Published on February 5, 2014 | by Alana Maytum and William Thomas

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Cudlipp Lecture: Lance Armstrong and missing gold

David Walsh speaking at the annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture.

Walsh described himself as “a lawyer’s nightmare.” [Linwei Li]

David Walsh, the Sunday Times journalist responsible for exposing competitive cyclist Lance Armstrong’s systematic doping, gave the 11th annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communication.

Walsh delivered a heartfelt speech which took the audience through his 13–year journey of investigation into one of the sporting world’s most shocking revelations – setting an example for both sports and investigative journalists.

Beginning his career as “the ultimate fan with a typewriter,” he argued that many sports journalists today share that description. Walsh, whose persistence and commitment led him to uncover not only Armstrong’s lies but also those of his cycling team, US Postal Service, advises that sports journalists today should ask more questions: “If you’re not asking those questions you’re not doing your job.”

Walsh revealed that the tragic death of his 12-year-old son impacted his work as a journalist. He shared a touching moment when a teacher recalled a nativity rehearsal where his son asked what Mary and Joseph had done with the gold brought for baby Jesus.

Walsh believes this is the “kernel of journalism – if I had a school of journalism I would have a plaque above the door saying ‘what did Mary and Joseph do with the bloody gold?’”

Conviction

Leading with what was initially just a hunch, Walsh confessed: “I was a lawyer’s nightmare, I had conviction but no evidence.”

However, after more than a decade of relentless investigations into Armstrong, and witness statements from his peers, Walsh became frustrated that: “[it] changed nothing,” blaming the UK libel laws for being seriously inefficient.

“At that time you had a culture where by there was no empathy with the journalist trying to expose the truth.” David Walsh

He commented: “At that time you had a culture where by there was no empathy with the journalist trying to expose the truth. There was a huge reliance on laws that were draconian and it needs to change.”

Walsh condemned the libel laws as an accessory for the rich and powerful, rarely in support of the journalist: “People in high places need to say that good journalists have to be encouraged.”

He added: “When that inquiry was on about phone-hacking I didn’t hear anybody saying ‘lets try and support journalists who are doing things in the right way.’”

Defamation 

Walsh was unsure if the recent changes implemented in the Defamation Act 2013, which took effect in January this year, would have altered restrictions on reporting the Armstrong story had they been in place then.

Marcus Partington, a lawyer at the Daily Mirror, commented: “The problem in our system is that it’s not what’s true, it’s what you can prove is true. Our system is built around proving things and therefore you need witnesses who will prove things.”

“It is a problem because if you aren’t careful you can end up publishing what you can prove is true, rather than the truth – which was David’s point.”

He added: “[Even with the new law] unfortunately I think that the gut reaction is that the people who are bringing the claim against the newspapers are more likely to be telling the truth than the newspaper.”

Lloyd Embley, editor-in-chief of the event’s new sponsor, the Daily Mirror, said: “I think they will make a change and I think they are a step in the right direction. We were definitely too far and too strict and the rebalancing that is happening just now certainly helps. Whether it will do enough, I don’t know.”

Paul Charman thanks David Walsh for his lecture

This year’s Cudlipp lecture, was the first to invite a sports journalist to speak. [Linwei Li]

Inspiration

Although Walsh does not consider himself to be an investigative journalist, those who have read his books, including LA Confidentiel (co-written with a French journalist), may disagree. Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at London City University, said: “I thought he was the best non-investigative, investigative journalist I’ve ever seen.”

Phoebe White, a third year journalism student at LCC, found Walsh to be an inspiration: “David Walsh demonstrated that any journalist can conduct great investigative reporting by making a stand in what you believe in, researching and delivering trustworthy news to the public.”

Not only was this the first year that a sports journalist has been invited to speak at the prestigious event, but Paul Charman, the head of special projects, media at LCC, points out that “this is our first working reporter on the frontline of journalism.”

He continued to echo the words of Alan Rusbridger: “We need reporters who go out and do reporting. Reporters are like bees. Without them we’re fucked.”

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