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Interview: Henry Dyer, investigative journalist

26 January 2024

‘Investigative reporting is a marvellous combination: great fun and very important’

I wanted to be a journalist ever since I was a child. I studied English Literature at the University of York, for both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

I dabbled with the idea of writing a dissertation on the Book of Common Prayer,
but ended up writing about film instead: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s excellent adaptation of Matthew’s Gospel. He chose Matthew because it was the most socially critical: “Think not that I’m come to send peace on earth. . .” The cinematography and sound are creative, especially around the crucifixion and “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”; so, for example, at that moment the screen goes dark and we hear Christ speaking of the blindness of the people.

When I graduated,
I jumped into the world of freelance journalism. I’ve written for Private Eye, The Times, the Telegraph, and worked at Insider as a politics reporter in the parliamentary lobby.

My mother worked in Parliament as an MP’s researcher,
and so half-terms and summer holidays involved days in the nooks, crannies, and canteens of the Palace of Westminster. I recently found a photograph of me aged seven, reading newspapers in Portcullis House; so the signs were always there.

I think political journalism at its best can reveal the debates,
deals, and decision-making processes that lead to the creation and execution of government policy, and then, what that means for people’s lives, not just the polling numbers. And that’s a really exciting and broad area to work in.

I find that investigative reporting is a marvellous combination:
great fun and very important. It gets at an instinct to try to right wrongs and reveal hidden truths. More pragmatically, investigations were a good way to find exclusives when I was a freelance journalist. It’s difficult work, but immensely rewarding, especially when working with talented colleagues, as I have had the good fortune to do.

Investigative journalism involves a degree of intrusion,
and so we’re constantly stepping back, assessing and considering our position and if it’s right to continue. There’s a lot of balancing to be done, and ethical considerations to be made. As for doing it effectively, there can be significant difficulties, be they personal, legal, or just not enough time.

I’ve been fortunate enough not to become depressed by what I’ve investigated.
Staying optimistic and positive about the future is an important motivation in my work.

If the story is accurate and informative,
then even if it ends up being tomorrow’s chip paper for most people, it might have an effect on a few people’s thinking. Sometimes, it might take going at the story dozens of times, or making it into a drama, before people pay attention to it and some change actually happens — like with the Horizon story; but without the impressive investigative work of Computer Weekly and Private Eye, that drama wouldn’t have been made.

When people are confronted with it, truth is naturally engrossing and interesting,
and sometimes even entertaining. Even if it’s not sought out but picked up on social media — that’s the great challenge of presenting news now — journalism that shows that there are things that need addressing and can be addressed can encourage people to stand up. Truth has that appeal. It stands out against the noise, especially if it’s well written.

People have a right to know how they are governed.
If public office is being abused for personal gain, we should know.

Investigative journalism can shatter the defensive narratives that people wrap themselves up in.
And, even if the subject of a story continues as they were, other people’s impressions of them will hopefully be changed. When you front up to someone and put serious accusations that you’ve researched, it does force a decision: are they going to accept responsibility, or ignore it? It’s accountability of a sort.

Politicians might appear shameless because of the narratives they need to construct around themselves.
I don’t think electorates are shameless. Sometimes, they tell themselves that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in a particular opinion or political position, even if others vehemently disagree.

I was confirmed by Richard Chartres when I was 17.
Annoyingly for a journalist, I have an awful memory for most conversations I’ve actually been part of, but I do remember his words as he blessed me: “Shine in the world, Henry.” Unfortunately, I then left my confirmation cross and card accidentally at a Pret on Ludgate Hill. Not the best of omens. I like to think my professional work shines a light on the truth.

I grew up in London,
and spent a lot of my childhood reading, cycling, and writing. That’s not changed much, though I read far fewer books and much more news than I used to. I’ve lived in York since 2015, when I came here for university, but I still spend a lot of time in London for work and seeing family and friends.

In addition to my job,
I’m the PCC secretary at St Lawrence’s, and also edit the parish magazine. Thankfully, I don’t write any investigative articles for the magazine.

I first experienced God probably in silent prayer,
and possibly even at primary school in an assembly, or in church one morning.

My faith was primarily developed when I was a teenager through the Pauline Meetings:
a long-running Christian Union at my school. At weekly meetings in and outside of school, and residential holidays, we were given space to think about God, religious belief, and how to lead our lives. The meetings taught me a lot — more than I can put into words, really. It was a great privilege to be part of a community of young men that grasped the love and fellowship at the heart of the Gospels, and tried to put it into practice as much as possible.

I’m optimistic about the future of the Church in England,
but it’s much harder to be optimistic about the future of the Church of England as an organisation. I’d like to improve all sorts of things, but wouldn’t quite know where to start.

As for my own church, St Lawrence’s, York, I am hugely optimistic about it.
The building was slated for closure a little over 20 years ago, but it’s had a huge amount of effort put into it, with a thriving Anglo-Catholic community that serves our parish from students to the elderly. There’s a wonderful choir, and a fantastic group of young people eager and enthusiastic to drive the church forward, welcoming and open, while traditional in style.

We’re providing the national C of E weekly online service for Candlemas.
We’ve filmed it, and I’m currently putting together and editing the service, using skills I first learned in Covid. It was awful doing it then, but great to do this now, showing the great work we do in terms of BCP liturgy, music, and work in the community.

Managerialism. Hypocritical managerialism. They make me angry. Seeing close friends and family happy makes me happy. And, to be honest, having a great breakthrough on a story.

Perhaps bells of various kinds are my favourite sounds.
Hearing the bells of the Minster and of St Lawrence’s on my way to evensong. In London, the Westminster Quarters.

Terrible cliché, but my New Year’s resolution is to go to the gym.
Now that I’ve told you, there’s more impetus to stick with it. I’m hopeful for the future. I have a general sense that things tend to end up all right in the end.

I pray for my family,
my friends, the churches I am part of — that they know the presence of God.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Basil Moss,
who, for many years, led the Pauline Meetings, and died in November 2020. He was an actor of stage and screen. He would have some great stories to tell, and he was a fantastic singer and musician; so it would be a good way to pass the time. Plus, if the folklore that he nearly made it in the auditions for James Bond is true, perhaps he’d know how to get us out.

Henry Dyer was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

A link to the Candlemas service can be found on Sunday at: churchofengland.org

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