Defenders of Democracy: Peter Geoghegan

Photograph of Peter Geoghegan
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At a time when our parliamentary democracy is under threat as never before, those few courageous voices in the media and in public life who are prepared to come forward and expose corruption, wrong-doing and lying sometimes appear to be the only upholders of our democratic system. This is the fifth in a series of articles that profiles some of the key figures in the fight for right over might.

Investigative reporting has played an essential role in holding the British establishment to account ever since The Times published William Russell’s accounts of the appalling suffering of the troops in the 1853 Crimean War. Continuing the tradition established by his fellow Irishman, another outstanding reporter, Peter Geoghegan, investigations editor for Open Democracy, has played a key role in exposing some of the fault lines in our present democracy.

Born and brought up in county Longford, Ireland, with a mother who was a poet and in a house full of books, Geoghegan’s early career pointed him towards academia. After gaining a BA in environmental psychology from the National University of Ireland in Galway, he did a PhD on post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland at the University of Edinburgh. This provided the subject for his first book and led him to journalism: “I felt that there was a need for deeper investigations, for digging into what was really going on.” Geoghegan applied to join the Channel 4 training scheme for investigative journalists and believes the experience provided him with the crucial grounding needed for his current role.

A seemingly trivial incident sparked his exploration of the influence of dark money on UK politics. In Sunderland to report on public opinion during the Brexit referendum campaign, he picked up a discarded paper on a train seat beside him and was puzzled to discover that the Vote Leave wraparound ad had been financed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). While following up the links between the DUP and Vote Leave, he was contacted by Adam Ramsay, the main site editor of Open Democracy, who suggested that they put their heads together to try and uncover the background story. “What I thought would be just one story was actually like pulling on an endless thread.” The spider’s web of connections and the links to various shady research institutes and American right-wing billionaires are spelt out in fascinating detail his latest book Democracy for Sale.

More articles in our Defenders of Democracy series by Ginny Smith:

Geoghegan’s work exposes the disinclination across the media and political classes to challenge the status quo, however much corruption there might be lurking in the shadows. “The attitude is very Saint Augustinian,” Geoghegan says in an interview with the Irish Journalist Fintan O’Toole. “Please give me pure transparency and a very clean politics – just not yet.”

On first investigating party funding, Geoghegan assumed it must be a larger problem in the US because of the vast sums involved. “In fact,” he says, “it’s almost the opposite.” In the UK a comparatively small amount of money can buy you face-time with a government minister.

“The shocking thing about the Robert Jenrick and Richard Desmond scandal was the almost casual attitude of government ministers to the event. Nadhim Zahawi, under-secretary of state for business, said on the Radio 4 Today programme, ‘Well if you want to lobby a Minister, anyone can go to a Tory fund-raiser’.” The idea that this is a totally legitimate way of doing things is a huge issue which is just ignored in British politics. “No-one wants to ask any difficult questions, and it’s very hard not to come to the conclusion that the system benefits everyone.” Everyone, that is, apart from the British public.

“As long as politicians are dependent on donations, often quite small amounts, they are always going to be open to pressure from vested interests. And that’s not healthy, that’s not a good place for democracy to be. So you have to take the money out of politics”, Geoghegan concludes.  

Many official watchdogs like the Electoral Commission lack the resources to investigate, or the teeth to enforce even the inadequate rules that already exist, and Geoghegan believes that organisations like Open Democracy have a crucial role to play in shining light into the dark corners of UK politics. “There’s a lot of stories that we have done that wouldn’t always have been covered otherwise – the awarding of government contracts for PPE supplies – such an important issue with huge sums of money involved – electoral transparency, donor secrecy in Northern Ireland… Which in fact ended on the back of our story.”

Unsurprisingly, Open Democracy frequently finds itself facing powerful opposition. Most commonly, “people try to sue you. The defamation laws in Britain are still not that friendly for journalists, and that’s the threat all the time. It’s constant, it’s huge, and you have to face it almost every day.” Which is why Geoghegan and his colleagues at Open Democracy persist in their mission to get the message out: “In the end, it’s about transparency and good government.”     

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