Investigative Journalism is in grave danger. As the immense and chaotic growth of the internet has trampled on the incomes of newspapers and TV stations, the amount of space, time, thought, people, knowledge and experience within the IJ profession has dwindled. Newspapers have closed (at a local and national level) in most countries where open societies are dependent on the so-called Fourth Estate (the printed press) to keep the other three Estates to book.
Burke’s Fourth Estate (from Thomas Carlyle in 1787 – “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”) is now at risk of complete melt-down as we transition from the mogul-dominated press (now represented by Murdoch’s News International and the like) to the more widely-available online environment.
There is a continual blurring of the press – all the way from the WSJ and the Times, through investigative NGO’s and not-for-profits like Avaaz, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Global Witness, to blogs and twitter. The Fourth Estate is now a seething mix of intelligent news, variable comment and juvenile rant. Intelligence and knowledge is often lost in the morass of popular discussion.
The BBC is a symptom
In the UK, the Jimmy Savile problems at the BBC have been exaggerated by the imbecilic lack of editorial and investigative journalism at its flagship Newsnight programme – which has now seen the resignation of George Entwistle, the Director General (only for 55 days). It is entirely credible to believe that the problems at the BBC have been caused by substantial cost reductions and more focus on bureaucracy than investigative journalism and editorial nous. Its dependence on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (itself set-up to counter the dramatic fall-off in newspaper funding and initially funded by £2m from the David and Elaine Potter Foundation – a charitable foundation) has been found wanting and it has suspended all work with the BIJ. In the past, the BBC would fund its own operations and its focus on only providing evidentially supported material would have been sharp as a knife.
The BBC is a symptom of the wider problem facing investigative journalism worldwide. Even though it is a public sector organization, it is hardly immune from cost cutting and a focus on keeping the license fee down (each TV user in the UK pays a license fee which funds the BBC). This has meant job losses and a looser grip on key, operational knowledge and expertise that shows itself clearly in situations like this.
Newspapers are yesterday’s news
There was a great scene in an episode of the US hit “Boardwalk Empire” recently when Gyp Rosetti (a violent Sicilian gangster) is brought a newspaper by a young vendor and screams – “but, this is yesterday’s news!”. The frightened newspaper seller eventually sees the joke – of course it is – that’s what newspapers write about. His life is spared.
Unfortunately, the 21st Century has become more about what is happening now rather than analysis of what happened yesterday. The internet and 24 hour news on TV is less analysis and more about currency – being up-to-date with whatever is the latest news. Newspapers and TV current affairs programming are now challenged by the rest of society – which is more concerned with being current than having good analysis; more about celebrity than intelligent reporting.
Yesterday’s news has less appeal to those who are more intent on living for today and the internet has, unfortunately, enabled this movement. The internet is a vast machine that, when used well provides enormous gain. When used badly, it provides enormous harm.
When this is linked to lazy journalism by those who should know better, disaster strikes. This was the case when ITV’s Phillip Schofield ambushed David Cameron on “This Morning”, their flagship morning TV show. Having gleaned names of supposed pedophiles from Twitter, Schofield presented these in a printed list to Cameron on live TV – some of the names were then visible on air and led to reports on Twitter and exposure of names that were later shown to be innocent. This led to the Newsnight expose and a potential £1m lawsuit.
This amalgam of the internet and lazy reporting by those who should know better – compounded time after time – is leading to a public (already embittered by the Leveson phone hacking enquiry) to misbelieve those journals and honoured current affairs programmes to the extent that the Fourth Estate (the part of the media profession that should be holding to account the legislature, executive and judiciary) is now ridiculed along with bankers.
Holding Society to Account
Following the revelations of phone hacking in the UK and the BBC disasters, good, investigative journalism has been shown in its desire to compete (phone hacking was a competition for sales) and its lack of funding to be seriously broken. The ability of the Fourth Estate to provide serious, intelligent, brave reporting that can be believed in is a core ingredient to any open society. There is more at stake than a few journalists. This is about how civil society holds government and large organisations to account – how we hold society to account.
Dictatorships of all kinds seek to diminish and destroy the Fourth Estate. From the capture of newspapers by moguls to the silencing of opposition in countries from Africa to China, the State and large organisations seek to capture information. Those who are clammering for more control over the media in the UK (a reaction to good media coverage of the expenses “scandals” in the UK) want to manage the media. The repercussions of this, on top of the already financially ravaged media, will be a continuous erosion in the ability of the media to hold our institutions to account. It will leave this to NGO’s who are too small to impact except at the margins and to the internet – with its chaotic and wide (not deep) intelligence.
The role of investigative journalism – its ability to hold society and our major institutions to account – should be as sacrosanct as democracy. It is a vital part of democracy but the part now most at risk. In the UK, the BBC is a serious leg of the Fourth Estate that has become rotten. Our newspapers are lessened through time (they have smaller budgets, less staff, less foreign correspondents). “Money talks” and nowhere more than in investigative journalism – where Chinese, Russian broadcasting and Al Jazeera now have the deepest pockets.
If we want an intelligent media that can hold us to account and in which we believe, then we have to fund it. When challenged by the mayhem during this transition to online media and the mass of opportunity provided by the internet, we should seek to understand that the news media is not just about what is happening to celebrities but that there are issues of balance that underpin the freedoms on which we rely. Those freedoms – the right to free speech amongst them – are underpinned by a well-run and financed Fourth Estate.
While the UK is mired in public investigations of phone hacking and concern about the BBC, perhaps the western world needs to consider what has been happening to its investigative journalism over the last twenty or so years. The rapid decline in reporting and the esteem in which the previously recognized media was held may be a mirror on society but does threaten to destabilize society, The possible demise of Newsnight and the continuous dumbing down of journalism is maybe what we deserve but not what we should crave.
The Potter Foundation bravely invested in a response through the BIJ. It would be a shame if the BIJ lost that credibility now.
The BBC has built itself into a tower of independent, journalistic credibility. Who else but the BBC would have carried out the interview yesterday (on its radio 4 programme “Today” between John Humphreys and Entwistle) that effectively caused the Director General to resign? That tower is toppling, though.
All that are not just interested in democracy but so enraged that the whole edifice may be crumbling as investigative journalism is left to the wolves will be disheartened but it is now time to pick up the pieces and ensure that this is the low point below which it should not go. 21st Century democracy needs a vibrant investigative journalism to hold it to account through the mass of information that is available – a sabre rather than an axe. Maybe the recent problems will be seen as the opportunity to save the Fourth Estate rather than allow it to be sold off.