News Associates presents JournoFest 2019: In conversation with The Times chief reporter Sean O’Neill

The Times chief reporter Sean O’Neill spoke at JournoFest about his story exposing Oxfam’s cover-up of sexual exploitation by aid workers in Haiti, writes Kamal Sultan.

O’Neill fell in love with journalism at the age of eight when he saw camera crews on his streets and reporters knocking on doors.

In conversation with…: Sean O’Neill (right) with News Associates deputy managing editor Graham Dudman (left)

He said: “I grew up in the troubles in Northern Ireland and we were living in one of the world’s biggest news stories.

“There was a sense of people not representing what people like me lived through.”

He said he initially found out about the Oxfam story when someone who was too nervous to speak out approached him.

“I think because I was dealing with another story about a child protection issue and this person felt I was the right person to tell,” O’Neill explained.

“I came away from the first meeting and my senses said this person is very credible and very genuine but very nervous.

“It was a case of maintaining contact for months and building a relationship of trust.”

The Oxfam story took him over ten months to produce and his average story normally takes a maximum of five weeks.

O’Neill said: “I wanted to pull the trigger nine weeks before we did. They [Times executives] were pushing it further and further. I got to the point where I thought we’re not going to get this.

“I’m not really good at this investigative thing. I get twitchy. I had to learn patience.”

Later in the conversation he gave some advice on how build a relationship with sources.

“You’ve got to be a good listener. The key is for me you need empathy to understand people. There’s a job of persuading them to tell their story and build trust,” he said.

“They’re not only the source of your story, they are your readership.”

On what makes a great reporter, O’Neill said it takes a restless mind, the ability to focus and a really low boredom threshold.

The last thing to ever do is to panic because you start flapping and can’t write. You need to keep going and have to produce the copy.