ANALYSIS: Investigative journalism itself has come under the media lens recently following the BBC Newsnight error of judgment that resulted in Tory peer Lord McAlpine wrongly tainted with child abuse allegations, writes Sophie Barnes. This follows the same programme’s Jimmy Savile debacle, where revelations about Savile’s numerous acts of child abuse were shelved by the BBC exec team. Alongside the Leveson Inquiry where several tabloid journalists have attempted to explain away illegal activities under the umbrella of investigative journalism, is this avenue of journalism in danger of losing public support?
- Sophie Barnes is a journalist interested in human rights issues. She recently graduated from the investigative journalism masters course at City University.
As a recent graduate from the investigative journalism masters at City University, I am keenly aware of the lack of financial support this strand of journalism receives. There are plenty of media organisations in the UK including Corporate Watch, the Guardian, Exaro News, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which consistently deliver exciting and important investigative work, but there isn’t the money to train up young journalists in this area. There were 17 students on my course. Not one of us is being paid to undertake investigative work, rather we are embarking on projects of this kind in our own spare time.
Dr Eamonn O’Neill, lecturer in investigative journalism at the University of Strathclyde, believes that the BBC’s current bad press is merely a dent in investigative journalism’s armour: ‘The current scandals will have a short-term negative impact on investigative journalism. The public only tends to become aware of investigative journalism when it mostly triumphs and occasionally fails.’
‘It’s a bit like watching the old Evel Knivel type stunt-riders who jumped lines of buses: it was really thrilling when it succeeded – but it was also engaging – for the wrong reasons – when it failed.’
O’Neill argues that investigative journalism’s reputation for quality and wide-reaching work will weather the current storm. The UK has ‘a strong historic track-record of delivering powerful investigations’ stretching all the way back to WT Stead in the 19th century, he says. ‘This will not be obliterated in the course of two (i.e. Savile and Newsnight) poor projects. Investigative journalists have existed on the edge of daily-reporting journalism for a long time. They have bred a strain of journalists who work with poor resources, risk much without support and have road-tested technology and its opportunities early, who are not easily thwarted. I tend to think that these exponents will emerge a bit tougher, more resilient and wise from this current difficult period.’
The BBC has suspended all Newsnight investigations following the furore, however its other flagship investigative programme, Panorama, is still going strong. Proof that investigative journalism can lead to action outside of the media world comes in the form of the recent convictions of 11 staff members at the Winterbourne View care home – these individuals were secretly filmed by Panorama abusing the residents and the secret footage was instrumental in bringing about these charges.
But tactics such as secret filming require financial backing – the necessary equipment and subsequent editing of the footage have a substantial price tag, and investigative journalism is a risky and sometimes expensive avenue for organisations to fund.
Perhaps the best way forward is to encourage the general public to see investigative journalism as a charitable enterprise that is worthy of public funding. With continuous and stable funding news organisations would not have to make decisions based on financial constraint. The importance of charitably funded organisations is demonstrated by initiatives such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (whose editor Iain Overton was forced to resign following the McAlpine fiasco) and Pro Publica in the US.
As the Guardian’s investigations editor David Leigh wrote recently TBIJ ‘has done decent work and provided an income for young journalists to cut their teeth on serious material, rather than tabloid trash. It will be a shame if their efforts are swept away in the political hysteria.’
Money matters can restrict an investigative project to the point where it may not be commissioned at all. Charlie Mole, a young investigative journalist who has worked with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the past, demonstrates this: ‘You can spend ages slaving away on one story, and have to spike it if it doesn’t stand up. So I think there has always been a tendency to throw money at other more profitable sectors. That is why it is so important to have organisations such as the Bureau and Pro Publica; to do the stories that other outlets don’t have the manpower or money to do. The Bureau’s brilliant and time-consuming work on drones is a good example of this. A team of three journos has been working to compile the data for over three years now – I can’t think of anywhere else that allocate those resources to one story.’
‘Some journalists have always regarded it as wrong to refer to it as a separate category of our profession,’ reflects O’Neill. ‘Thus, they are unwilling to support unique funding of it. This is a shame, since it is a distinct entity in my view and contributes disproportionately to our business in terms of delivering hard-hitting and unique stories.’
Yet, as finances dwindle in the newspaper industry and budgets are scrutinised to see where savings can be made, is investigative journalism’s entire future in jeopardy? It is a costly and risky avenue of journalism that can sometimes result in nothing to show for the many months or years that have been poured into one project. If looking at investigative journalism simply in economic terms then its benefit to society is minimal if non-existent. However, the positive impact it can have on society cannot be measured in cost terms.
The Lord McAlpine saga shows it is also a sensitive area of journalism where often dramatic allegations are being made about a person or body – even if these allegations are legitimate the target may have power, connections and money on their side to help them repress the story. A further consideration in modern society is the prevalent use of social networks. Mole makes a good point regarding this medium, an area that the law has not yet caught up on. ‘I think what has come out of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism/Newsnight debacle is the reiteration that it’s a very risky business and that each story needs to be properly and thoroughly legalled. Which is obvious especially given the highly sensitive nature of the story. It just shows that in the age of social media, it isn’t sufficient simply to redact the name on screen. When publishing a story you have to be 100 per cent sure that it’s correct – so you have a Reynolds Defence – and that the accused won’t be unmasked elsewhere.’
However, just as mistakes are sometimes made in journalistic investigations – as in all areas of life – there are also impressive success stories – MPs expenses, phone hacking, care home abuse, Trafigura’s polluting of the Ivory Coast waters – all of these cases of injustice may not have come to light had it not been for the brave work of investigative journalists, risking legal action from powerful bodies to expose wrongdoing.
Investigative journalism has always been an under-funded and under-recognised area of journalism. It will survive as long as there are enquiring minds out there that are willing to question the voice of authority and as a necessary part of a democratic society it should receive financial backing accordingly.
Its future is not in jeopardy, but its reach may well be. Those embarking in dodgy practices will attempt to cover their tracks to protect themselves and this means that an investigative journalist must be given the time and financial backing to thoroughly explore suspected injustice.
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award