UK going through an unprecedented crisis in journalism: Thompson

MUMBAI: Investigative journalism – both broadcast and print – faces far greater threats today than it did either in the 1950s or in the heady late Cold War years of the 1980s. The UK is going through an unprecedented crisis in journalism, a crisis with the boundaries and techniques of investigative journalism at its heart. British journalism needs to return to the ideal and the belief that its work can make a positive difference in the world.

These remarks were made by BBC DG Mark Thompson at a speech given at the International Press Institute‘s Annual World Congress in Taiwan. He noted that one does not yet know what will emerge from the phone hacking crisis that resulted in The News Of The World being shut down. Lord Leveson‘s Inquiry has just begun its work. “But any recommendations about new laws or regulation will be studied with interest by Governments around the world,” he said.

Thompson noted that before the phone-hacking scandal, conventional wisdom suggested that traditional investigative journalism faced two threats: economic, and the impact of the Internet and new forms of journalism and disclosure it has enabled.

As far as economic is concerned, he remarked the deteriorating business models for newspapers, particularly in the developed world. This may not be able to support the cost of mounting what are inevitably often expensive and protracted investigations.

“The commercial fundamentals may not be quite so challenging in the global broadcast arena, but here too pessimists would point to the pressure on commissioners and schedulers to focus on those genres which bring in the largest number of viewers and commercial impacts: here too, they would argue, investigative journalism is under threat.”

But in the UK at least a number of newspapers – The Sunday Times, The Independent as well as The Guardian – clearly regard investigative journalism not just as vital in itself, but as a competitively valuable point of differentiation. Indeed recent editors at The Daily Telegraph have launched what is essentially a new tradition of major investigations, including their revelations about UK Parliamentarians‘ abuse of their expenses, one of the journalistic coups of the past decade.

Meanwhile on British television, while the demise of World in Action has meant fewer investigations on ITV, both the BBC and Channel 4 continue to bring original journalism regularly to their viewers. The BBC programme Panorama, in particular, has had a striking series of investigative successes in recent years.
“So although commercial pressures are undoubtedly making it difficult for some editors – especially those responsible for local and regional titles – to support as much investigative journalism as they would like, it‘s not obvious that economics alone will put paid to it.”

The Internet has thrown up the question of whether one needs expensive, professional investigations anymore. He argued that while Wikileaks, Matt Drudge, Guido Fawkes and a thousand others may deliver their scoops and insights with less precision and restraint than their traditional counterparts, they deliver them all the same – and often more quickly and with less mediation and qualification than conventional journalistic practice would allow.

“It‘s interesting though that Julian Assange and Wikileaks turned to an international group of newspapers including The New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde to help with the journalistic tasks of redaction and contextualisation. The Internet is a perfect letter-box for whistleblowers and disclosers of every kind but – without the validation of professional editors and the credibility of established and respected media brands – the problems of provenance and believability loom large. Indeed the explosion of digital media has, if anything, strengthened the argument for a cadre of professionally-trained journalists to sift and make sense of it. How else can the public satisfy themselves that what they are reading or looking at is an important fact and not unsubstantiated gossip or a random element in someone‘s delusional conspiracy-theory?”

But there is a third threat which, according to Thompson, is more serious and which is what the phone-hacking scandal has thrown up, in the UK at least. The enemy within – a collapse of probity and restraint by journalists and editors themselves which risks making a mockery of the idea of ‘the public interest‘ and robbing investigative journalism of its legitimacy and credibility.

Legitimate investigative journalism strays into intrusion only when topics of genuine public importance are at stake – and even then it takes care that the intrusion is proportionate to the matter at hand.

“There are some things which should always be out of the question. Serious criminality of any kind. ‘Fishing expeditions‘ – in other words speculative acts of intrusion or entrapment where the journalists do not have strong prima facie evidence of serious wrong-doing. Nor should journalists use any techniques which they could not justify openly and clearly in public.”

Thompson criticised The News of the World for breaking all these rules. “Given the industrial scale of the abuse and the apparent failure by editors and managers over years to confront it, it‘s hardly surprising that many people in the UK are asking themselves whether these practices are widespread across the whole of British journalism. The Leveson Inquiry will seek to find an answer to that question.”

The BBC has taken a close look at the period which Leveson is scrutinising – back to the beginning of 2005 - and despite the many thousands of hours of output and millions of budget lines in scope,
the ongoing review has not identified a single instance of phone-hacking or the bribery of police officers or any of the other malpractices which are alleged to have happened at The News of the World.

He noted that the character of broadcast investigative journalism is different in some respects from its counterpart in print. “In TV, secret filming is always done with a view to broadcast – we always
start off with the intention, not just of revealing a story to the public, but of showing the techniques we used to uncover it.”

There are stringent controls on when and how such techniques can be used. The BBC requires the decisions to involve senior editors and it depends on the team having already obtained substantial evidence of wrong-doing. “At the BBC, we only do investigations with a clear public interest rationale, but even after that rationale has been established, there is still a debate about whether the methods the journalists propose to use are reasonable and proportionate.”

“The investigative journalists I‘ve worked with at the BBC and Channel 4 are among the best of any kind that I know. They never forget that investigations are full of potential ethical traps – not least because, just as with a police or judicial investigation, not everyone whom you start of suspecting of wrong-doing will turn out to be guilty. The possibility that you are following the wrong lead should always be in your mind as you consider each step in the investigation and specifically any proposal to use an intrusive technique like secret recording.

“And – to state the obvious – it‘s both vital and often very difficult to get it right. Investigative journalists do not enjoy the sweeping powers of the police and the courts and often begin a story with little more than scraps of information. As everyone here knows, there is no substitute for checking, re-checking and subjecting the thesis you are pursuing to constant challenge from colleagues, editors, lawyers. The Guardian‘s investigation has taken years so far and isn‘t over yet.

“Responsible investigative journalism doesn‘t just depend on the right rules and systems of oversight, it also relies on the determination of the journalists to do the right thing – in other words on journalistic values and culture.

“As the Leveson Inquiry picks through the wreckage of the News of the World, it‘s important that the question of values isn‘t lost or deemed to be fully addressable by a new mechanic of regulation and oversight.”

He said that when the BBC had its own set of serious editorial lapses a few years ago – not in the context of investigative journalism, but ranging from serious shortcomings in on-air competitions to a
misleading trail for a documentary about the Queen and an appalling lapse of taste on The Russell Brand Show – part of the response was a tightening of the rules and procedures for programme compliance.

“Inevitable and sensible, though as you can imagine in a creative organisation, not exactly wildly popular. But the most important thing we did was to insist that all of our editorial decision-makers – and I mean literally thousands of producers and editors across the BBC – took part in a series of searching conversations about the failures in values and culture that had led us to let both ourselves and our audiences down on air.

“It is not possible for any news organisation to guarantee the honesty of its journalism solely through management rules or through more stringent supervision. Too much investigative journalism takes place in the field, far from the watchful eye of the editor. You need teams of journalists who can be trusted to make the right ethical judgements even when they are on their own.”

Thompson pointed out to a fourth threat to investigative journalism in the UK – which is of an over-reaction to the abuses at the News of the World. There are many countries where investigative journalism is impossible or restricted to relatively ‘safe‘ areas like consumer rights. But in all countries, there will always be some in authority who – whatever lip service they pay to press freedom – fear the consequences of unfettered investigative journalism.

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