Sam McBride

Belfast Telegraph

As the Northern Ireland Editor of the Belfast, I was last year privileged to join a newspaper which is hiring more journalists, investing more money in journalism, and giving its journalists the time to produce detailed public interest reportage and analysis.

I have attempted to hold to account the powerful, regardless of party or position. That is profoundly important in NI because the devolved government has operated without any official opposition to question ministers – and not infrequently without even a government, leaving civil servants in unscrutinised control. Several political leaders have refused to be interviewed by me, some ministers have refused to answer my questions, and one party will not even send me its press releases. However, suppressing or softening truth in order to please the powerful is pointless; it would be dishonest to maintain access to power at the cost of not being able to tell the readers who ultimately employ us what their rulers really do. Having reported extensively on the cash for ash scandal since 2016, I became convinced of the need for journalism which simplified and connected boringly complex policy with the politicians making lucrative decisions. That's far more important than intra-party intrigue or partisan spats. That means not always following the journalistic herd; instead, often the most important stories are buried in detailed reports or government files in which no one is looking or in the minds of sources to whom no one else is talking. My editor has given me freedom to pursue these stories with the challenge to make the public interested in them. One such investigation involved NI's chief vet, Robert Huey. In January, I was tipped off that he'd hounded a government vet out of her job because she exposed alleged fraud and animal suffering. I established that his department was using public money to attempt to overturn a devastating legal ruling which said this. Within weeks of exposing that, the appeal had been abandoned and the department agreed to pay the whistleblower £1.25m – the highest settlement in NI history. I then uncovered that days later Huey had promoted his accomplice. Using FoI, I established that Huey personally authorised the appeal without declaring his conflict of interest. Months of reportage prompted widespread criticism of a rotten civil service culture. Huey's career now rests on the outcome of an inquiry commissioned by the Head of the Civil Service. Unchecked power is dangerous. These stories involved understanding where power lies, how it is being abused, and explaining that simply. My work has consistently been among the most-read on the Belfast Telegraph website and has also brought in large numbers of paying subscribers – proving that readers are prepared to pay for this journalism. I have sought to hold power to account, explain the complex world we inhabit to our readers, and promote open discourse about Northern Ireland's future. Although imperfect, it is work which makes me proud to be a journalist.