What is the value of investigative journalism in modern society?
Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News highlights the fact that journalism has become merely ‘churnalism’, putting much of the blame on media conglomerates, which are keen on putting advertisers’ interests to the top of their priority list and at the same time applying minimal or no emphasis on producing good quality journalistic material for print and broadcast alike. If the daily news is in a dire state then what chance exists for investigative journalism to survive amidst this ever-changing world of news?
Fortunately, investigative journalism is far from churnalism. It requires considerable research and evidential backing in revealing the fraud, corruption or deceit. But it also involves a lot of risk which, not only at times jeopardises the lives of the journalist, but also the lives of their near and dear ones. So, is it worth it? Why is investigation not left up to the police to undertake? Why can’t journalists content themselves with simply news gathering? Are the police happy with investigative work carried out by journalists? What would be the pros and cons of investigative journalism? What is the governing framework within which the police and journalists are required to work?
Relevance of investigative journalism:
This paper is arguing in favour of investigative journalism without taking into account the risks or perils associated with the profession. Before proceeding or embarking in finding answers to these questions it becomes essential to define what is investigative journalism. In a personal interview conducted by the author, distinguished investigative journalist and author Phillip Knightley, defined it as, ‘it is usually to do with a story and injustice preferably an injustice or something that is wrong in society; which has been there for sometime unnoticed by other ordinary reporters and you as an investigator bring it to the public’s attention to bring about social legal reforms.’ (Phillip Knightley: 2008 )
Hugo (2000:68 ) states how the trend began which justified investigative journalism, ‘The development of investigative journalism in Britain in the 1960s and the 1970s resulted in a spate of inquiries into maladministration and corruption that shocked Britons, who had come to assume that corruption was something that happened only in foreign parts. It justified journalism by demonstrating that the public service could not be trusted to police itself.’ Hugo says that investigations cannot be left solely to the police because the police may not be able to ‘understand’ (Hugo, 2006: 76) the victim’s point of view and may not be able to be ‘objective’ (Hugo, 2006: 76).
Yet another advantage journalists have over the police in carrying out investigations is the ability to keep their sources anonymous. This means the sources can offer information to journalists knowing that their identities will not be revealed. This is important as an individual would be unlikely to offer information to the police knowing that he or she may end up in court and open to reproach.
Of course, with many investigative reports leading to police investigations this situation is challenged. There have been many instances where the police have attempted to obtain details of sources from journalists.
‘In the Bill Goodman case, the European Human Rights Commission argued that forcing journalists to reveal sources would impair their ability to inform the public: compulsion should only be used in exceptional circumstances.’ (David Spark, 1999: 102).
On May 19th 2008, Nina Teggarty (Channel 4, 2008), highlights the growing concern amongst leading journalists and civil liberties groups who warn against “a serious threat to the future of investigative journalism..”
This article raises concerns over the fact that the Greater Manchester Police (GMP), has demanded Shiv Malik’s notebook containing confidential information relating to his work with a former Islamist activist, Hassan Butt. Shiv Malik is an investigative journalist who has been working as an investigator in extremist activities. In an interview with Nina, Shiv Malik explains that, ‘journalists aren’t the police, we are not paid to do their job and we wouldn’t ask for example the police to give up their own sources to scrutiny in the public.’ In a court hearing later this week, Shiv Malik could be ordered to hand over the notes under the counter terrorism legislation, thus revealing his sources.
If the police win the case it will be a landmark decision. Future investigative reports would be made much more difficult, if not impossible, to develop because nobody will come forward in the public interest for fear of exposure.
Also, the difference between the way the police and journalists operate is that they work under different ethical frameworks. Ethics deals with how to distinguish between right and wrong. It can be said that journalists work on the thin line between legal and illegal, and they often cross it. This means that journalists can obtain information, often by deception, using false identities and using hidden cameras and/or microphones. This is an area of concern. Does getting a good or important story justify the way in which the reporter gets his or her information? The answer to this question is perhaps an essay in its own right, but it does highlight the fact that journalists can play detective using a different set of rules than the police.
Investigative journalists have uncovered many instances of ‘maladministration’ (Hugo, 2000: 68), injustice in society, fraud, scandal and illegal dealings, but it is worth mentioning that the police have also suffered at their hands. In reference to the Stephen Lawrence murder case in 1993, ‘A catalogue of incompetence was cited including the failure of the police to treat Lawrence’s condition or the incident as an emergency since they assumed Lawrence had provoked the fight because he was black. Prompted by the lobbying work of Stephen Lawrence’s parents, British journalists took the lead in exposing the incompetence, evasiveness and indifference of the Metropolitan Police.’ (Hugo, 2000: 101).
