The future of investigative journalism - Communications Committee Contents

The future of investigative journalism

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

1.  During the course of this inquiry, there has been a general consensus amongst witnesses that the role of investigative journalism is to bring to light things that are not in the public domain and to help hold those in positions of power at a local, national and international level to account. This happens at various levels of authority. There is a public interest in exposing wrong-doing by a nurse in a local hospital or a clerk in a County Court just as there is in exposing Members of Parliament and Chief Executives of large corporations. The role of investigative journalism in putting previously unreported information into the public domain and providing the stimulus for public debate is immensely important.

2.  For this to be effective there must be two distinct parts. First there must be an investigator—the author or journalist, and secondly his/her findings must be disseminated—by the publisher or broadcaster. Investigative journalism cannot fulfil its proper role if these two processes are not working together. At present the traditional balance is being threatened by profound changes which pose economic, legal and regulatory challenges for the future of investigative journalism.

3.  There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes investigative journalism. During the course of this inquiry we have heard differing views with some witnesses defining it narrowly as a specific genre of journalism and others claiming that all journalism is investigative. Paul Lashmar, investigative journalist and Lecturer in Journalism from Brunel University, said that those editors who claimed all journalists should be investigative were generally those who did not fund their staff to do that kind of work.[1]

4.  For the purpose of this inquiry, we have taken investigative journalism to mean reporting which requires a significant investment, in terms of resource and/or funding; which runs a high risk of potential litigation; and which—most importantly—uncovers issues which are in the public interest but which were not hitherto on the public agenda.

5.  Although investigative journalism is difficult to define precisely, it is often easy to recognise. As it requires significant investment, investigative reporting is often subsidised and validated by reputable publishers and broadcasters, although serious investigative reports are increasingly only published online, for example, in some of the work of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism or ProPublica in the United States of America. Stories identified to us by witnesses as examples of good investigative journalism included:

  • BBC's Panorama programme first aired on 21 May 2011 exposing abuse at Winterbourne View care home, which used secret filming;
  • The Guardian's exposé of phone-hacking by journalists which was uncovered after an investigation of several years by reporter Nick Davies. Details were first published on 8 July 2009;
  • The News of the World's 'sting', exposing corruption by Pakistani cricketers, published on 29 August 2010;
  • The Daily Telegraph's exposé of MPs expenses which was based on information sold to the newspaper. Details of this were first published on 8 May 2009;
  • The Maidenhead Advertiser's September 2011 report on a secret turn-around plan containing proposals to cut jobs and beds at a local hospital;
  • The Art Newspaper's investigation, starting in 2000, which led to the return of the 12th Century Benevento missal to a church in Italy from where it went missing during the Second World War. This is an example of investigative and campaigning journalism in a specialist field;
  • The Sun's investigation, published on 14 September 2006, which exposed that an HIV-positive security guard had knowingly infected six women; and
  • Al Jazeera's Africa Investigates series in which Al Jazeera provided African journalists with "the opportunity to do the kind of journalism that Panorama or Dispatches might do in this country, with all the support, money, training, legal support and expertise that we can supply to them to allow them to do their jobs properly."[2] Investigations were conducted into issues such as illegal logging in Sierra Leone.

6.  Despite these and many other recent examples of investigative reporting, these are difficult times for journalism more generally. The phone-hacking scandal, exposed by The Guardian reporter Nick Davies, has led to the closure of Britain's best selling tabloid newspaper, The News of the World, as well as the resignation of former newspaper editors and senior members of the Metropolitan Police Service. Re-examination of the report for the Information Commissioner by the Surveillance Studies Network of six years ago[3] has further exposed the apparently widespread use of unlawful methods to gather information, and among those bodies examining the issues raised are:

(a)  Lord Justice Leveson's Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the press; the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee's inquiries into Phone Hacking and Media Plurality;

(b)  The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions' inquiry into privacy, anonymised injunctions and super-injunctions;

(c)  The Parliamentary Joint Committee's report on the Draft Defamation Bill;[4] and

(d)  The report by Dame Elizabeth Filkin on the relationship between the Metropolitan Police Service and the media[5] published in January 2012.

We also await the outcome of a public consultation on proposals for reform of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) by Lord Hunt of Wirral, the new Chairman of the PCC. The Government's Green Paper on a new Communications Bill will also be published in the near future.

