Category Archives: News

Jenni Fagan and the Sunlight Pilgrims

PHIL WILKINSON

I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet the brilliant Scottish author Jenni Fagan for an interview for The Sunday Times. She was recovering from having launched two books (a new novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, and a book of poetry, The Dead Queen of Bohemia) within the space of a week.

Text of the interview can be found below, or a slightly shorter version is on the Sunday Times website here.

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Panama Papers: the Cameron connection

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I’ve been pretty busy working on some long-lead stuff recently – and filling in for Beatrice Wilford over at Five Books, a great website of literary interviews and book recommendations – but I took a bit of time out to write this brief analysis of the UK fallout of the “Panama Papers” leak that’s being making the headlines for the international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

David Cameron’s late father has been revealed in the leaked correspondence to have been a client of Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm, and the full extent of the lengths his investment fund went to to (legally) avoid UK tax have been laid bare.

My former Sunday Times colleague (and co-author of that explosive biography of the PM) Isabel Oakeshott, and the tax campaigner Richard Murphy were kind enough to chat to me about the implications for Cameron – particularly his campaign to tackle tax avoidance through tax havens, which he made much of at the G8 meetings in Northern Ireland in 2013.

Full text of the article can be found here.

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Council bosses cash in as services are cut

Council bosses cash in - Sunday Times July 2014I worked on this survey of council executive salaries, published in the Sunday Times last week. Our analysis found that more than half (61%) of executives received remuneration totalling more than £142,500, the prime minister’s salary.

All the information is available in the councils’ annual statement of accounts, which are released in their initial form in June/July each year and opened to the public for inspection.

Find the full text on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

Undercover with Oxbridge Essays

Oxbridge Essays cropped

I went undercover for this Sunday Times investigation into the ‘essay mill’ Oxbridge Essays, posing as several students seeking to cheat in their undergraduate degree.

I spoke to employees who were willing to:

  •  provide a ghost-written exam answer for a student sitting a 24-hour take-home history exam at Bristol University, guaranteed to a guaranteed first level, and submit on her behalf directly to the university, for £630
  • provide an 8000-word social psychology dissertation ready to be turned in to Oxford University exam schools under a student’s name, at guaranteed upper-first level, for £2005

“So I’d just open up the word document and copy it into another one, stick my candidate number on it and submit it?”
“Exactly, yeah.”

As part of the sting I set the company my own dissertation title from my university days, then handed the first two-thirds of Oxbridge Essays’ offering to my former supervisor Miles Hewstone, professor of social psychology at Oxford University, to have it assessed. He said: “The whole thing has a bit of a cut and paste feel… the main complaint is that they have not included any work since 2010 — there’s no way you would get a first for that. There is some loose language too.

“Reading all this, I am inclined to say we should bring back viva voce exams, so that every student expects/fears that they might be viva’d on any aspect of their Finals. This might help to cut down this vile practice.”

Full text of the resulting article, plus an audio recording of my conversation with Paul Serrecchia, one of Oxbridge Essays ‘academic consultants’, is available on the Sunday Times website here, or after the break.

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The new face of UKIP?

All eyes are on UKIP this week as we head into the European and local elections with support for the party at record levels. I took a closer look at the candidate list for The Sunday Times and found dozens of former Conservative councillors (even former mayors and local Conservative party chairmen) were now swelling the UKIP ranks. Experts suggest that the electoral experience and credibility these new recruits bring could mark a crucial turning point for the party once described by the Prime Minister as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. The article can be found on the Sunday Times website here.

I was also surprised by the number of young candidates in the glossy ‘young Tory’ mould. Jack Duffin, chair of the party’s youth wing Young Independence, told me that membership has doubled in the last year. I’ve profiled a few of the young guns here.

The party has been attempting to rebrand itself after being dogged with claims of racism among its membership. Continue reading

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Ladies of the left unite

Shortlists put women in Labour hot seats

I co-wrote a story in this weekend’s Sunday Times, after our analysis of Labour’s list of prospective parliamentary candidates discovered that they are on track to go into the 2015 General Election with the largest ever number of women candidates.

This is the result of a drive over recent years to encourage women to stand for election, and a controversial policy of all-women shortlists in many constituencies.

Encouragingly, it appears to make little difference at the polls whether the candidate has been selected through an open process or an all-women shortlist. However only two women have been selected in open contests so far.

Catherine Atkinson, Labour’s candidate in Erewash, Derbyshire, was kind enough to speak to me about her selection.

Full text of the article is available on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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Scandal of school kitchen hygiene

Mice, ants and mouldy walls in school kitchens

I had an article in last weekend’s Sunday Times after I obtained hundreds of reports from school canteen hygiene inspections from local authorities around the council.

Hundreds of schools were given poor hygiene scores of 2 (“improvement required”) or less; two schools (Sennybridge County Primary School in Powys, and Erith School in Kent) scored the bottom score of 0 (“urgent improvement required”).

Many of the reports made for uncomfortable reading: black mould on walls, broken windows, raw meat stored alongside cooked food, mice infestations, ant infestations, and poor personal hygiene among staff all featured in the reports.

Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon chain of restaurants and the government’s new school food tsar, and Janette Wallis of the Good Schools Guide were kind enough to comment on my findings.

The Sunday Times data team created an interactive map for the online version of the story, so look for poor-scoring school canteens near you here. If you’d like to have a look at a report from your local school, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Full text of the article is also available after the fold. Continue reading

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JK Rowling’s secret crime novel

JK Rowling's secret book

I worked on the investigation in The Sunday Times last weekend that revealed JK Rowling to have secretly released a crime novel for adults, under a false identity.

She posed as Robert Galbraith, a former military policeman, when her latest novel was released in March. A Cuckoo’s Calling was warmly reviewed but sold fewer than 2000 hardback copies. Since our article was published, sales of the book on Amazon have leapt by 150,000%.

I’m not credited on the front page, but shared a byline with arts editor Richard Brooks on the inside write up. Full text can be found on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold.

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Westminster for sale: part 3

Puppetmaster lobbyists spread

 

Insight were back on the front page of the Sunday Times this weekend, with the latest addition to the ‘Westminster for Sale’ investigation. I worked on the reporting team.

Undercover reporters investigating lobbyists selling influence in Westminster were told how debates, speeches, and questions could be arranged in both houses of parliament. John Stevenson, of Freshwater Public Affairs, said he had engineered a whole Lords debate in April on behalf of a client paying him to lobby

Full text of the three resulting articles is available on the Sunday Times website, or after the fold.

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Westminster for sale: part two

Tim Yeo in Lobbygate row

I’m rather late in posting this, but I also worked on this Insight investigation into Tim Yeo, published last weekend on the front page of The Sunday Times.

Yeo, a Conservative MP and the chairman of the influential Energy and Climate Change select committee in the House of Commons, told undercover reporters posing as a firm trying to hire him that he could introduce them to “almost everyone you need to get hold of in this country”.

Although he could not speak publicly for them in the House without declaring his financial interests, he said that “what I say to people in private is another matter”.

He also revealed that he had coached a representative of GB Railfreight, a subsidiary of Groupe Eurotunnel where Yeo is a director and shareholder, on how to influence his committee.

Labour has said that he faces “serious” questions about his conduct after allegations that he had “used his position to further the interests of his clients”.

Since the article was published, Yeo has stepped aside as chair of the select committee  and referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. An investigation is ongoing.

Full text of the investigation can be found on the Sunday Times websites (here, here) or PDF versions of the articles can be found after the fold.  Continue reading

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