The real threats to investigative journalism

Today I’m giving oral evidence to the House of Lords Committee on investigative journalism, on a panel with Iain Overton from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and Dominic Cooper from the Chartered Institute of Journalists.

You can read the full MST submission here.

In brief, our submission focuses on the crisis in journalism at a local level and its implications for investigations, the technological opportunity for investigative journalism, and investigative journalism and the law.

The crisis in journalism at a local level is, in our view, where the really urgent problem lies. When people talk about investigative journalism they tend to mean the big stuff – the long term investigations into issues of national, and even international, interest: Abu Ghraib, MPs’ expenses, rendition flights. But the most sustained and widespread investigative role that journalism plays is the day-to-day informed observation, reporting and analysis of public bodies and institutions, particularly at a local level, and this is under urgent threat.

Many local newspapers have been hollowed out and are no longer properly able to fulfil their functions as public interest news providers or democratic watchdogs. There are a bunch of reasons for this – falling circulations, declining advertising revenues, crippling debts, the pursuit of unsustainable profits – but it’s meant many newspapers running on a skeletal staff, in some cases with fewer than two reporters (see, for example, this analysis by Andrew Williams, ‘Crisis in Welsh newspapers‘). There are new forms of original journalism growing up – and we’re involved with one project in Port Talbot – but they are sporadic and need nurturing.

There is no easy solution to the problem facing investigative journalism at a local level. It will certainly not be solved by the local television plan proposed by DCMS. But any plan to address the increasing news deficit has to take into account that:

  • Local news provision will not be as profitable as it used to be
  • In some areas provision of local news will not be profitable at all
  • In these areas, and others, local public authorities are likely to go under-reported or even un-reported – at least in the short to medium term
  • Whatever happens to existing professional local news organisations and outlets, local news will have to be produced at much lower cost than it has been in the past
  • Local news gathering will rely on a combination of professional news gathering (i.e. someone doing it for income) and amateur news gathering (motivated by other reasons – civic duty, status, circumstances, general interest)

There is a strong case for some sort of direct or indirect intervention, especially to:

  • Nurture innovation that is already happening (if sporadically)
  • Lower the cost (money, access and time) of doing public interest journalism at a local level (as central government has started to do through initiatives like For example by live streaming council meetings, providing data in re-usable formats
  • Lower the legal barriers to doing public interest journalism
  • Incentivise public interest investigative journalism – the day-to-day stuff through, for example: an innovation fund, shared facilities, tax breaks

To read more about this, and about the technological opportunities for doing investigative journalism, and the legal barriers, download the submission here.