The Stephen Lawrence case and the journalistic investigation that followed, shows another value of journalism in modern society – that is, ‘the concept of objectivity’ (Hugo, 2000:74). A journalist’s job as Fox, 1996 (in Hugo 2000: 76) states, is ‘to give us the facts and it is to seek to explain these facts by attempting to uncover the reasons why events occurred in the way they did’. It just gives the true story and has the evidence to back the story up. Later, in the essay it is discussed how some of that objectivity was lost and the effect that this had on the public.
An interview with BBC journalist Mark Daly, conducted by John Mair, at Coventry Conversations, brings home the fact that investigative journalism is rewarding. Daly’s ‘Secret Policeman’ reports, which revealed racism within the Greater Manchester Police (GMP) service, UK’s largest police force, won several awards. He said, ‘to go as an undercover agent in the police was a task that no one had ever done in the world.’ But before setting off to do this perilous task Daly says, ‘we had to satisfy a team of lawyers at the BBC, proving to them that we have a Prima Facie case.’ The evidence was there and Daly was confident to go ahead with it as he knew that the BBC, being a large organisation would be able to protect him if he was discovered. Daly says, the GMP, ‘arrested me for producing false documents: I had had to have laser surgery to pass the eye test. You are not allowed to have laser surgery in joining the police.’ Daly agrees it was incorrect. In addition, in order to get this story, Mark used hidden cameras and microphones during his training period to secretly record the behaviour of the trainers and new recruits.
For the ‘Secret Policeman’ Mark Daly, it seems as though the results justified the means. Daly said in the interview, as a consequence of his report ten officers were forced to resign their posts and a national investigation into racism in the police was carried out.
Good investigative reports are done by journalists who follow a number of fundamental principles. These are stated by the Canadian Association of Journalists and are defined as truthfulness, transparency, accountability, fairness and privacy.
Good investigative reports clearly show what evidence they have, and ensure that different and independent sources corroborate the important elements of the story.
John Pilger in his book, Tell me no lies says that the term investigative journalism did not exist when he began his career. According to him the term investigative journalism, ‘became fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s with investigations like Seymour Hersh’s expose of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Phillip Keighley’s account of the London Sunday Time’s tortuous disclosure of the scandal of the drug thalidomide and the Watergate scandal,’ (Pilger: 2005, xiv). It was the first time the mass media were exposed to scandals and other wrongdoings that affected the public interest. Investigative journalists were held in high regard and seen as champions of the people. This view, coupled with the public demand for these types of public interest stories led to increased pressure on journalists to uncover them.
But the popularity had its downside as well as this led to an increase in poor reporting. Tessa Mayes, awarding winning journalist, summarised this point speaking at Goodenough College, London, ‘The journalist’s weapon, the pen, was now all too often turned against their own profession.’ Mayes cited the Jason Blair fraud case, the Valerie Plame scandal (‘Plamegate’) and ‘sexed-up’ dossier on Iraq WMDs. ‘While each case had its own intricacies, they all spurred investigations into the investigations. Now the reporters were being reported on. The consequence of all this is that now the onus is on journalists to reveal their sources.’
Excellent investigative reports are not uncommon, but also there are many instances of journalists getting it wrong or even fabricating reports to grab headlines.
In a personal interview conducted by the author, Professor Richard Keeble, City University, said, that in his opinion, ‘there is still some good investigative work going on but given the enormous expansion of the media the internet, the enormous size of the newspapers these days, it’s right to say that the overall picture is very disappointing.’
Prof. Keeble, remarks that although there is a need for good investigations there is also the unavoidable fact that the appetite for investigative journalism has been affected by the changes that the way media organisations are financed: Prof. Keeble quotes Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, ‘many media organisations don’t have the desire or the resources to invest in it.’ Prof. Keeble goes on to suggest, ‘But finance is not the only issue here. There is also the intent’. Increasingly over the years, media generated more and more revenue from advertising. Today this is big business. The focus of today’s media is to appeal to the masses with short turn-around stories that generate readership and therefore the audience for advertisers. This affects investigative journalism in two ways: firstly, those media organisations often do not want the overhead of long investigations, and secondly, that they do not wish to alienate their corporate sponsors.
Prof. Keeble explains how the mainstream media relies so heavily on advertising. One such group of advertisers is estate agents. Most of the scandals in local property have gone largely unreported because of the close ties between estate agents and local newspapers.
