The House of Lords report on The Future of Investigative Journalism is probably one of the few real insights into the business of reporting and publishing journalism that is in the public interest.
Via submissions and evidence from editors, producers, company directors and reporters, the report builds a strong picture of what investigative journalists do, the risks they run, how decisions are made about how whether to break the law, much it costs to produce in depth journalism and the challenges of new media.
Here’s a few insights:
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, explains how he decides whether breaking the law is in the public interest:
The first bar is to consider the harm of what is going to be done. So if you are going to do things—all journalism has an impact—what is the harm going to be that results from what you do? The second is: what is the good that is going to result from what you do; what is the public good that you are trying to achieve? The third is proportionality. Are the methods that you are thinking of using proportional to the aims that you are trying to achieve, and could they be achieved in another way? The fourth is a kind of audit trail. It says, ‘We need proper authority’ and that was obviously apparently missing within the News of the World, that nobody knew anything about it. You have to show some evidence that people have thought about it and discussed it and that people have approved it. The fifth is to do with fishing expeditions. You cannot justify a mass trawl of the information in the hope that something will turn up
Roger Bolton, former editor of the BBC’s Panorama, said it cost “somewhere in the region of £80,00-£120,000″ to produce an hour-long investigative program and that while this was cheap compared with other forms of TV programmes, it was expensive compared to other types of news.
Jeremy Hunt MP, secretary of state for culture, Olympics, media and sport, noted the opportunities for investigative journalism as a result of greater access to government data:
If we unleash citizen journalists on vast swathes of government data we are opening up big, big opportunities both to hold Government to account and also to learn things about our society that we never knew before. It is a very, very big opportunity
Richard Caseby, managing editor of The Sun said that the use of apps to access content was increasing rapidly and that there was potential to charge more for advertising:
What is fantastic about the business models of newspapers or magazines on the iPad is that you can probably charge about eight or nine times as much for an advertisement on the iPad as you can on a website
The report is the result of the inquiry by the Lords’ Select Committee on Communications between 2010 and 2012. It covers the economic environment in which investigative journalism operates; legal and regulatory issues; the significance of media ownership; funding models; convergence; and training opportunities. In it, investigative journalism is defined as:
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.
The Lords recognise the importance of investigative journalism, saying “it is a vital constituent of the UK’s system of democratic governance and accountability”, but note it is under threat from economic and technological change. They also says the practice has suffered from inconsistencies in the law and a lack of investment and organisational support. Their recommendations and conclusions run to more than five pages.
One of the report’s themes is the importance of documenting the decision-making process and the value of an audit trail as part of good governance. The report recognises that there are times when journalists do break the law but it says that journalists and editors need to take responsibility for those decisions. As a matter of practice, then, ” it is, therefore, incumbent upon them to rationalise and justify each decision to investigate, and to publish or not, on a case by case basis and to leave an appropriate audit trail”.
The report’s recommendations are:
- We recommend that media organisations implement a two-stage internal management process whereby they track and formally record their decisions first to investigate and secondly to publish a story if such decisions rely on the public interest.
- We believe regulators should, in turn, take such an audit trail into account when evaluating the responsibility or otherwise with which investigative journalism has been undertaken.
- The regulators should also take into account the actions taken ex post facto in considering what penalty is appropriate for any particular breach.
This has implications for journalism practice. There are no formal processes for practicing journalism, nor any overriding methodologies. Instead there is a range of journalistic principles, practices and ethical guidelines, which individual journalists are usually free to interpret and implement these as they see fit. This is part of journalism’s charm and can be a strength of the practice. However, it also means, as the Lords imply, that when things go awry, there is no justification for action.
I think there are also implications of this beyond the day-to-day practice of journalism. Journalism is generally not very good at looking at itself. It doesn’t, as a profession (if that is what it is) reflect on what it does, or how to do it better. As a result, there is no process for the practice of journalism to develop itself and contribute to the broader benefit of society, beyond the immediate impact of individual stories.
This is a shortcoming of the practice and the results can be seen in the current inquiries into the press in the UK but also in the broader challenge to the business model. Journalism is struggling right now and perhaps a bit of reflection might give is a stronger foundation from which to meet the challenges.
This argument needs work, but I think there is a strong argument for greater reflection on practice.