Channel 4 investigative journalist tells students to hone “hang on…what?” reflex

Paraic O'Brien, investigative journalist for Channel 4 News

Paraic O’Brien, investigative journalist for Channel 4 News

By Hayley Longster

Paraic O’Brien told students the idea for his Royal Television Society award-winning news package, ‘The King of the Sewers’, came about through a conversation he had in the pub with a fellow journalist.

“As journalists the most important question you will ever ask is: Hang on…what?” he said. “Which is exactly what we did when Radu Ciorniciuc told us about a community of people living in tunnels underneath Bucharest.”

This led to Paraic, 41, from Galway, taking a team of three journalists into those very tunnels – the legacy of former communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s failed underground heating network – in order to film the residents.

The vast majority are HIV positive due to drug use.

To gain access, he had to win the trust of Bruce Lee – an ex-street fighter – who is overlord of the tunnel network. He wears chains wound round his wrists and ankles.

“He might have been a scary character, but the social workers preferred to leave him in charge because he provided a sort of protection for these vulnerable people.”

He said he felt compelled to return to Romania to cover stories there.

Paraic is a fan of genuine stories and situations that are unscripted and real.

He has worked in TV for more than 10 years, having been a BBC trainee in 2001. However he left the BBC because he felt his edgy style was being reined in.

Paraic said: “There’s a huge amount of TV journalism that is about set pieces. A lot of it is quite staged. What I try to capture is real stuff happening.”

Reflecting on his time in the tunnels under Bucharest, Paraic added: “We felt privileged to be welcomed there, privileged as journalists to get a camera there, where a camera had never been before.

“Always give yourself time to decompress after working on hard-hitting material like this. It affected us all deeply for a while, but we’re still going back to Bucharest on Friday to do another piece.”

He has worked for Channel 4 since 2011 and was the first reporter on the scene of the London riots.

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