7.  In this report, we do not attempt to suggest specific solutions to issues which are being considered in other forums. Our aim is to ensure that the media landscape in which serious investigative journalism operates is analysed, which in turn should assist these other inquiries since whatever changes are introduced should be tailored to the needs of the future and not of the past. In this regard, we agree with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's (DCMS) submission to this inquiry which states that: "We need some new ground rules [in media regulation as a result of the phone-hacking scandal], but we must also be careful not to discard the quality investigative journalism that is an integral part of our media."[6]

8.  Investigative journalism has a history going back centuries. However, even before the current scandal started to unfold fully, newspapers in the UK were under threat; the combined effect of declining newspaper readership and the migration of classified advertising to online have coincided with the severe economic recession. As a result local newspapers have been forced to close and many journalists and newspaper staff have lost their jobs.

9.  As outlined in our previous report on the Regulation of Television Advertising, broadcasting has also faced economic pressures in recent years. Broadcasters, to a lesser extent than the printed press, have seen advertising revenues decline as some advertisers who in the past paid for display advertising on television have moved towards classified and search advertising online.[7] The BBC, which is funded by the television licence fee and therefore not dependent on advertising, is also facing a reduction in its income—approximately 16% between now and 2016[8]—as a result of the last licence fee settlement.

10.  These economic pressures threaten the positive role played by traditional media which inform opinion, encourage debate and enable national discussion of the country's affairs. In our inquiry we have considered, in particular, the way in which investigative journalism sustains debate on matters of serious public interest.

11.  If investigative journalism is to fulfil its proper role, it is essential that journalists act with integrity. A high price can be paid as a result of material they publish, witness the uncovering of the Watergate Scandal in the USA which led to President Nixon's resignation in August 1974.

12.  In many circumstances it is both necessary and appropriate to regulate the media. To effectively manage the spectrum, for example, which is a finite resource, licences are issued by the media regulator Ofcom. In return for access to this important resource, broadcasters commit to a set of rules outlined in the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. This includes a duty for all broadcasters "to ensure that news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality."[9] In the case of the BBC, it receives public money through the licence fee and its Charter details the way it should operate.

13.  For the printed press no such licence is necessary. Anyone with sufficient means to do so can print and circulate information in print. Newspapers depend on readers buying their papers, or subscribing to their websites, to remain in business. To secure and maintain their readership, national and local newspapers develop a brand with which their readers identify and in which they trust. To command loyalty, they ensure that the information they publish is informative, entertaining and, at best, accurate. This was highlighted to us by the Chartered Institute of Journalists in their evidence: "Those publications that cut back their journalism content quickly find their circulation figures drop, which in turn puts off advertisers. These are the market forces which drive the inclusion of journalism in a publication."[10]

14.  Across the newspaper industry certain standards of accuracy are encouraged through a type of industry self-regulation as outlined in the Editors' Code of Practice. This voluntary Code, written by serving national and local newspaper editors and enforced by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a body of industry-led oversight of which membership is also voluntary, aims to ensure that what is printed in newspapers is accurate. It also offers a means of recourse to people who believe that inaccurate information has been published. Unlike the statutory regulator for broadcast media, Ofcom, the PCC does not have the power to impose fines for breaches of the Editors' Code, although it can bring about certain remedies such as requiring the publication of a correction or an apology.[11]

15.  As outlined in our Committee's report into the ownership of the news published in 2008: "the traditional media are under very considerable competitive pressure. Newspapers, television and radio are losing advertising revenue to the internet, with the result that costs are being cut and economies are being made in traditional news gathering, ranging from journalists based overseas, to local journalists at home."[12] Investigative journalism is especially resource intensive, requires long-term investment with no guaranteed return, involves some risk of litigation, and often does not deliver large reader or audience figures. It is therefore particularly vulnerable to economic pressures. This is especially evident at a local level and we have heard evidence that long-term investigations into local issues which require staff commitment and involve legal risk are no longer pursued as often as they were in the past. Given these profound challenges facing the newspaper industry, we believe that now is the right time to consider the prospects for investigative journalism.

Legal, regulatory and political context

16.  Debate about regulation has always been an integral part of media politics, leading to impassioned debates about the legitimacy of imposing obligations or restrictions on a free press. For example, Sir David Calcutt conducted two reviews of self-regulation of the press in the 1990s;[13] there is a recurring debate around the purpose and goals of the BBC at the time of Charter renewal; and media legislation has been debated and passed by Parliament in the Broadcasting Acts of 1990 and 1996, the Communications Act 2003, and in subsequent legislation with relevance in this area such as the Bribery Act 2010 and the Digital Economy Act 2010.

17.  However, media regulation is again at the forefront of the political agenda in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal which has raised serious questions about standards and ethics in the press. Furthermore, NewsCorp's proposed bid for the remaining shares in BSkyB during the summer of 2011 brought the issue of media plurality back to the forefront of political debate.

