Sam Bungey is a London based journalist. He got his start in radio with a story for This American Life about a violent turkey. With his partner Jennifer Forde, he produced and hosted the Audible Original Series, West Cork. As a print journalist, Sam has contributed to the The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Sunday Business Post, The Monthly, Dublin Review, Monocle, Sydney Morning Herald, having begun his in Dublin with a national monthly magazine, Mongrel.
West Cork is the acclaimed podcast that has gripped everyone who listened to it. Over 13 riveting episodes, journalist Sam Bungey and documentary producer Jennifer Forde, dove deep into the mystery surrounding the death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier and the impact on the West Cork community. The result, with stunning twists and the full participation of the prime suspect, was named as one of Time Magazine’s top 50 favourite podcasts bringing fresh perspectives and fresh questions to bear on one of Ireland most mystifying murders. Jennifer and Sam’s investigations have not stopped. Neither have the developments in the case.
Sam, who has worked extensively in print journalism, made his debut in radio/podcasting in 2011, with his contribution to this American Life. I asked Sam about what inspired his switch to this medium initially, and again when they began to work on the West Cork Podcast;
“We were looking for projects to take on together and I had really got into the idea of radio. I did a story, while I was working as a journalist in the US, for This American Life and I found that experience really great. Originally, it was about a story that I had originally written as a report for newspaper and then we redid the whole thing with a producer and I just found that really rewarding! [Jennifer] was coming from television and doing documentaries where she was used to telling stories over a long period of time and over episodes, whereas I was much more used to print journalism. We were sort of meeting in the middle with this idea of an episodic podcast. That’s what we really wanted to do, and then we were casting about for a story, and we came across the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case”
For many in West Cork, the case has formed a large part of their life, often part of general conversation as the case has chugged on for decades at this point. For Sam and Jennifer, there was no personal connection to that extent, but it was a trip to the High Court which sparked the beginning of the hit show;
“Jennifer had been to West Cork on holidays as a kid, but I had never been. I was aware of the case from doing Mongrel [Sam’s magazine], but only really dimly. When the magazine had been going, it was a libel case of sorts, at the time and there was a lawyer who did pro bono work for the magazine and his firm represented the newspapers who were being sued by Ian Bailey. When we were looking for the idea, we just read a story in a paper, and at the time, Ian Bailey was taking the Gardaí to the High Court and so we were intrigued enough that we went in and sit in on some of that case and it all happened from there”
The podcast proved to be an over-night success on Audible, with many national and international outlets giving it rave reviews, such as TIME magazine. This proved to be a huge relief for Sam and Jennifer;
“I don’t think we really thought about it beforehand. We were extremely anxious about how it be received, particularly the Irish reaction. We wanted to tell the story in full, so that if you knew nothing about the case, it could still bring you along. But yeah, we were anxious that it would come under criticism, so we were really happy with the reaction overall.”
The couple’s most recent dip into the podcast scene has seen them make a Spotify Podcast in conjunction with the BBC about the band ‘The Clash’. Stay Free: The Story of The Clash is an 8 part series which details the rise and fall of London punk visionaries, The Clash, whose hits include Rock the Casbah, Should I Stay or Should I Go and London Calling. While the creation of the documentary did not come as organically as West Cork, Sam was no less passionate about the project;
“We were hired to produce it, one of Jennifer’s old executive producers from television now runs BBC Studios, and he got commissioned by Spotify to produce it. But it turned out to be really interesting! We interviewed all these old rockers and then went out to California to do all the studio work. We were in this great studio for an incredibly gruelling 5 days where our editors schedule was that he would come to work at 5pm, so we had that schedule, on top of jetlag. Then when we weren’t editing, we were writing scripts during the day! It was a hugely interesting project, I never realised how epic their story was!”
In a case such as Sophie du Plantier’s, one can be forgiven for forgetting those at the heart of the tragedy. Dealing with sensitive issues is one of the pillars of strong journalism and I asked Sam how they handled it.
“We contacted Sophie’s family, having sat in on the High Court trial, and an association in France which is searching for justice for her. Then we went to meet her son, her uncle, her best friend, cousins. Part of it was wanting to get permission to tell the story, which thankfully we got, but also because it felt like if you are going to tell stories like this, you also want to be able to tell Sophie’s story, who she was and what she was like, before you talk about the murder, her death. In terms of the sensitivity, we had this guiding principle that we wanted to try to have everyone who was affected by the case tell their story as much as possible. That’s why we spent 2 or 3 years, trying to convince everyone to talk to us.”
The scale of the show’s reach is formidable, with Forde and Bungey leaving no stone unturned as they aimed to paint as clear a picture as possible of Sophie’s life and the case. This case has been in and out of court rooms in Ireland and France, from defamation cases to the charges themselves. With it rumours have grown, stories have grown legs, and Sam spoke at length of their attitude towards the project, and how they cut through to find the true stories of those affected by the case
“We tracked down and convinced about 100 people, and sitting with them, doing long form interviews meant that we could then knit those together rather than playing amateur detective poorly. That wasn’t what we were setting out to do. There were lots of rumours and misinformation in this case, so it felt like there was something useful in coming in as outsiders and saying; this is how we’ve gotten to this point, and 20 years later, it’s kind of stagnated. The French family are watching from a distance trying to understand this too, so rather than going in and trying to solve the case, which we are in no way qualified to do, we approached it this way.”
When I asked Sam what advice he would give to people who aspire to get a career in the media industry, his advice could not have been any clearer, get out and start writing, recording or doing whatever you can to improve your skills as a journalist. Sam Bungey is a hugely accomplished journalist and podcaster, and with more projects in the pipeline, his name is certainly one to watch out for in the coming years. If the West Cork Podcast is anything to go by, Bungey and Forde’s formidable partnership ought to see another classic released in the near future.