The Lords Communications Committee report, “The Future of Investigative Journalism”, (HL: 263 – pdf) was published 16 February and I’ve written an article in response for House magazine.
March 1, 2012, The House
‘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.’
I am glad to see these words in the Lords communications committee report, The Future of Investigative Journalism, published 16th February, but the reality is that the law, the costs, the lack of public records, and an elitist political structure, obstruct public interest investigative journalism.
When journalism was profitable, these costs could be borne. Now they cannot. By all means prosecute those who break the law, but the press needs support, not obstruction. The journalism of verification and truth is resource-intensive. The best way to encourage it is to lower the resources needed to do it.
Firstly, it must be made easier to conduct public interest investigations. It should not take five years of a person’s life to find out the most basic facts of how public officials spend the public’s money (MPs’ expenses). And here we find in the UK, the crucial ingredient necessary for responsible journalism missing: easily accessible public records. The most important of these are:
- Court records – including full court lists with full, real names (no abbreviations); all documents referenced in bundles, full judgement and sentencing (current and historical).
- Police records – incident reports and arrest bookings.
- Identification records (vehicle ownership records, reverse telephone directories, electoral registers).
- Regulatory inspections, complaints, violations, prosecutions
- Detailed ‘line-item’ budgets
- Land ownership
- Company registrations and accounts.
In the USA where I trained as a reporter, these records were the basic building blocks for all journalism: used for accurate identification, verification and investigation. Privilege attached to their content so that if I reported that X had been charged with fraud, I was protected from libel if I had quoted accurately from the police charge sheet or the court record.
In the UK, only the last two items are easily accessible. Reporters still have the same requirements, however, so they must get information elsewhere: hearsay, anonymous sources or illicitly obtained either for money or favour. This is not good for democracy. It would be better for these civically important records be available to all, regardless of favour or resources.
The second way to encourage public interest investigation is to reform the libel law. The committee rightly points out that ‘investigative journalism is especially resource-intensive, requires long-term investment with no guaranteed return, involves some risk of litigation’, but it understates the problem: ‘the working of the libel laws in the UK can, on occasion, have a discouraging effect on responsible investigative journalism…’ No, not on occasion – always.
Any journalist thinking about investigating the powerful (corporate or government) must be prepared for bankruptcy. Everyone I know who has written a non-fiction, current affairs book published in the UK (myself included) had to go through an expensive libel reading. The exact same books published in the USA do not have these costs. The committee praises the creation of the the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, yet one of the biggest obstacles it faced was finding reasonable libel insurance. This legal nightmare halts small or online cooperative journalism sites in their tracks. Helpmeinvestigate.com, for example, was hobbled because of the UK’s libel law.
We do not need more obstacles put in the way of investigative journalism. The net result will be to make it harder for journalists acting in the public interest. People like me will be priced out of the market. Instead, we will have ill-informed online propaganda and public relations circulated instantly across the globe.