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Alumna talks about life as an undercover journalist at City event

Gesbeen Mohammad graduated from City’s MA Investigative Journalism course in 2015

by Ed Grover (Senior Communications Officer)

A City journalism graduate has returned to the university to talk about her experiences as an undercover reporter.

Gesbeen Mohammad, who completed a Masters in Investigative Journalism in 2015, told students and members of the public about what is was like to infiltrate a group or organisation and carry out secret filming. The journalist said certain personality traits were required for the job.

“I’ve been an undercover reporter on several programmes and it’s all very exciting, and I guess you do need to want to be excited by your job and be willing to take risks,” she said.

“It does sort of take its toll because it is pretty much working 24 hours a day, for however long it takes to get the footage that you need.”

During a panel discussion, Gesbeen explained undercover journalists were often motivated by a desire to make a difference.

“There’s always a public interest argument to the investigations that we do and every undercover reporter that I’ve worked with has wanted to make some sort of change,” she said, “whether it’s infiltrating companies or whether it’s more ideological ones."

The City graduate was joined on the panel by her colleague David Henshaw, founder of the award-winning television company Hardcash Productions, whom she first began working with when she was still a student at City.

Gesbeen explained she approached David after he gave a lecture at the university and told him she wanted to do undercover work. She was invited to do a two-week internship and was then recruited to work on an investigation.

David said: “I was impressed by her ambition… It was very quickly apparent that [Gesbeen] had the background, the knowledge and, above all, the guts and the initiative to carry this off. It was extremely difficult.”

Gesbeen explained undercover reporters had to tackle different emotions while carrying out their work, including feelings that they were being disloyal to the people they met.

“They’re human,” she said. “They form relationships with everyone there.”

In one case, a reporter she was managing faced these challenges when they went undercover in a care home.

“We had a lot of conversations about ‘well, I feel like I’m letting these people down by filming undercover’,” said Gesbeen. “But then you go through the evidence that you’ve gathered and it becomes justified why you’re doing it.”

Cambridge Analytica

The panel, chaired by City's Professor Heather Brooke, also included Josh Reynolds, who is a producer and director of undercover documentaries, and Job Rabkin, commissioning editor of investigations at Channel 4 News.

Job revealed details about the Channel 4 investigation into the infamous data firm Cambridge Analytica, which has reportedly been involved in election campaigns in several countries.

After struggling to discover information about the company through other means, the Channel 4 team secretly recorded four meetings with people from the firm, including its then CEO Alexander Nix, who revealed details about its activities.

“One of the things that became very clear was that nobody could ever nail these guys because you could never find out what they were actually doing in the election,” Job said.

“One of the problems with elections is that by the time you figure something shady has happened, the campaign is over… That’s when we came up with the idea of going undercover.”

Discussing the tactics that his team employed as the investigation progressed, Job explained it was decided that locations for the meetings should be moved from boardrooms to restaurants in order to make the people they were speaking with more relaxed and “forthcoming” with details of their activities.

During these meetings, up to five cameras were used. This was to ensure enough footage was gained – in case any of the devices stopped working or the film quality was poor – and to get shots from different angles.

Job described the camera set-up for the final meeting between Alexander Nix and the Channel 4 undercover reporter, which took place in an upmarket hotel.

“They were at one table and we had people at two or three other tables around the room,” he said.

“We had a suitcase, we had a mobile phone, we a number of cameras all around just in case one of them failed, which is very helpful when you’re editing because you can cut between lots of different cameras… Having lots of angles in a fairly controlled environment made a huge difference.”

The event, called Going undercover, took place at City on Wednesday 24th October 2018.

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