Critically assess the view that there is a decline in investigative journalism in Britain

Investigative Journalism has undergone many shifts since its conception. These changes can be attributed to a number of reasons involving technology, social statuses, political atmospheres and game-changing events. This has created a diverse number of opinions by scholars, critics and journalists on its status and history. Some consider it to be at its prime while other claim it is a dying art. This essay will seek to define investigative journalism and critically examine the changes it has undergone, the reasons behind that and the history and future of investigative journalism.

Investigative Journalism has always been here in organized societies in one way or another. Since then, it has evolved in its approach, delegation, and construction. It has also devolved a rough definition. Mark Lee Hunter defines investigative journalism by differentiating it from ‘conventional’ journalism. He states “Investigative journalism involves exposing to the public matters that are concealed – either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding” (Hunter, 2011).  Campaigning journalism and exposing corporations began in the nineteenth century.  At the time, a young generation of reporters adopted the revelation methods of the common press but tended to relate the misery and dishonesty of individuals to wider social backgrounds and attack institutional corporations (Doig, 1992).

Modern Journalism is considered to have peaked by the Watergate Scandal by Woodward and Bernstein in the United States. They even emphasised the importance of investigative Journalism in society. In the UK, a similar movement was starting. There were several notable investigations which made headlines such as The Sunday Time’s exposition of the Thalidomide scandal where the paper overcame the legalities involving the drug which was causing serious birth defects in children while mothers used it for sickness in pregnancy. In the 1970s, UK television transformed investigative journalism into a product where high profile investigative programmes like Panaorama, World in Action and This Week took on the Vietnam War, torture, industrial influences, child labour, justice, corruption, and scandals. Soon after, television was considered a threat due to the tabloidization of investigative journalism, Donal MacIntyre, a television investigative Journalist, remembers the period stating “The death of investigative journalism was predicated with the creation of commercial television in 1954. All through the 1990’s I heard it. As budgets got tighter and the information world changed at lightening pace, the same arguments that gained currency in 1954 have now become an accepted truth” (Mair and Keeble 2011, 2). Print and television became tabloid exploitations which were formulaic deviations from investigative journalism. The tabloids revolved around “kiss and tell” and celebrity stories. Eventually, they infected the middle market. Concern rose about traditional media not having the need or ability in resources to create strong investigative journalism. (Anderson, Williams and Ogola, 2013).  The Campaign for Quality Television group stated that according to a study, a ratings oriented environment in TV favours an emotive approach to current affairs as opposed to analytical and investigative programmes. This created adverse pressure on programme budgets, reducing authentic investigative journalism (Barnett and Seymour, 1999). A Pew study indicates that 15,000 journalists lost their jobs in the US in 2008, with reductions of more than 20% at large newspapers (Ackerman and Ayers, 2009)

There are a vast number of views about the state of investigative Journalism through time. Gavin MacFayden, director of the centre for investigative Journalism said, “it should be said that in the last 20 years investigative reporting as I am sure everybody here knows has been in major decline in Britain from what it was – major television programmes like World in Action, This Week and Panorama to where we are now; we have nothing really, that is comparable with the depth and frequency that those programmes were” (House of Lord’s, 2012, 21). Professor Hugo De Burgh recognizes the mid 1990s. He states “a systematic trawl of a database for 1995 suggests that there were 300 discrete investigative programmes that could be classified as investigative (De Burgh, 2008, 6) He argues that pessimism of the future of investigative journalism is exaggerated and that “new types of outlet are devolving and information more available and verifiable.  Deborah Chambers wrote that investigative journalism in the UK has thrived in the last three decades of the twentieth century (Chamber, 2001). Dorril has retorted that investigative journalism has enjoyed a brief bloom in the sixties, flowered shortly in the seventies, wilted in the eighties and is now dead (Dorril, 2000). Mark Hanna however considers it not dead but clearly in decline, blaming structural changes within the media since the 1970s for shrivelling investigative journalism; changes such as cost-cutting, under-staffing, speeding-up and on television a ruthless drive for ratings (Hanna, 2000, 6-7).

