One life in investigative journalism

open democracyA Q&A with Clare Sambrook, OurKingdom co-editor and co-founder of the ‘End Child Detention Now’ campaign. Interviewer: Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, writer-in-residence at Lacuna.What story or campaign are you most proud of?

One night, a few summers ago, friends of mine in York were disturbed by a loud banging on their door. There stood a Kurdish family — men, women and children — distraught. A young relative of theirs in Cumbria, where I live, had been detained by the immigration authorities. Her two-year-old son was left parentless for four days. My friends found them a lawyer — on the 31st phone call, and prompted letters appealing to the Home Office. I created a media campaign. After 26 days locked up at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, the family was released and, eventually, allowed to remain here. There had been no reason to detain them.

Out of their damaging ordeal came our (unfunded) End Child Detention Now campaign. We were amazingly successful at raising awareness about and combating the practice of locking up asylum-seeking families in conditions known to harm them.

Anthony Barnett at OurKingdom published our work relentlessly from the start. That relationship grew into the Shine A Light project, which continues to expose injustice and challenge official lying.

Why did you choose to become a journalist?

I remember, when I was very small, my Mum saying: ‘You’re very inquisitive.’ Me: ‘What’s that?’

I have always wanted to know what’s really going on.

What path did you take?

It’s all a bit random. A bright kid, I got turned off education early. (‘Stop wriggling while Sister is hitting you!’ was one memorable phrase from my Catholic primary school.)

Home life wasn’t easy. I slouched through comprehensive school. To get into Sixth Form you had to achieve ‘O’ level As or Bs in the subjects you wanted to take at A-level. English apart, I had Cs and below. So I was heading for Scunthorpe Tech.

But then my best friend went to work on our school-teachers. She persuaded them that since I hadn’t done badly at History ‘O’ Level (I hadn’t taken it), couldn’t they let me take History A-level? My Art teacher agreed to waive his grade requirement if I’d spend lunchtimes drawing. So, with English, I had three A-Levels to study and a ticket into Sixth Form.

Excellent teaching woke me up. I worked hard and soared. In Lower Sixth, my history teacher suggested I write an essay for the Vellacott History Prize. That’s a national competition judged by lecturers at Cambridge University. I won it. Then my teachers said, try for Cambridge. Until that moment I had not considered university at all.

Clare accepts the Paul Foot Award from Ian Hislop, 2010On the application form under ‘parents’ occupation’ I wrote: ‘Father, unemployed.’

‘What business was he in?’ drawled the admissions tutor. My dad had been a school caretaker.

‘I think we can consider this interview over, don’t you?’

Next interview: the History man. He asked me about Quentin Skinner and a few other writers who excited me back then, and he wasn’t remotely interested in my dad. I did their exam. They let me in.

This was the 1980s. I got the full student grant and free tuition. The College paid for me to travel around Italy and Egypt.

Cambridge was a freaky experience. Anyone from the wrong sort of background can tell you that. For the first time I lived among people who were materially privileged. Some of them were emotionally cauterised, stunningly sure of themselves and ignorant of life beyond their tiny elite; the kind of people now remaking Britain for the rich.

After Cambridge I applied for and failed to get loads of jobs in journalism, made the final board of the BBC News Trainee scheme, then rejection. I was a terrible interviewee.

I got a job at the John Lewis Gazette, then moved to Marketing Magazine (the Haymarket Group). On days off, under a pseudonym, I worked shifts on the tabloids (Daily Express, Sun, Mail on Sunday). By post I offered freelance pieces that were usually ignored.

The Daily Telegraph published one — about riding a motorbike in London, with a picture of me in my leathers. That landed me a three-month contract on the Daily Telegraph financial pages, because the City editor rode a moped.

He ran what he called a ‘tight ship’. In other words, he ruled by terror. After three months of that, he sacked me.

Back home, tears. A wise friend offered this advice: ‘Go back in, go into his office, kick his bin.

‘His bin?’

‘Yes, kick the bloody bin.’

I washed my face, got on my motorbike, rode to the office, challenged the tyrant, got a 6-month contract that turned into a proper job and then promotion and very good money. I never did kick his bin. (That’s one regret).

A brush with meningitis reminded me that life is short. I turned freelance so that I could do investigations. I wrote about the Lottery and corruption in the Olympics. Then my first novel, Hide & Seek.

Are there set ingredients to success?

Journalism is a lifelong apprenticeship. Be immersed in the craft. Study the best: ask, how is this piece working?

If something feels dodgy, get digging. Own up to what we don’t understand; clarify that thing.

Don’t talk too much. Listen. Ask questions: ‘What are the questions?’ is a good one.

Seek critique from good writers and from experts in your field.

Imagine the reader is an intelligent 12-year-old. (Brighter than we are but lacks information and context.)

Anger may drive us and direct our research; it doesn’t belong in the final draft. Rage diverts attention from the information.

What have been the biggest obstacles for you in building a career as a writer?

Charm, confidence and connections can take you a long way in journalism. I’m rather lacking in those.

Financial anxiety isn’t helpful.

Having children is the best thing ever. Not a smart career move.

How has the industry changed since your first job?

Aged 15 I did some work experience in a tiny office of the Lincolnshire Times: electric typewriter, 3 carbon copies, no Tippex. The copy was parcelled up in brown paper and string (am I making this up?), then driven across the Wolds to the Humber Ferry for the crossing to Hull.

These days I publish online from my home in rural Cumbria (in my pajamas).

There is so much material online. That’s exciting.

What is your advice for those considering getting into campaign journalism?

SOAS Detainee Support “Release” Carnival London 2010 (Peter Marshall)Focus. Find out who’s feisty (NGOs, campaigners, journalists) on your patch.

Learn, volunteer, research, share material, be useful.

Oh, and . . . if an accident of birth has given you connections, don’t use them to get jobs or commissions ahead of other people. If you want to challenge injustice, challenge nepotism.

If you had to give a reading list to an aspiring journalist, what would the top three books be?

One very short book: The Way to Write, A complete guide to the basic skills of good writing, by John Fairfax and John Moat, the poets who started the Arvon Foundation. The foreword is by their friend Ted Hughes.

Stephen King’s memoir and manual On Writing is warm and encouraging: he wants us to write well.

As writers we need to speak Human. So: The Stories of Anton Chekhov. We may trawl documents and mine data, but the raw material is life.

Stories about injustice make the headlines one day, and the next day, very often, little changes: what, then, is the point of your work?

Democracy works only if people have got access to accurate information. Official information is so often unreliable. Exposing truths gives democracy a chance, informs our fellow citizens, helps and encourages campaigners and the dispossessed, gives ammunition to people who might use it.


Clare Sambrook exposes official lying, raises public awareness of inconvenient truths, and provides intelligence and ammunition to people trying to achieve policy change. In 2010 she won the Paul Foot Award and the Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism. She was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2013. Clare is a freelance journalist, and co-editor at OurKingdom, the UK arm of OpenDemocracy. Her first novel, Hide & Seek, published in thirteen languages, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice.

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a freelance journalist and writer-in-residence at Lacuna. Her reporting on immigration and asylum across the European Union was shortlisted for the 2012 George Orwell Prize for Political Writing (blog category). In 2012 Rebecca published Gardens, a collaboration with photographer Christina Theisen, which documents pockets of environmental and social activism in London.

First published at Lacuna, as part of a series illuminating the lives of storytellers including journalist Jon Snow, documentary photographer Lesley McIntyre, playwright Richard Shannon, comedian Mark ThomasAndrew Williams, author of ‘A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa’ and Rebecca Ominira-Oyekanmi