Hugo Barbieux – Big Four Investigation

Category: Young journalist

Country/area: Belgium

Organisation: Birmingham Eastside

Organisation size: Small

Cover letter:

I became a journalist because of my penchant for the truth, pertinence and accuracy, as well as a concern for holding leaders to account. After few years in the TV industry, I decided to expand my skill set and learn how new technologies can lead journalists to tackle new issues as well as keeping new audiences engaged in digital age.
For example, I acutely observe how noble, dignified organisations like The New York Times, the BBC or the Financial Times are transforming their editorial line according to their audience’s new uses of information. But I am also very curious about new media organisations like Vox.com, Bellingcat or The Intercept benefit from all the tools that the web 2.0 has to offer to convey ambitious and smart contents.

Connected to that, in September 2018, I undertook what has been the most challenging experience to date which was the decision to return to university to develop new and more competitive skills such as proficiency in data investigation, multiplatform journalism among others.

Being granted an award by a jury of experienced data journalists working in trusted organisations is not only a great prestige brand. Before all, it is an award of hard work and it crucially enhance one’s credibility in an industry where getting hired is often a tough and taxing path. That is why I am applying for the 2020 Sigma Awards with the most advanced investigation I have produced so far proving my ability to work with cutting-edge digital tools.

I worked for three years for an international television called France 24 after I received an M.A. in European Journalism from IHECS School of Journalism, in Brussels, where I completed a successful thesis entitled The Political and Sociological Reasons for the Resurgence of Populism.
Then, my ambition to be a journalist who presents valuable content to a worldwide audience lead me to the UK where I have honed by ability to extract facts with a high level of precision and efficiency, in addition to studied innovative conveyance formats to keep the audience enthralled as well as informed.
Additionally, I took the advantage to follow conferences and workshops organised by the Consortium of Investigative Journalists in London to broaden my web of contacts in our industry and to keep my skills up to date.

I believe that a vital part of professional achievement comes from personal experience and observation which is why I am a voracious traveller and travel alone frequently. This is an indispensable prerequisite of any serious international journalist.

I have also come to appreciate in most mature manner the immense responsibility we as journalists have as participants and officers in a society which is changing quickly and perpetually changing. Journalistic integrity may be a cliché phrase, but it is also vital, more so today than ever. Therefore, because of this common fact, I am constantly affirming, questioning and reaffirming my role and responsibility as a sort of officer and agent of information conveyance or analysis.

Description of portfolio:

I am submitting my latest data-driven investigation about the deeply-rooted web that the four main accountancy firms, known as the “Big Four”, maintain within the European institutions and how the changing industry of auditing is threatening smaller firms and, consequently, the quality of audit.
As a matter of fact, over the last decade the EU has spent over €118m on checking the figures on development cooperation projects. But more than a half of that money has gone to just a handful of accountancy firms, the “Big Four” and a fifth big actor, Moore Stephens.

This investigation gathers never-before-seen figures, actual transactions between DEVCO – European commission’s directorate for international aid – and enterprises like audit firms. Although publicly accessible, the datasets that I have gathered are generally wrongly formated, inconsistently entered or stored in file formats that common people wouldn’t be able to read. That is why this work is also matter of public interest. Even I struggled putting all the data together. It required a lot cautiousness in the data cleaning process with OpenRefine, in aggregating and analysing the data with R. I had also built a scraper to gather the data sets.
Furthermore, I have contacted key specialists like Prem Sikka or Eugene Rausch, a senior independent auditor, in order to bring vital relevance to this story.

The biggest challenge in creating this story was to find solid background information. The topic of cooperation development audit business has never been documented yet by any media organisation or NGO. Finding relevant interlocutors was thus a challenge. But data mining helped me to find small audit firms whose employees were happy to talk about concerns then untold.
Also, the “Big Four” are known to talk as less about their business as possible. So, finding an employee who would agree to speak was a big challenge and I had to build a strong network to finally find the right person to talk to.

To sum up, the fact that five big audit firms are not only sharing the bigger part of the pie to the exclusion of smaller companies but also getting them on a consistent basis is a big USP of the story. But it shows an important fact too: the industry is changing to the advantage of big actors thanks to strong lobbying actions. Furthermore, small firms actors warn about the fact that European framework agreements also favour the “Big Four”.
A group of investigative journalists named Investigate Europe has shown interest in this investigation and will soon work on that basis and investigate further on the “Big Four” ubiquitous presence within European institutions and framework agreements.

Please note that “Birmingham Eastside” is the media organisation that published my investigation in October 2019(see project link 2), although I am providing an immersive version of it (see project link 1) that I recommend you to read first as I have specifically designed a dedicated platform in order to enjoy a full reading experience either on your desktop or your mobile.

Project links: