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Reporting on poverty: 'Listening is the most important thing'

It was past midnight and, as another deadline loomed, the news editor of the Sunday paper I used to work for could no longer mask his frustration at how badly I was fouling up a story. Reporting was simple, he said: pick up the phone, ask a question and write down the answer.

Amid the fatigue of another late shift, it felt sarcastic. But in the following years the simplicity of what he said stayed with me. It was essentially an instruction to listen, the most important thing reporters do. Persuading people to start talking can be hard. Finding the reason to publish what they say – why these people? Does it matter? Why should the readers care? – is not always easy either. But listening is the key, especially when covering social affairs, in which the patterns of people’s lives often emerge slowly.

So, when the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, launched a two-week investigation into the UK, in which he would traverse England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, a gilt-edged chance to listen presented itself.

Within certain boundaries, the Guardian could be a fly on the wall as people across the UK unloaded to the UN’s representative in a way that they probably wouldn’t directly to a reporter. A lot of people wanted to talk to Alston – around 300 people and organisations wrote submissions to him even before he landed from New York, a record for one of his tours. His position as an outsider backed by a powerful organisation seemed to attract them. But there was something else too. Alston didn’t provide the people he was going to meet with an agenda: he was simply going to listen.

So we set aside resources to cover this fortnight-long trip as closely as possible. Working with news editors, social policy editor Patrick Butler, photographers and audio producers from the podcast team, we followed Alston and his team to Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Essex, and London. The UN had spent months researching where to go and who to meet, and had drawn up a packed schedule filled with the kinds of people and organisations we also wanted to hear from.

It was an attractive assignment for another reason too. News journalism needs a “hook”, and Alston supplied that with his UN brand and the choreography to his visit, which would culminate in meetings with ministers, a press conference and a report. The question of why we were reporting from a food bank in Newcastle or a housing estate in Glasgow now had a ready answer: because Alston was listening.

In England’s busiest food bank, in Newcastle (which featured in the Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake), he sat down at a table with Michael Hunter and his mother Denise, and heard how they struggled to find the money to feed the electricity meter and power the computer they needed to claim their universal credit – which they needed, of course, to feed the meter.
His questioning wasn’t leading: rather, it was encouraging. He was a good teacher for any reporter and the people he spoke to were energised by being able to tell their stories to such an open listener.

In Glasgow, he met children at Avenue End primary school, which serves some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. In places like Craigend and Ruchazie about 30% of adults are on benefits and life expectancy for men is about a decade less than in the affluent south of the city.