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Gavin MacFadyen: A remembrance

Posted: Oct. 23, 2016 | Tags: journalism


CJI photo

Journalist Gavin MacFadyen

A leading and memorable figure in investigative journalism, Gavin MacFadyen, 76, died in London Saturday after a short illness. His wife, creative producer Susan Benn, the founder and president of the Performing Arts Lab there, survives him.

Gavin, according to his IMDb profile, was a senior director/producer, and he worked on over 50 investigative television programs, for PBS FRONTLINE, Granada Television’s "World in Action," the BBC’s programs "Fine Cut," "Panorama," "The Money Programme" and "24 Hours," and British Channel 4’s "Dispatches." He investigated and reported on such stories about child labor; environmental pollution; the torture of political prisoners; neo-Nazis in Britain; Contra murders in Nicaragua; UK industrial accidents; Chinese organized crime; the CIA’s history; maritime piracy; election fraud in South America; diamond mines in South Africa; and Frank Sinatra’s connections with organized crime. 

An American-born, later longtime London resident, Gavin met and became friends with Michael Mann; both of them were students in the 1960s at London’s International Film School. They later formed a company called Chicago Films with several other film school graduates at that time and Gavin later moved to California to work with Michael. Several years later, he worked on Michael’s Oscar-nominated movie, “The Insider,” as a technical adviser, along with former “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman. As a former colleague of Lowell’s at “60 Minutes” and an admirer of the film, it was great fun a few years ago at Lowell’s annual, popular Logan Symposium at the University of California, Berkeley to see Lowell, Gavin and Michael all there, together.

He created and began directing the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London in 2003, and he was also a visiting professor at City University of London. Around that time, he asked me for advice about creating a nonprofit news organization in the United Kingdom, which has vastly different tax and other laws than in the United States and thus little financial incentive for wealthy individuals or foundations to generously support journalism or other noble enterprises. I helped to introduce him to U.S. foundation folks who later generously helped him to function financially. 

Over the years, I had the honor of being invited and speaking at his always-memorable CIJ “summer school” conferences. In 2006, the fearless Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was also speaking there, and we were able to meet and talk too briefly. Just a few weeks later, she was murdered in Moscow. 

In 2009, at another of the CIJ summer programs, Gavin, Susan and my American friends and colleagues (and longtime CIJ trainers) David Donald, Aron Pilhofer and the legendary (and hilarious) sports investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, whom I first encountered in Moscow in 1992 and who singlehandedly exposed the corruption of the soccer organization, FIFA, all had a long and uproariously raucous dinner, closing down the London restaurant.

David also recalled Gavin’s firm support for data journalism, which had a major impact on its growth and success in the United Kingdom. In the early years of the summer school, David and Aron's data training had few attendees. The UK journalists just didn’t yet understand the connection between government and other databases and investigative reporting. Gavin didn’t flinch. He brought the two back year after year. Finally, in 2008, attendance in the data classes exploded. David knew something changed when his talk on using statistics in investigative reporting was standing-room only. Although not a data journalist himself, without Gavin and his foresight, it’s doubtful data journalism would be so thoroughly practiced in the UK as it is today.

Some journalists, like other humans, are more communicative than others. Gavin was one of those folks, almost always full of mirth and amusement, indeed one of the most engaging storytellers I have ever met. One of my favorite encounters with him occurred in an unlikely place, Kiev, Ukraine, site of the 2011 Global Investigative Journalism conference. I had accidentally left my passport at the Kiev airport and miraculously was able to go back and get it, but also much of our conference hotel had no heat, and it was f-f-freezing there, day and night, so bad that I caught a nasty cold. Well, it so happened that my room was coincidentally across the same hallway as Gavin’s, and one night he invited me over to share a bottle of wine and we laughed and talked for hours. I hardly noticed the cold or my cold and I’ll never forget it. 

In December 2014, Gavin and CIJ put on one of the most extraordinary journalism conferences, the 2014 Logan Symposium on “Secrecy, Surveillance and Censorship,” with over 500 attendees, that I have ever had the pleasure to participate in, with an all-star cast of speakers such as Seymour Hersh, Duncan Campbell and James Bamford — the first two men to expose the abuses and excesses of the National Security Agency — Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Australian-born British journalist John Pilger, Lowell Bergman, several computer hackers from Germany and other European nations, and via video link, Laura Poitras from Berlin, and Julian Assange from the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. The night before the symposium began, Gavin invited a few of us to dine together, and it was my first such dinner with iconic journalists and hackers sitting side-by-side and talking together.

I had the privilege of knowing, collaborating and celebrating with him for approximately 20 years; precisely when and where we met is unclear. But it always seemed as though we could rarely talk and also laugh for less than a few hours, in far-flung journalism conferences where we both were speaking and participating such as the Global Investigative Journalism conferences in Copenhagen (2001 and 2003), Amsterdam (2005), Toronto (2007), Lillehammer, Norway (2008) and Kiev, Ukraine (2011).

My last email from Gavin, in which he informed me of his very serious medical diagnosis, was this past summer, on July 30th. He said he was “working mostly from home and Susan and I have sensational support from family and friends … The house continues to receive a steady stream of welcome guests as it always has. If you’re over here it would, needless to say, be great to see you — I hope you know how much you helped us and what it meant to us when we first got started! You were the biggest influence on us by far. With affection and gratitude.”

Gavin characteristically was too generous with his kind praise or description of my small role. But he was a great friend and colleague and teacher, and he has left an indelible mark on the world. And he leaves in his wake hundreds of young journalists whom he and his colleagues trained and introduced to investigative reporting — and why it is so vital to us all.

This story has been modified since its original publication.

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