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Guardian Australia’s data and interactives editor Nick Evershed at home in Sydney
Guardian Australia’s data and interactives editor Nick Evershed at home in Sydney. He designed and built the complex interactive database that houses the Nauru files. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

How a leaked USB stick became the Nauru files – a tale of brutality and despair told in 160,000 words

Guardian Australia’s data and interactives editor Nick Evershed at home in Sydney. He designed and built the complex interactive database that houses the Nauru files. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

A huge cache of reports from the heart of Australia’s immigration detention regime led to a Guardian scoop – and lasting change to how the country treats asylum seekers

It was March 2016 and Paul Farrell, then a reporter at Guardian Australia, had agreed to meet an anonymous source.

He had been reporting on immigration for several years but still, when he was slipped a USB stick across the table and told, “I think it might be of interest to you,” he had no idea what to expect.

Paul Farrell
Former Guardian Australia reporter Paul Farrell: ‘There was just this overwhelming sense of despair’

“I booted it up and what flashed on to the screen was most comprehensive archive I’d ever seen of what was happening at the Nauru [immigration detention] facility at the time,” he says.

“Accounts from guards, caseworkers and teachers of horrific incidents they’d observed: self-harm, violence, hunger strikes. There was just this overwhelming sense of despair.”

Farrell walked into the office of the then deputy editor of Guardian Australia, Will Woodward, who immediately understood the importance of the story.

The question then became how to publish the 8,000 pages of leaked documents.

At its peak, up to 20 journalists were working on the Nauru files at any given time. It remains the largest collaborative project Guardian Australia has undertaken.

“It was a gruelling process of reviewing every single [file] with the view to working out what we needed to redact, and the story threads,” Farrell says.

Production editor Nikki Marshall at home in Sydney
Production editor Nikki Marshall at home in Sydney: ‘It had to be absolutely ironclad.’ Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Production editor Nikki Marshall says a handful of staff were given files to redact identifying information and self-harm methods on laptops that had never been connected to the internet. For months they took the files home and worked through them. They were all sworn to secrecy and took painstaking security measures.

Reporters and editors read the harrowing files multiple times. “We couldn’t even tell our partners what was making us cry,” Marshall says.

“As we got to the pointy end, we locked ourselves in a room for maybe two weeks. I especially wanted to make sure that every single word quoted by our reporters matched the source document.

“If the government was going to attack us, it had to be absolutely ironclad.”

Helen Davidson in Taipei
Helen Davidson, now a Guardian correspondent in Taipei, says the Nauru files significantly shifted the debate surrounding Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Photograph: Chi Hui Lin/The Guardian

Reporter Helen Davidson remembers starting to notice the same identification numbers for asylum seekers popping up in multiple reports. “You could chart the deterioration of their mental health and the awful reaction by authorities,” she says.

Categorisation of the data allowed reporters to see the big-picture implications of the leak – including the prevalence of reports about children.

“We didn’t know until we actually went through and counted them the scale of the abuse,” says data editor Nick Evershed, who designed and built the project’s complex interactive database.

Evershed modelled it on a project produced by the short-lived news site the Global Mail, using one square per file, grouped by month, filtered by year, and coloured by incident type.

He says allowing public access to the full database, the grinding reality of it, was key to the story’s long tail. “We put in all of this work to make sure all of the source material could go online.

“People were then able to find out through the source documents exactly what had happened. I think that was part of why it had such a long-lasting impact.”

Woodward says there was some nervousness about publishing the documents in full. “There was a lot of working through privacy and the public interest,” he says. “We were assiduous with redactions, in protecting the names of the refugees and also, after some discussion, the staff at the centre.”

As they got closer to publication day, the team was quite prepared for government intervention.

The story on the Guardian newspaper’s front page

The risk was real: whistleblowers from inside the detention regime had been threatened with jail for speaking out. Offshore detention security firms had hired private investigators to track down the sources of Guardian stories.

“We were clearly very careful about who had access to the material and how we talked about it,” Woodward says. “A lot of the staff knew we had something but didn’t know what. There were a lot of conversations with our lawyers in Sydney.”

Then – “bang, we just put it all up there,” Marshall says. Months of careful planning finally became the Nauru files, the largest cache of documents to be leaked from within Australia’s asylum seeker detention regime.

The story featured on the front page of the Guardian newspaper in the UK as well as on Guardian websites around the world, backed by dozens of accompanying pieces, videos and photo galleries. It punched through in a way immigration stories rarely do.

In the short term, it triggered a parliamentary inquiry.

Ben Doherty
Reporter Ben Doherty at home in Sydney: ‘This wasn’t us talking. This was the regime itself talking, and revealing all of this awfulness.’ Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

It also, according to reporter Ben Doherty, disproved the government’s claim at the time that journalists were exaggerating what was occurring on the island or running an activist line.

“This wasn’t us talking,” he says. “This was the regime itself talking, and revealing all of this awfulness and how brutal those conditions were. That’s what made it incredibly powerful and irrefutable and unimpeachable – that these are your own documents.”

In the long term, Davidson says the story significantly shifted the debate about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. “There had always been this argument about focusing on whether these people have a legitimate asylum claim.

“The Nauru files show that’s not the argument we’re supposed to be having. The argument is how we treat people when they come and ask for help.”

Woodward, who is now head of sport at the Guardian UK, says the project was an “undeniable illustration of the profound human cost [of Australia’s immigration policy], and brought it home not just to Australians but people across the world”.

For Farrell, the fact that interest in the Nauru files has persisted well past the date the stories were published is their most unexpected legacy. Years since their release, the documents have been referenced in public readings, protests, art installations and plays. “[The database] is housed online in perpetuity,” he says. “It lives on, in this strange way.”

The detention centre on Nauru remains Australia’s “enduring form” of offshore processing, Doherty says. Australia was forced to shut its other international detention centre on Manus Island after Papua New Guinea’s supreme court ruled it was illegal. “But there are still nearly 90 refugees and asylum seekers held in PNG, most trapped in a dangerous existence on the margins of the capital Port Moresby,” he says. “Australia claims – wrongly – it has no legal responsibility for them.”

The 40 refugees still held on Nauru live in the community. The detention centre itself is in abeyance, on standby for future arrivals.

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