Bergman speaks on bribery, journalism

By David Hertz

Nationally known investigative reporter Lowell Bergman talked about his new report on government corruption and bribery in one of the last speeches of Minnesota Public Radio’s Broadcast Journalism Series that Macalester will sponsor. About 200 Macalester students and community members attended the event last Sunday in Kagin Commons.Bergman worked in investigative journalism for decades as a correspondent on 20/20, 60 Minutes, and Frontline. His most famous report unearthed the tobacco industry’s cover up of the link between smoking and cancer, and was dramatized in the movie The Insider.

In the speech, Bergman talked about his newest documentary piece on the PBS show Frontline, attempting to bring to light another cover up.

Bergman was tipped off to the story when, in 2006, the British government abruptly halted a bribery investigation of a defense contract between a British arms company and the Saudi government. After two years of investigating, he revealed in his documentary that the Saudi government had pressured Britain to halt its investigation, and that the defense contract was essentially a slush fund through which billions of dollars in bribes had been channeled to government officials and the Saudi royal family.

Bergman said that investigative reporting like his is becoming more difficult and rare. He cited the closeness of government and business sectors as a major obstacle to investigative journalism.

“One thing about this story,” Bergman said, “is [that] the whole time the British media was trying to write this story, no one would talk to them.”

Bergman described the relationship between Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the US, and government officials in the US and UK as close. Prince Bandar was nicknamed Bandar Bush for his relationship with the ex-president, and his name is engraved in the George H.W. Bush presidential library as one of its major donors.

Business officials also were in a position to cover up the story, he said.

“BAE [the company with the disputed defense contract], now employs 40,000 Americans. It has quite a bit of political clout,” Bergman said.

Bergman at times came off as a bit cynical about his work. When asked by an interviewer if he saw anything wrong with the relationships between government and business officials, he joked, “Not if I’m trying to have a library.”

He also put some of the blame for lack of investigative reporting on lowering journalistic standards in attempts to make newspapers profitable.

“There are people trying to do [investigative reporting],” Bergman said. “The problem is what the definition now of news is. I used to proofread true and confidential magazines. That wasn’t considered news. Today that’s considered news.”

But Bergman is still an idealist at heart.

“Despite all of this going on with the economics of the business, there’s a lot of good reporting going on,” Bergman said. “The people who get into this business don’t get into it to make money.”

“I think the quality is going to increase and get better. I think people still want to get good information. There must be a huge demand for information, otherwise MPR wouldn’t be the only news outlet growing.