Brunel University's aspiring journalists picked up some of the tricks of the trade as editor of the Independent newspaper Chris Blackhurst gave a lunchtime lecture on 29 January.
Blackhurst, whose career has included spells at The Sunday Times, The Express and The Evening Standard in both investigative and editorial roles, described how he was inspired from an early age by the power of journalism after learning about the Watergate scandal, as depicted in the 1976 film All the President's Men. He recalled revelling in the fact that "two people without guns were able to unseat the President of the United States in such dramatic fashion".
After a brief initial career in law, Blackhurst answered an advert for 'a lawyer who wants to be a journalist' and went on to work for a number of specialist magazines - a route into the industry which he advised current students not to rule out. The success of a feature on Indian drug smuggling, written in Mumbai, saw him headhunted to The Sunday Times' insight team where he worked on undercover investigations, an area he described as "a lot of fun, but scary".
Blackhurst recounted pivotal moments in some of his most high profile investigations, such as coughing to hide the sound of a colleague's tape recorder while posing undercover as a Palestinian terrorist, and taking the "lazy" decision not to talk to a school caretaker to whom he was introduced while covering the Soham murders - the man turned out to be Ian Huntley.
"The best journalists are the people who work the hardest," Blackhurst explained. "You've got to be very nosy - journalists are professional nosy parkers. We like to find out about people - we can't help it. My wife still gets annoyed when I quiz people at dinner parties." He passed on advice given to him as a young journalist to "never pass a photocopier without lifting the lid" and "never pass a wastebin without looking inside it", and emphasised the importance of persistence: "One thing you have to learn as a journalist is that you must never take no for an answer. You have to be persistent and dogged."
For those hoping to make a career in journalism, Blackhurst explained: "We're always looking for people who are like us - somebody who has got that hunger, who can work in a team and is are just as inquisitve and nosy as we are. You've got to be a team player - there's no room for big egos and people who can't take criticism." There was even encouragement for those struggling to learn shorthand - Blackhurst regrets having never learnt it and recounted "a few hairy moments" when near-illegible notes could have been used in court.
Finally, Blackhurst expressed his regret at criticism of the whole journalistic industry resulting from Lord Justice Leveson's 2012 report. Describing the courage of war journalists, he said: "The sadness in the whole Leveson scenario is that a group of journalists hacking phones for no other reason than celebrity tittle-tattle have made us forget that without journalist you wouldn't know - wouldn't know about wars, wouldn't know about suffering, wouldn't know about famine - or if you did, you'd only know the official story. Every day journalists put their lives on the line because they want to tell the truth."