18.  The legal and regulatory background is complicated because it involves both statutory and self-regulation, as well as three distinct legal codes: newspapers and publishing in respect of 'print on paper', broadcasting regulations for traditional radio and television, and 'electronic commerce law' in respect of digitally delivered material. These can be further complicated by jurisdictional questions arising from the worldwide nature of the internet.

19.  Publishers have traditionally tended to be better-financed than journalists, and thus an easier target of the law and regulations. They have responded by exercising editorial control on their authors.

20.  This has helped define the relationship between journalist and publisher, who generally does not want to become embroiled in expensive litigation, regulatory dispute or be subject to financial penalties. It is in the publisher's interests to ensure articles are within the laws and regulatory codes. This in turn should, in theory, give the reader/listener confidence in the integrity of what is produced under the publisher's imprint.

21.  In addition, we heard from a number of editors that their particular long-term brand strategy also creates incentives for accuracy, reliability and even investment in investigative journalism.

22.  Mr Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian, for example, spoke about the way The Guardian's investment in investigative work becomes a reason for consumers to believe in the brand's broader values. He said: "in a brand sense ... you hope people associate The Guardian with a kind of journalism and integrity".[14] In turn, he claims these associations establish "the sort of brand reputation of being a paper that does brave things and tackles big powerful centres of power. I think in the long term that is distinctive and wins tremendous appreciation and respect from readers and non-readers".[15]

23.  Of course, the fact that different media brands appeal to different groups of people has consequences for the type of journalistic content editors invest in and seek to associate with their brand.

24.  Mr Richard Caseby, Managing Editor of The Sun, for example, described The Sun's brand as being something which "connects with the readers. It is like meeting the man down in the pub who always has a really interesting story to tell and you never know quite what he is going to say, and the thing is he always says it in a really witty way."[16] Living up to this brand when it comes to investigative journalism, therefore, has clear implications. Mr. Caseby explained how this works, claiming that The Sun, for example, may tend to focus more of its investigations on: "things like holiday rip-offs, loan shark thugs, [and] people who prey on the elderly".[17] It is important to be aware, therefore, that strategic thinking about their brand on the part of newspapers can also act as a spur to sustained investment in investigative journalism. However, the types and forms that result are likely to vary in line with the distinctions and variety of brands in the media market.

This report

25.  The starting point for this inquiry, as already mentioned, has been that responsible investigative journalism should be protected and encouraged given its important role in our democracy.

26.  This report outlines the current media landscape focussing on its relationship with investigative journalism. We first look at the challenges and opportunities now facing it and then consider ownership, funding and the impact of media convergence. Finally we identify a number of issues surrounding the training of tomorrow's investigative journalists.

27.  We would like to thank everyone who gave evidence to us, both at oral evidence sessions which we held between September and December 2011 and in writing. We also wish to thank our Specialist Adviser, Professor Steven Barnett from the University of Westminster. We have been fortunate to benefit from his expertise throughout the course of this inquiry.

28.  We will be submitting a copy of this report to the Government, to Lord Justice Leveson and to the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions. We hope that they, together with Lord Hunt of Wirral who is conducting an internal review of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), will find this a useful overview and that they will carefully consider the implications for investigative journalism of any regulatory or legislative proposals which they may make as part of their future deliberations.

1   Q 448 Back

2   Q 712 Back

3   'A Report on the Surveillance Society' For the Information Commissioner by the Surveillance Studies Network, September 2006 Back

4   Report by the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill, 19 October 2011, HL Paper 203/HC 930-I. Back

5   Report on 'The Ethical Issues Arising from the Relationship Between Police and Media, Advice to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and his Management Board' by Dame Elizabeth Filkin, January 2012. Back

6   DCMS  Back

7   Regulation of Television Advertising, 17 February 2011, HL Paper 99, paragraph 18. Back

8   Information on the BBC licence fee settlement at:  Back

9   From Section 5 'Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy and Undue Prominence of Views and Opinions' in 'The Ofcom Broadcasting Code (Incorporating the Cross-promotion Code),' 28 February 2011 Back

10   Chartered Institute of Journalists  Back

11   From Section 1 on 'Accuracy' of the Editors' Code of Practice, ratified in December 2011by the PCC  Back

12   Communications Committee, 1st Report (2007-08): The ownership of the news, (HL Paper 122-I) Back

13   Calcutt Committee Report on Privacy and Related Matters (1990) Cm 1102, and Calcutt Review Of Press Self-Regulation (1993) Cm 2135 Back

14   Q 61 Back

15   Q 65 Back

16   Q 813 Back

17   Q 797 Back

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