December 9, 2016

Nils Hanson, more than 20 years at the forefront of reflexive journalism

Nils, the investigative journalist, believes that good journalism involves analyzing and reporting on every aspect of the story and asking all the questions needed. Even when those questions may seem difficult, or situations too sensitive. ‘When you are not asking critical and tough questions, this is not showing respect to people, but pity’, he says.

By Sergio Mañero

Nils Hanson

Nils Hanson

Speaking of his journalistic career with young journalists of Media4Change training program, Nils explains that news was never his thing. ‘I soon realised that quick news wasn’t my strength. I worked too slowly (always wanting to go to the bottom of things) and didn’t feel very comfortable at press conferences’, says Nils. Contrasting with the breaking news pace, Nils has always felt drawn to another style of journalism. This consists of a reflexive journalism, because it needs more time to verify the facts, to analyse the reality and to link the different parts of the story.

Just five minutes into the conversation with Nils Hanson, and his eyes are already glimmering with thrill; the passion for his craft clearly evident. Nils understands the potential of his journalistic work to enact social change, but is also aware that journalists are not activists: ‘Of course we want to change the world for the better, but we do not say that. We are here to reveal things that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed’, he says.

Since starting in journalism at the age of sixteen, Nils Hanson has never got tired of telling stories. His hunger for information led him to establish Uppdrag Granskning (Mission Investigate), a prestigious award winning TV Program, broadcasted by the Swedish National Broadcaster (SVT). He is the Editor-in-Chief of this program, a recognised investigative journalist, and a member of the international, UK based, Center for Investigative Journalism.

In our current media saturated society, the ‘Mission Investigate’ program has found its place. The team have been broadcasting a one hour program weekly since 2001. Every investigation takes considerable preparation, all of which is done well in advance of the air date. ‘It takes 3 to 6 months to have a good planning for a single program’, says Hanson.

Since its launch, the ‘Mission Investigate’ team has been awarded several international investigative journalism prizes. Last year,  their work on the Panama Papers received the ‘Best Investigation of the Year’ award at the Data Journalism Awards. The awards were organised by Global Editors Network Summit, a cross-platform community of editors-in-chief and media innovators committed to sustainable, high-quality journalism. After this story broke, the Prime Minister of Iceland, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned from the office.

Nils approaches every story as a detective investigator. Every fact needs to be verified and every storyline challenged. He even introduced an internal quality control system for his team. This control system includes a method in which all the information is reviewed line by line, so it reduces the possibility of making a mistake.

This system has helped to build audience trust. At the same time, it assisted journalists in building trust with sensitive sources, for example, those whose rights have been violated. Before the program is broadcasted, the journalists show the vulnerable sources the final cut of the story. The authors propose that if the source does not like it, they remove the story from the program. ‘No one has used the right so far. We have never failed that way’, says Nils.

Trust is important, but to engage the audience one needs good stories. Nils Hanson says that the journalist cannot get a story just by sitting at the computer. The journalist has to report from the ground. ‘One of our journalists is always on the street, and she always discovers something”, he says.

Nils Hanson and Young Journalists Training 2016 team

Nils Hanson and Young Journalists Training 2016 team

One witnessed scene can lead to the beginning of a wider investigation. In one occasion, a journalist witnessed a woman being thrown out of a police station by policemen. Immediately, the cameraman started to record. This nasty isolated scene was the beginning of an investigation that had its roots in Swedish institutions, that did not have a protocol to treat people with mental health problems.

The role of the  journalist is to present the facts. ‘Be out, talk to people, talk to the police, the psychiatrists, the social authorities, discover who is responsible, what do the rules and the law say. The public decides what is immoral, despite what is accepted by law’, says Nils.

Sometimes, a story can prompt a discussion in society regarding what is deemed moral or immoral. In one occasion, they were investigating two girls who were raped and then, accused of making false allegations. The perpetrators were very popular and supported in their community. Nils wondered: ‘this was a world upside down. But is this unique? That a woman is blamed when she gets raped?’ A discussion in Sweden about how the community had treated those women followed the broadcasting of that story.

Nils has gone through difficult situations while investigating stories. He calls them, ethical dilemmas. These are times when the journalist has to make a decision, while he is aware that there is not completely right decision to make.

Last year, when they were investigating Panama Papers and how politicians were involved in financial corruption cases, Nils and his team came across the surname of the Prime Minister of Iceland, Gunnlaugssonhad. Only one journalist in Iceland was looking at the Panama Papers at that time. He was sure that if he would have asked the Prime Minister for an interview about his involvement, the Prime Minister would have refused it. So Nils’ investigators decided to interview the Prime Minister without telling him what the reporters were actually digging into.

The Prime Minister agreed to the interview thinking that he would be asked about Iceland’s  economic performance during the economic crisis. When the interview was on air, recording, the journalist took the topic out in front of the camera. ‘The interview started very friendly and then came the nasty questions. He mentally collapsed’, Nils Hanson recalls.

The ethical dilemma was clear: ‘In journalism you should never lie, and now you use a lie. One can say this is not ethical’, says Nils. And actually we can hear Gunnlaugssonhad in the video accusing the journalists: ’You are asking me nonsense’, he says, ‘you tricked me into an interview under false pretences’.

Another dilemma is the use of hidden cameras. ‘You can use them only when it is the only way to prove something, otherwise, it can be a disaster’, Nils Hanson explains.

During one investigation, the team was investigating claims that a very influential Imam in Sweden was encouraging the tolerance of violence against women in muslim marriages. Two brave muslim women, who were not journalists, agreed to use a hidden camera and recorded him saying that women should always consent to sex with their husbands. The Imam would have never said those statements publicly, as non-consensual sex is a crime in Sweden.

The women risked being discovered. They did it because they wanted to capture footage of the Imam making those statements, because they wanted to identify him and prevent the spread of his radical and abusive ideology. They even showed his face, to make him more recognisable. ‘You always have to justify your actions. This person had a position in Swedish society, he is powerful among huge group of people”, says Nils.

Sometimes the ethical dilemma can lie in journalists’ beliefs and prejudices which might turn into auto censorship.

When the journalist work, for example, with victims or vulnerable members of society, he might empathize with them to such a level where he will end up not asking critical and tough questions. In Nils’ opinion, this is ‘not showing respect to people, but pity. Respect is asking all the questions”.

Nils Hanson during his conference at Young Journalist Training

Nils Hanson during his conference at Young Journalist Training

One time, an investigation brought the reporters to a place in Malmö where numerous groups of beggars and migrants were living. They camped illegally, but ‘no journalist was questioning this’, says Nils. When they showed them complaining about the insane conditions they were living in, the journalists asked why they did not clean the place themselves.

Some viewers were outraged, they even said that the journalists betrayed their sources. ‘But journalists must ask all questions’ Nils explained to them. ‘It is very easy to become an activist, but then you only see one side of the story. As a journalist, you cannot neglect the other. Your job is to show the truth, not to support the people that we want to support’, he said.

Even today, while giving lecture about ethical and socially responsible investigative journalism for young Lithuanian journalists at Media4Change training program, Nils asks more questions than provides advice or statements. He places all ideas under scrutiny, just as he does with facts in his program ‘Mission Investigate’. Right from times when he was a sixteen years old ‘dispatch boy’, the director of Sweden’s most successful investigative TV programme says he has always wanted to learn.


Leave a comment