The value of Journalism’s social role has alternated.  According to McNair (2002; 9) it is an ’account of the existing real world as appropriated by the journalist and processed in accordance with the particular requirements of the journalistic medium through which it will be disseminated to some section of the public’. The idea of a social role for Journalism to understand the world around them has mutated. Investigative journalism still matters because of its many contributions to democratic governance. It is considered the pure manifestation of the fourth estate role of the news media According to this model; the press should make government answerable by publishing information about matters in public interest even if such information is fought against by authority figures. Investigative journalism is one of the most important contributions that the press makes to democracy. It balances democratic systems providing an instrument for monitoring governmental bodies, organizations and corporations.  In a poll conducted, just 12% of respondents believe investigative journalism is having a negative impact on the UK’s democracy while over half think it has a positive impact (Ryan, Tom, 2013).

The industry has changed, becoming business oriented. This has lead to cost cutting by major news corporations to facilitate massive profits thus many reporters who aspire to investigations can rarely free themselves from mundane tasks. A more competitive market has also affected the gathering operations of national newspapers (Tunstall, 1996). Furthermore, journalists now and then care deeply about protecting the identity of sources. This has become difficult to do now. A journalist does not have the liberty of a private conversation with a source. In our digital world, journalists’ interview sources from far away. Similar to every generation of journalists, todays are emerging with unripe work using methods based on repetitive and failed journalism. It is vastly difficult to protect whistleblowers in a new era of investigative journalism. Gavin MacFadyen, Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, states “Whistleblowers in the UK suffer career-threatening and life-changing consequences as a result of disclosure.” The current state of legislation is insufficient to support the realities of whistle blowing. The support needed to many who wish to disclose important information about corporations, industries and powerful individuals is unavailable. Whistleblowers are an essential part of the investigative journalistic process. Without adequate support, misuse of authority (from expenses of officials to war secrets), threatens to limit our freedom (MacFayden, 2009)

Further constraints start with public relations, laws, finance, and the structure of media firms. One of Britain’s most experienced investigative journalists, Paul Lashmar, estimates that the number of serious operators in investigative journalism has fallen from 150 during the Eighties to fewer than 90 today. “It’s harder and harder to get money to do stuff,” he says. “A lot of the best investigative journalists are working for tabloids” (Burrell, 2010). Robert Rosenthal, the executive director of the Centre for Investigative Reporting, considers newsrooms different now, some even non-existent. He explained: “What that means is that on every level there is less information, less government being covered, from the community to the state to the region. And part of what is happening is the investigative reporting is something that is being shoved aside in newsrooms that really have to feed the beast. Investigative journalism takes more time and more experienced journalists to produce, and it often involves legal battles. While still at newspapers or TV stations in the 1990s, they had already integrated social science methods and data analysis into traditional methods of on-site observation, face-to-face interviews, and Freedom of Information requests” (PBS, 2009)

However, an editor from The Hartford Courant in Connecticut in the early 1990s came up with the theory that if one journalist went on a diet, another one gained weight. But no matter the losses and gains, he said, the overall mass of a newsroom is consistent. A similar theory might be applied to investigative journalism today. While investigative reporting has drastically weakened in traditional and mainstream newsrooms, it has rapidly expanded into different forms on the internet and at universities around the world (Houston, 2010).  Nevertheless, campaigning sector – pressure groups, consumer groups, charities and other non-governmental organisations are doing independent investigative journalism.  An example is the work of Wikileaks. It proves that investigative skills and methods are being found outside traditional newsrooms.  A number of pressure groups, social justice campaigners, consumer advocates and charities do investigations and analysis on local, regional and international concern. Organisations in this sector have become catalysts in bringing political and economic pressure on governments and companies.

There have been many scandals and triumphs of Journalism in recent history. One notable example was Stephen Grey, the editor of the Bureau of investigative journalism’s tweet in 2010. He tweeted that a senior member of the British conservative party was a paedophile. This was followed by a terrible error of judgment within the BBC over a Newsnight programme on child abuse thus leaving the bureau in a critical condition. This was deemed as a public relations disaster. Incidents such as this portrayed the risks of unconfirmed news in a modern society for investigative Journalism. The most impactful example which affected investigative Journalism was the high profile incident of the phone hacking scandal and various wrong doings by News of the World. Criticisms rose about Journalism with it being deemed as “yellow press” and “gutter press”. This was a significantly negative image portrayed of investigative Journalism. It led to the Leveson inquiry and trials. Not only were the standards of modern journalism in question, but the ethics and morality of journalists. This was a blemish on journalism that led to increasing concern of its decline.

