Cara McGoogan is a force to be reckoned with. Despite being the recipient of a lengthy and impressive list of scholarly acclaims, McGoogan’s most extraordinary power lies in something more human – her affinity to find, connect with, and share the stories of others.
Cara’s podcast, Bed of Lies, is created in conjunction with The Telegraph and is dedicated to unearthing the most unbelievable of British scandals. Her knack for balancing her sources’ integrity alongside a gripping narrative is sharp, delicate, and rarely seen. We sat down with her to talk about her career, her introduction to podcasting, and her love of British tea.
Hi Cara! Please introduce yourself and your podcast to our readers!
I’m Cara McGoogan, I work for The Telegraph, and my podcast Bed of Lies is an in-depth deep dive into British scandals that most people don’t know about.
Sieving through your experience, it seems like you always had a clear orientation of where exactly you wanted to thrive. There’s a clear vein from your first experience in The Nottingham Post to later graduating from Columbia University and of course, your current position at the Telegraph. Was there a specific moment that sparked your interest in journalism?
I don’t think so. While it might seem like I’d set myself on a clear path, it didn’t necessarily feel like that. If you had asked me at 21 what I wanted to do I probably wouldn’t have been entirely certain. I mean sure, I would have probably described journalism, but it probably would have been very vague. I know some journalists who always had a clear trajectory of where they wanted to go or writers who began conceptualizing stories aged five, but I definitely did not have that. For me, it all started at university.
In fact, I remember I wanted to be a weather woman as a child, which now feels very unfeminist of me now, so I have no specific memory of falling in love with journalism. However, I did recently find an email that I sent to my Grandad when I was about 14 years old and in that, I said I wanted to be a journalist, so maybe deep down I did always know!
It seems your expertise lies primarily in investigative journalism. Is this also your favorite form of media to consume?
Yes, definitely. My favorite pieces to read are New Yorker long reads. I love long-form investigative pieces that both tell a story and also introduce you to this whole world that you didn’t know about before. At the end of a great investigative article, I always feel like I’ve been taken on a journey and introduced to a country, subject, scandal, or unique set of characters.
And were there any journalists that you looked up to in that sphere?
For sure. There are certain writers, such as John Lee Anderson, Dale Maharidge, and Steve Cole, who work in the field and whose work I really admire. When I studied at Columbia, I was actually lucky enough to have been taught by some of them which was totally incredible.
In fact, the year that I studied at Columbia was the same year that Serial came out which of course, was huge. I vividly remember everyone talking about it and describing podcasting as this whole new frontier of narrative storytelling.
So was it that moment that inspired your shift from traditional journalism to podcasting?
I think it definitely led me there. Like everyone else, I listened to a lot of podcasts after Serial. We were all looking for the next best thing, right? We got Dirty John, S Town and then this sort of drip-feed of stories began to fill the platforms until it became an absolute deluge of podcasts. Nowadays, it’s actually hard to choose what podcast to listen to because there are so many great ones.
For a few years after Serial came out, I was consuming podcasts but I wasn’t thinking about making them. I was just enjoying this new wave of journalism and consuming it on the go.
In the UK, we don’t have the same culture of long-form journalism as in America. Until I started working at The Telegraph, I didn’t have as many opportunities to tell stories in narrative form but then suddenly, I did. That was when I started thinking about telling my stories in podcast form because I thought it would be the best medium to share the stories I was working on.
So you didn’t necessarily set out to start a podcast, instead, you set out to deliver a story in the best mode possible and that happened to be podcasting?
Pretty much! I wanted to tell these stories and I thought a podcast was the best way to do it. For example, if the stories examined in Bed of Lies thus far had been in print, you would have lost a lot of the character and detail in them. If they had been shared via a documentary, you would have lost even more details because so many of the individuals involved were anonymous. Meanwhile, podcasting allowed us to use people’s voices without revealing their identities and also allowed people to feel close to the human beings involved, which was really important to me.
