In some cases we have to fight to get data and documents for seven or nine years: Interview with Nils Mulvad

Co-Founder of many international networks of Investigative journalism, such as GNIJ or Investigative Reporting Denmark Center, Nils Mulvad made his first steps in chemistry and mathematics prior becoming a journalist. Thanks to his skills, he became a renowned international figure in data journalism and analytical reporting.

Today at, Nils Mulvad tells us about investigative journalism in Denmark, the country with the lowest rate of corruption on global indexes and the highest level of social trust.

– How is the current situation of investigative journalism in Denmark?

– Denmark is regarded as one of the least corrupt countries in the world regarding Transparency International rankings. Normally we see ourselves as having a very open society, with an administration and government not being very corrupt. Corruption is not seen in Denmark as a big problem and journalists are not in danger for doing investigations. You can be a target for certain kind of obstruction or be targeted by an organization you are investigating. Although you are not in danger of getting killed, there is still some pressure on investigative journalists in Denmark.

– What topics are you investigating if there is not much corruption? What is behind the fact that Denmark has consistently been in the top 4 as the world’s most transparent country: good laws, good watchdog activities by investigative journalists, or Danish values perhaps?

– It is the culture. There is in fact a big problem with that. Denmark in certain circumstances had been the target for international scam because we don’t check as much as other places do. We had been a transit land for international scam on several occasions because of this.

As for corruption in Denmark, we actually had a recent example regarding the municipality of Aarhus where I live. The administration didn’t think it was necessary to have whistleblower assistance. It was a big shock because it is normally regarded as one of the most augment working municipalities in Denmark. We had a big scam here where part of the members of this municipality were really corrupt and were firing people that tried to raise the problem. All of the high-ranking employees in the municipality supported the corrupt ones trying to hide it from the journalists who actually carried out the investigation.

Thus, our culture is a big problem in many places in Denmark. One of the biggest problems is that we don’t have this tհroughout tradition for properly investigating problems like this. It is really a hard job to uncover it and it depends on specific journalists who work for it and get the support from the editor to do it.

– Which kind of obstacles are put in journalists’ work in these cases?

– The target of an investigation makes claims either to the editor, or to the press institutions, or to the courts, trying to expose the journalist as untrustworthy, as well as trying to find dirt about the person and put his investigation in the air. They try to question what had been found by using these methods. My specialty is data analysis but sometimes I also had the role of a writer or an editor and in one of these cases the journalist and I were taken to the court to release secret information. In the beginning, we thought it was a way of threatening us to try to get knowledge about the secret sources of that story but in the end it turned out that we actually were the target of this and that they tried to use this as a way to criticize our stories. At the end we were fine and we released the information.

– What were your first steps in journalism? What was your ultimate goal?

– Actually my background is a bachelor degree in chemistry and mathematics; I was not really good at writing or languages. While working as a staff worker at a hospital for eight years I got interested in working with journalists because I was interested in answers to such questions as why people are doing what they are doing and why things are happening. Going into that kind of investigation has been the driving force for me. I was running the internal newsletter of the hospital and I think I developed the interest of getting the right answers. I also realized that I had to get an education and I started to study journalism.

However, it was pretty much obvious that I should focus on my interest using my basic skills, that is, chemistry and mathematics, and that is how I turned to journalism. I soon was very happy about all the methods you can use in investigative journalism and really tried them out. I found that I was getting much better as a result rather than just from reading or taking normal interviews. My passion was there pretty much from the beginning; I was focused on how we can get more proper information.

Working with data is pretty much trying to investigate possible areas and correct them before publishing. It is also a scientific approach to your work and is in many ways the same as doing scientific research in biology and biochemistry.

– What is the value of using data in journalistic investigation and analysis? Do the people trained by you easily understand how to use it?

– It is very hard for journalists to work with data. Part of the reason in Denmark is that most journalists come to this profession because they are afraid of maths and chemistry and physics, and they love reading and writing and communications. The fact is that usually you work with maths and data and they struggle even with the simplest things like calculating percentages. In my experience, one third of all journalists are not capable of doing that and they know it, one third think they can do it and they cannot so they are doing it the wrong way, and another third actually think they can do it and normally do it right. Thus, nowadays basic calculation is only possible to do for one third of all journalists.

– Are journalists in Denmark used to cooperating with lawyers? How are their relations?

– It is built in a way that enables journalists to receive legal help from the Union and the Publisher Association that support the biggest media. It is possible there because they employ lawyers. However, it is normally hard for journalists to get this kind of help if they are not working in the biggest media. And you need to convince the Union or the Publisher Association that they should go into the case and represent you. It is difficult for journalists to get proper help in situations like this.

I am also the Chairman of an organization specialized in releasing freedom of information cases. We have a close cooperation with the former head of scientific research from the Danish School of Media and Journalism. He is helping a lot of journalists with requests regarding freedom of information. He is doing this on a voluntary basis to help journalists. I think there is a huge need for this kind of help. There is a need for help when a journalist or a news media is taken to the court or there is another claim on how they need to fight. Besides, there is a special need if you are doing an investigation.

There is a method called “Line-by-line editing”; it consists of close cooperation between journalists and lawyers. Both work together, checking if there is documentation for every line in the story, checking that you aren’t doing anything that can violate laws and get you into trouble. In case you do, then the discussion is about how to prevent violation of law or how to respond to that afterwards. I think it is necessary to be aware when you violate the law and know how to respond, because sometimes you have to balance different legal aspects; it can be legal in one way and illegal in another way and you have to be aware of this legal implication of your story. If there is a risk of being taken to the court, you need to know exactly what that risk is and how to react to it better rather than just suddenly facing a law case.

– How easy is it to get access to databases and information about public officials in Denmark?

– We are allowed to get that kind of information. However, according to my experience it is always difficult to get data and documents from sources. The fact that we can actually use the law of getting information about salaries and contracts of public officials hasn’t been very widespread in the media. In some cases it has been done, and there have been bright stories where you could see the connections between salaries and the explanations of getting those salaries.

On the other hand, I have seen that in many non-profits and news media they think that it is very easy to get data and documents in Denmark. However, the fact is that we have to fight very hard for it too. In some cases we had to fight to get data and documents for seven or nine years.

One way of getting them is when you precisely need to know the legal situation and then fight back; if there are institutions which are very reluctant to give out information you sometimes need to try to identify one or two cases that you are pretty sure about winning and take them to so-called “chess cases” and beat them. Afterwards, they would normally be interested in changing their attitude and becoming more open, so later it will be easier to get information and data from the same institutions. However, there is not a clear path to do it.

– Finally, how do you see the future of journalism? Is data journalism going to replace the classic journalism or they can coexist?

– I think they should coexist. Information is now stored as data and you need to be able to extract it from these datasets, so we are not just relying on someone else to do it. But you also need to make observations but you still need to be able to look at papers. Papers and data are in many ways the same because today most papers are actually data which has been stored in that way. In addition, you still need to talk to people because they are a very important source of information. Finally, the fourth ability is observations in the field. You have to combine all these four skills while doing investigations.

Investigations are very much about combinations of many skills: Investigations can be led by lawyers, data specialists, economists or data journalists. You can’t say that there are some skills that are much more important than others so you have to form teams around concrete projects and identify the team leader. There is no single standard for doing it.

José Nicolas Dominguez Mendoza,
EVS Volunteer at the Armenian Lawyers’ Association

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