There have also been positive events in Journalism which have reassured critics. Many people state that if it were not for real investigative journalists, the wrongdoings of News of the World may have not even been found out. Also, Mazher Mahmood, News of the World’s fake sheikh, was at one point considered Britain’s most prominent investigative reporter being the man behind the recent exposé of the Pakistani cricket-fixing scandal. Even if the tabloid’s successes have been marred by concerns over the methods some of its journalists may have used to obtain information. An incident that contributed positively to this was in late 2010, when Wikileaks and five major newspapers from Spain, France, Germany, the UK and the US simultaneously published the first of 251 leaked confidential but not top secret diplomatic cables from 274 US embassies around the world dated from 1966 to 2010. This was considered a rare event and an enormous boost to investigative journalism.

Moreover, there are news sources which the public still trust. The BBC, the Guardian and the Telegraph are the best sources for investigative journalism in the UK according to a poll of the British public (Hanggerty, 2013) Investigative Journalism units are often funded by donations and subscriptions alone reassuring the public’s trust in certain outlets. In the United States there are a number of successful institutions such as proPublica, and Exaro, a UK based philanthropic funded outfit. Also, a new generation of citizen journalists have emerged contributing to investigative journalism. There is a rise of international and informal networks of investigative journalists. These groupings are providing under-resourced investigative journalists with longer arms as they are now able to call upon colleagues for help and advice. This is an important development given that the investigative journalists’ subjects are often adequately resourced and operate universally. Journalists are then able to share these stories.  The Reuters Institute published a detailed analysis of the impact of the digital revolution on the economics of new publishing in the UK in 2008.  The report states in the UK and everywhere else, news outlets are constructing digitally manufactured machines to feed content to an array of media platforms. “Under pressure to exploit content across multiple platforms many publishers are morphing into a form that favours the processing rather than the generation of content” (Currah, 2009). Social media has also been a useful tool in the Journalists tool box. Paul Lewis of The Guardian has written about its use recording events leading to the death of the news vendor Ian Tomlinson during the anti G20 protests and the death of Jimmy Mubenga, a deportee from UK who died after being forcibly restrained on an aircraft. He makes the point that in the pre-internet age, journalists mostly sought sources now with social media; sources can seek our journalists (Lewis, 2012).

A massive quantity of information such as statistics is available online by public organizations as part of the UK government’s open data agenda.  Bradshaw argues that the internet has made it possible to separate the investigative from the journalism; students, bloggers activists and anyone else with a curious enough can investigate it. “They can raise questions openly with thousands of users online; submit freedom of information requests or analyse datasets and documents with free tools regardless of whether or not they are employed as a journalists” the vast majority do not want to be a journalist. What they want are answers” (Mair and Keeble, 2011, 257). Caire Sambrook states “There are lots of very good online publications and then also online we can prompt the work through that we for example so if you get a rally astonishing piece like we had a piece on the Brevik massacre and it just went around the would have been extraordinarily difficult for him as somebody unknown to a national newspaper to get that kind of space. So there are all starts of benefits to online publication and online research, massive benefits” (House of Lord’s, 2012, 58).

The major problem to the structure of modern journalism is the lack of organisational support in a modern digital age. Investigative Journalism may have shifted in its industrial and business like manner, as well as news outlets, coverage, and value; however this can all be managed with the amount of resources and technology available to the investigative Journalist. Investigative Journalist may be considered to have declined while it has only changed its form. The ability of investigative Journalism’s perseverance is judged through its consistent survival. It has evolved to a new stage now yet constantly in change but not in decline. In conclusion, the role of investigative journalism will always be relevant. “Investigative journalism has helped bring down governments, imprison politicians, trigger legislation, reveal miscarriages of justice and shame corporate lions. Even today, when much of the media colludes with power and when viciousness and sensationalism are staples of formerly big minded media, investigative journalists can stand up for the powerless, the exploited, the truth (De Burgh, 2008)



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