Speakers at the Power Reporting Workshop at Wits University have told remarkable stories of how they went undercover in pursuit of the truth, writes Anton Harber in Business Day.  They include Guenter Wallraff, the German investigative reporter who, among other things, spent months living as a Turkish migrant worker in Germany, and published the book 'Lowest of the Low' on his experiences.  Another speaker was Ghanaian Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who inflitrated child prostitution rings and dodgy bakeries to expose them.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

GÃœNTER Wallraff is a controversial German journalist who has dedicated a lifetime to undercover work. He adopts a character and spends months in a workplace to expose bad conditions.

In Johannesburg this week for our Power Reporting Conference, Wallraff described journalism not as his profession but his “obsession”. Since his first book in 1969, he has pretended to be a tramp, an alcoholic, a tabloid reporter — anything which gets him behind the public relations and security barriers — and emerged to document it. His point of view is always that of the downtrodden, the underdog, the faceless worker in the production line. His most famous work was Lowest of the Low, a 1985 book he wrote after a long period posing as a Turkish guest worker in Germany. What emerged was discrimination and racism, and it led to a great deal of national soul-searching.

His work has often led to reforms. McDonald’s have gone out their way to show him that they improved their workplaces after his spell in their kitchens.

Attempts have frequently been made to silence him through the courts, charging that he has breached privacy or revealed trade secrets. But the German courts have upheld his right to do it.

Wallraff is not alone in pushing the boundaries of reporting in this way. He is just one of a few who have dedicated a lifetime to it. Nellie Bly was an American feminist and reporter who had herself admitted to an insane asylum in 1887 to expose terrible conditions. Quite recently, in a book called Newjack, journalist Ted Conover chronicled his months as a guard in the notorious Sing Sing prison. He revealed how much he grew to hate the inmates and how close he came to physical abuse.

ALSO at the conference, Ghanaian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas told riveting stories of going undercover for months as a labourer or a student to expose wrongdoing. He justified what he does on the basis that he was exposing serious social problems in the only way possible .

The Chicago Sun-Times once went so far as to open a bar, called Mirage, to tackle allegations of corruption in city politics. They said they did it because small business people would not talk to them on the record about the bribes they had to pay to operate, so they set up the bar with hidden cameras and gathered their own evidence.

They were hot favourites to win America’s most prestigious journalism award, the Pulitzer, but were blocked by the then Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, who argued that they could not condone journalists using deception to get a story.

Bradlee was most famous for his paper’s work on the Watergate scandal, which relied on unnamed sources. Which is more reliable: using anonymous tip-offs or material a journalist has experienced first-hand?

Can one get to the truth through deception? Or, as some would put it, can you get to the truth without deception? How else can you get beyond the spin-doctoring which increasingly shrouds public life?

Most journalists would only do it if there were no other way of getting the story. Our own Nat Nakasa, the Drum magazine legend of the 1950s, famously went to prison and worked on a potato farm to expose the horrors going on in those places.

But Wallraff does it whenever he can with gusto. He is not interested in third-person reporting, but in getting under the skin of the underdog. He has his rules: he will not delve into anyone’s private life and has no interest in celebrities. His product has an undeniable authenticity.

Wallraff got us thinking about the limits of reporting, and new ways to approach stories. He also highlighted investigative reporting that is not just about corruption, but tackles social and workplace conditions, one which exposes the lives of ordinary people rather than the rich and famous.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism, Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 29 October 2008.