The other journalism inquiry: investigative journalism

Over the past few months, anyone with an interest in media inquiries has been glued to Leveson and its daily supply of intrigue, drama, and occasional farce. Yet away from Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice, there’s been another inquiry into the future of journalism. Run by the House of Lords Communications Committee, it’s deliberately focused on the positive: investigative journalism and how it might be sustained.

The Committee has occasionally hit the headlines, particularly when Richard Caseby of The Sun attacked the ‘sexing up’ of The Guardian’s Milly Dowler story. But it’s mostly been understandably swamped by Leveson; its recommendations will be less significant and carry less weight, and it’s lacked the star names and entertaining confrontations.

Even if its outcomes will have less impact, however, the evidence heard by the Committee has been interesting and important. Its sessions finished just before Christmas, and over the previous 11 weeks editors, journalists, journalism professors, and even a computer scientist sat down to explain the problems and possibilities for investigative journalism.

Investigative journalism needs subsidy

One of the most striking pieces of evidence came in the very last session from former Independent editor, Simon Kelner, who talked about how he tried to set up an investigative unit when he started at the paper:

I took four guys off the newsdesk, I gave them as much rope as they wanted, as much support, never put them under pressure to come up with world exclusives. About six months later we’d had two stories that were on page 9 and page 11 and it had cost us a small fortune. So we abandoned it.

Not every investigative team is quite that unsuccessful. But witnesses were united in arguing that investigative journalism is expensive, and needs some sort of subsidy to survive. That subsidy can be from an organisation’s other activities: Channel 4’s written evidence (from page 23) said ‘advertising income from other Channel 4 activities which are more profitable funds content that delivers public value, but is less commercially focused’, such as investigations. Even Sir Harry Evans, editor of the Sunday Times at the height of its Insight team’s success, was reluctant to credit any individual part of the newspaper for its financial performance.

Evidence from two not-for-profit investigative organisations painted a similar picture. Richard Tofel from ProPublica said that the likelihood they could survive commercially was ‘exceedingly remote’, while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s written submission (from page 10) revealed that income from commercial tie-ups only accounted for around a third of its income.

The inquiry didn’t hear, however, from ExaroNews, a commercial investigative journalism organisation that launched in November, midway through the evidence sessions. If it can survive on subscriptions as it hopes, it could prove an exception, and with most national media organisations in the UK struggling financially (making cross-subsidies less likely), that would be very welcome.

Local journalism is dying

Another common theme was that the crisis in local journalism has kicked away a ladder on which investigative journalism can stand. Journalist Andrew Gilligan said that the problems facing local newspapers are “poisoning the whole ecosystem”. As local newspapers are “hollowed out”, to use Martin Moore’s phrase, they lose much of their value as sources for national newspapers, as well as leaving courts, councils, and hospitals unscrutinised. The financial difficulties of local media – and the actions of their owners – raise issues outside the committee’s remit, but it’s clear they affect investigative journalism at all levels in some way.

Exactly what could be done to support investigative journalism is far less clear, and anything designed to specifically support investigations will have to grapple with the question of how they’re defined; the Committee seemed to settle for a “Yes, but you know what we mean” approach similar to Potter Stewart’s famous remarks on hardcore pornography. It’s likely, however, that the report will explore charitable status as a way of raising money for organisations to do investigations, something which could help encourage the sort of philanthropy for journalism found in the US.

There have been some blind spots in the hearings. Only one journalist from business-to-business media gave evidence, for example, and given the criticism of local newspaper chains it would have been interesting to hear from them. The role of NGOs in investigating was also neglected. But at a time when Leveson has illuminated some of the dark side of journalism, it’s been refreshing to see politicians from the most establishment of institutions supporting the most anti-establishment journalism.

The House of Lords Communications Select Committee’s inquiry into the future of investigative journalism is due to report in early 2012. Written evidence and transcripts of oral evidence can be found on the Committee’s website.

Jamie Thunder is a freelance journalist and PhD student at the Centre for Law, Justice, and Journalism, City University. You can follow Jamie on Twitter (@jdthndr) or visit his blog, The Thunderer.