the press that we have gotten over this North Korea thing in the early days we would have all been walking up Broadway with our middle fingers in the air. We are not afraid to fight our corner, but we have a documentary team there still, we have a job to do. If that is growing up, then yes, we are growing up."
Smith routinely reserves the full blast of his frustration for the media status quo, the commentators and the columnists who don't set foot out of the door of their office and blithely assume that the world is pretty much as it always was. He can quickly rouse himself to the full rhetorical anger of the midnight blogger, while all the time carefully positioning his business as both the authentic voice of the outsider, and the new mainstream.
"American media has just become talk radio, incredibly partisan name-calling and op-eds," he says. "I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved it has completely failed to act as an effective fourth estate. And young people didn't sleep through that, as is widely believed, they learned instead not to trust what they were being told. Huffington Post and Drudge Report and all these things came up, exactly because people no longer had any faith in the traditional media. I am not saying either of those things are great, but they are a symptom of that loss of trust. I am not even saying Vice is great. I always say: if Vice has become a primary news source, then the world is completely fucked! I mean, we are still talking half the time about rare denim and sneakers!
"But the fact is four corporations own all of American news, and they are all equally scared of losing Budweiser or whoever as their advertisers. The greatest propaganda coup of the American right has been to convince its citizens that we are in the grip of a liberal conspiracy. As a result, Obama is to the right of Richard Nixon on most issues. And there is we believe, certainly some space to exploit there." He pauses, smiles, concludes his lesson for the day. "And we, Vice, aim to exploit it."
This article was amended on 25/03/13 to clarify the starting point of Spike Jonze's involvement with Vice.