As you mentioned, each series of your podcast delves into a far-reaching but primarily unreported British scandal. What attracted you to the scandals examined in seasons one and two?
Well, both of the seasons actually grew out of features I had previously written for The Telegraph. After publishing each of them I felt like I had so much more to share about the stories, the people involved and this massive sense of these narratives being unfinished.
The first series tells the story of a huge policing scandal and the second investigates one of the biggest medical disasters in history. They’re big stories. I didn’t want to narrow down the experiences of the individuals involved to a singular article because they were all so important and so worthy of telling.
One of the most impressive things about Bed of Lies is how you took these huge, complicated stories, timelines, and people, and threaded them together in a way that feels incremental to listen to, however, I imagine achieving this congruency wasn’t easy. Could you tell me about your creative process for the podcast?
Yeah, the structuring of our episodes is key, but it can be an incredibly tricky nut to crack. However, once you have cracked it, the episode kind of flows from there.
We made each series in about four or five months and one of those months was always solely dedicated to interviews. This didn’t leave us a whole lot of time to structure the material we had collected and made the process quite intensive.
One of the first things you learn when studying narrative journalism is that it’s always best to tell a story for the start, so with season one, that’s exactly what we did. We told the stories in chronological order of how the people involved experienced them.
However, continuing that format for series two didn’t feel right, because the content of the season is so delicate and shocking. We needed to find a way to share the narrative that was gripping, but also sensitive. I decided that the best way to create this narrative tension whilst still remaining respectful was to follow the story backward from the point of infection. This meant that listeners were introduced to the individual and their diagnosis first instead of last. I felt this refrained from sensationalizing their diagnosis and instead drew attention to the trauma and injustice they endured and continue to endure as people.
As you mentioned, the podcast touches on very sensitive subjects and it seems, to a listener at least, that building trust with the interviewees must have taken a great deal of patience and time. Could you tell me about that process?
Of course. I conducted the interviews with my producer Sarah Peters. It’s interesting looking back because we really did take a lot of time to forge relationships with the people involved, but it was never done in a calculated way, it was more so done in an attempt to check in with them and see how they were doing.
In fact, I think meeting these people, spending time with them, and forging connections with them has been my favorite part of the whole job. It was a privilege to get to know them properly instead of just doing a one-hour interview with them, getting a quote, and leaving, which is often what interviews look like when you’re a feature writer.
Bed of Lies allowed me to communicate with these people far beyond an initial meeting. We would go for coffee with them or help them run errands, we really got to know them as real people, not just interviewees. We never had a set time frame for our meetings. We never launched into traumatic conversations. We always took our time.
So then, when you release the podcast and share these people’s stories with the world, do you feel protective of them? Do you feel a responsibility to deliver their stories in the right way?
Well interestingly, we’ve always released episodes while we’re in the process of finishing off the others, so when the world becomes immersed in the stories, we’re there with them too. This prevents us from feeling detached from the investigation or most importantly, distant from the people involved, and that’s incredibly important to me.
While we’re releasing the episodes, we check in with the individuals involved and see how they’re feeling and what they think. To me, this is has become a key part of the process. I’ve received some absolutely heartbreaking messages from people involved thanking me for telling their stories in the right way and that means so much to me and to our team. I received notes from people in tears who have stayed up until midnight just to hear their story told or emails from interviewees explaining how our podcast helps them to explain their past to strangers. To know that our work has helped these people find closure, It’s immensely validating. There’s no feeling like it.
Will there be a season three of Bed of Lies?
Yes! In fact just last month I was appointed the Telegraph’s first narrative audio journalist which means that it is my full-time job to make podcasts now! At the moment, I’m developing a lot of ideas, but a series three of Bed of Lies is the first and foremost task on my list.
And to finish, what is your favorite sound?
Hmm… I’m going to really perpetuate a stereotype of Brits for all the non-Brits listening, but I think my favorite has to be the sound of water pouring into a mug for a cup of tea. I’m a big tea drinker. I probably get through a good six or so cups a day when I’m making the podcast.
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