According to Prof. Keeble, another factor hindering investigative journalism would be fear of the law. For example, ‘investigations of Robert Maxwell was obstructed because he just flung libel writs around to prevent journalists from investigating his activities relating to his pension funds of his companies so libel can impeach investigative journalists. Obviously we have the official secrets act now which are appearing to impede journalists and not only that the Anti- terrorism Act also are threatening journalists investigations. It seems that journalists interviewing a suspected terrorist are now being forced to hand over their interview tapes and notes. So, there are increasing legal threats to investigative journalism.’
According to McNae’s (2007), The Official Secrets Act 1989 makes it an offence to make an unauthorised disclosure which is, or is likely to be, damaging, of information on security, intelligence, defence, or international relations or of information entrusted in confidence by Britain to another country. Also, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 amended the 2000 Act by introducing a new offence, wit severe penalties, of withholding information on suspected terrorist offences. ‘Withholding’ information includes failing to volunteer it (Welsh et.al, 2007:92).
According to Prof. Keeble, for these reasons, it seems that investigative journalism articles tend to appear in specific print media (examples of these are ‘The Spectator’ and ‘Private Eye’) or tend to be reported in public interest documentaries (examples of these are ‘Watchdog’ and ‘Real Story’).
Before looking into the challenges faced by investigative journalism let’s determine why investigative journalists do what they do. Why do they risk not only their lives and also very often the lives of their families in their curious attempt to dig deeper? Is their work appreciated?
Prof. Keeble explains, ‘it’s this thing called the public interest when some element of corruption is suspected then it’s the responsibility of the journalist to investigate…journalists operate at the margins of legality in, sort of, spaces left by the authorities. I guess one of the main functions of the media is to expose corruption, hypocrisy and the like… I guess there is also challenge: it can be exciting and it is certainly better than writing the odd press release.’ (Richard Keeble: 2008 )
Philip Knightley, who has done some excellent work in this field, disagrees that investigative journalists have to necessarily work undercover as ‘everything is written down somewhere because of the bureaucracy…so I am not happy about the idea that investigative journalism involves going undercover.’
It is obvious that investigative journalism has an important role to play in our society. The fact that journalists are prepared to go to such lengths in the public interest means that organisations or individuals are always accountable for their actions.
Sadly, the problem is that only a small proportion of society really appreciates investigative journalism. In the main people do not watch programmes such as Panorama or Watchdog. Neither do they buy newspapers for the in-depth journalistic investigative stories. The most popular papers are tabloids.
Society as a whole needs to be educated about the role that investigative journalism. Journalists, often referred as the ‘Fourth Estate’, provide a public service keeping governments and organisations in check not allowing any abuse paper.
Perhaps the value of investigative journalism is undersold. According to Prof. Keeble, ‘the media underestimates the intelligence of the audience and properly marketed good investigative journalism would attract appropriate audiences.’
Investigative journalists have to be careful how they work. They also need to be accountable. Most journalists work under very clear journalistic principles and as a result get good reports that make a clear difference. A good report may change a government, put criminals behind bars or cause an organisation to completely change the way it runs.
There has been much evidence to show how a good investigative report has brought about social change. It’s value is clearly visible.
Burgh, Hugo de. (2000), Investigative Journalism, London: Routledge.
Canadian Association of Journalists. (2004), Statement of Principles for Investigative Journalism [online] available from <http://www.caj.ca/principles/principles-statement-investigative-2004.htm>
Davies, Nick. (2008), Flat Earth News, London: Chatto & Windus.
Hochuli, A. (2006), What Has Happened to Investigative Journalism [online] available from http://culturewars.org.uk/2006-01/portmayes.htm,
Keeble, R. (2001), The Newspaper Handbook, London: Routledge.
McCarthy, Kieren. (Date not given), Phillip Knightley.com [online] available from <http://www.phillipknightley.com/pages/biography.html>
Pilger, John. (2005), Tell Me No Lies, London: Vintage.
Randall, D. (2000), The Universal Journalist, London: Routledge.
Shepherd, Rob. (2007), Roger Cook [online] available from http://broadcastnow.co.uk/news/interviews/roger_cook.html
Spark, David. (1999), Investigative reporting, A study in technique, Oxford: Focal Press.
Teggarty, Nina. (2008), Threat to Investigative journalism [online] available from http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/society/law_order/threat+to+investigative+journalism/2219747
Welsh, T. & Greenwood, W. (2005), McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, N. York: Ox UP.