Investigative Reporting: Is it still a staple of the modern press?
February 9, 2012 3 Comments
The following piece is based on interviews I conducted in February/March 2011, and is obviously disadvantaged by not having the Leveson Inquiry to reference or the full revelations regarding NotW phone hacking.
I am unable to understand how a man of honour could take a newspaper in his hands without a shudder of disgust. – Charles Baudelaire
Journalism has forged a strange and unique reputation within society. Without a doubt an efficient and functioning independent press is the keystone of an open and honest democracy. Over the decades journalists have effectively saved lives, exposed corruption and toppled a President. But in the public consciousness, journalists are demonised and lionised in equal measure. With its own retellings and representations, Hollywood has further promoted the idea of the ‘investigative reporter’ as wielder of ‘truth’ against the tyranny of injustice, but also the invader of privacy and the destroyer of lives. This duplicity is standard stuff, and not entirely incorrect. As journalist Roy Greenslade would put it, “in the public estimation of our worth, we rank alongside politicians and estate agents. It always seems to have been the case, since the dawn of newspapers onwards.” (2010)
It can be argued that journalism itself is in some way investigative, but the differences between standard and investigative journalism appear to be vast, not least for those who practice the latter. However, those with a romantic sensibility always look backwards. Many journalists cite ‘Watergate’ as a crucial influence upon their career choice, and a benchmark for the power of the press and investigative reporting. It is nearly 40 years since Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, and there have since been many significant investigations, but none which garners such affection as the probe into President’s Nixon’s crooked machinations.
Times were different in the 70s. The modern news industry is plagued with an increasing assortment of destructive forces: the decline in sales and revenue; the increasing online imperative; the rise in public relations; libel laws and injunctions; and shortages in newsroom staffing. And although investigative reporting in the current age sets itself apart from (or in opposition to) day-to-day news reporting, it is nevertheless shackled to the same sinking ship.
WHAT ISN’T INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM?
Defining investigative journalism in a broad sense rarely poses much of a problem. Those with an opinion on the matter tend to agree on the fundamentals: that investigative reporting sets out to uncover that which, for whatever reasons, is concealed. But, ‘what’ investigative reporting is does not take us very far. To begin to get a more accurate picture requires a bigger focus on ‘why’: why there needs to be a culture of journalism that by its nature is much more in-depth.
In his introduction to the second edition of his textbook, Investigative Journalism, de Burgh states that the basic task of an investigative reporter is to, “discover the truth and to identify lapses from it in whatever media may be available” (2001, 2nd Ed. p10). De Burgh’s clumsy definition, although slightly weak in effect, does almost get to the heart of what modern day investigative journalism is required to do: sweep up the detritus of truths that fall through the holes created by the shortfalls in daily news reporting. “A lot of the news agenda is based around press releases and events.” explains Meirion Jones, the investigations producer for Newsnight, “At the BBC, we have a planning diary, which has all the things that we launch that day, the court cases, that sort of stuff… pre-planned news that you know is going to happen” (2011).
This is a recurring theme of up-to-date news media. The emphasis is on speed rather than accuracy: getting copy out as a quickly as possible in order to beat the competition. For example, Nick Davies’s book, Flat Earth News, deconstructs a study carried out by Cardiff University Lecturer, Paul Lewis, into the British news media’s dependence on press releases, news agency wire services and pre-planned news, i.e. press conferences, court cases, et cetera. According to Davies and the study, on average the five broadsheets (Independent, Guardian, Times, Telegraph and Mail) carry a total of 128 ‘home news stories’ on any given weekday, and that “70% of those stories will be wholly, mainly or partly constructed from the PA [Press Association] feed.” (2008, p93) Davies also states that because national newspapers “tend to cluster around the same selection of stories… [they] cover on average only seventy-five stories a day.” (ibid)
With the onus on speed, the ongoing job and budget cuts to journalism –the report, Laid Off, claims that real jobs in the journalism sector have fallen by 30% in the last decade (Nel, 2010) -, and the increasing dependence on non-original reporting, and in particular, the reliance on PR and wire services, a fewer number of working journalist than ever are being required to meet the increasing copy demand (once online, mailing-list and non-printed stories are taken into consideration).
“The problem is that everybody is scrambling after the same story as opposed to, what we would call, advancing it and adding a [new] dimension to it,” said Danny Schechter, who worked for eight years on ABC News in the US. He claims that cut backs and the increasingly competitive nature of the news environment means, “there’s almost no time to do proper investigations, which inevitably take time, take money and real exposure… to do it right.” And the dilemma is that “by the time an investigative report comes out, often the story has moved on.” (2011)
Investigative reporter, Greg Palast, describes the culture of ‘churnalism’ much less gracefully: “Most reporting is what I call ‘lazy-fuckism.’ That is it comes from something that someone has set up for you to report…actually handed to you. I once said that 95% of newspapers was this pre-fab’d shit… and [an] editor was there and he said, ‘If we had 5% original news, we’d go bankrupt.’ He thought the number was too high.” (2011)
The above statements and facts suggest that for many investigative reporters there is some resentment towards the way the day-to-day operations are being conducted. All of the subjects interviewed for this study made direct references to ‘churnalism’ as part of the reason that investigations are so necessary. But to view the issue along the lines of the oft-repeated dictum that ‘all journalism should be investigative,’ and be done with it, does little to explain what is going on. Ideally, all journalism should be investigative, but not all of it needs to be, and most of it isn’t. It is important to understand that basic journalism should be succeeding when it matters and that in those instances, it is essential for all reporting to be original and researched, and as we have seen that is decreasingly the case.
Brant Houston, the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. (IRE), is more specific than de Burgh, in his essay, The Future of Investigative Journalism, claiming that the practice is “multifaceted,” and always stand-out because of its commitment to “original reporting full of rigorous documentation and numerous interviews” and its pursuit in “probing waste, fraud, and abuse in government agencies. It brings with it moral judgements” (2009). Houston, perhaps inadvertently, neglects to include corporations in his definition –a major cache of subject matter for investigations, as we will see – but his final point, that investigative reporting “brings with it moral judgements,” is one of the most defining aspects.
When asked what factors determined whether a subject should be investigated, Nick Davies maintained that, “it’s dictated by a moral agenda: You have to select subjects that deserve to be investigated” (2011). This sentiment was also supported by Meirion Jones, who claims for many it is a fact of “justice and injustice, if you know what I mean? It’s not party political. [Investigative journalists] tend to have a very strong feeling that something is unjust and therefore something needs to be done about it.”(2011)
It appears that impartiality is less of a factor in investigative reporting; one has to get a tad subjective in order to understand the consequences of any wrong-doing. A 2007 investigation by Newsnight revealed a culture of debt purchasing by “companies which buy up the debt of poor nations cheaply when it is about to be written off and then sue for the full value of the debt plus interest – which might be ten times what they paid for it.” (Hawley & Jones, 2010) Matt Pascarella, who helped research the pieces with Greg Palast and Meirion Jones for Newsnight, said that is was “originally just kind of an arcane financial story. It wasn’t until I could find the people who were actually affected and see the real world implications that it became an easier story to tell.” (2011)
Investigative reporters always return to the question of ‘public interest’ and civic duty. By their design, investigations are always heavy going and run through the dirtier veins of society. Thus any exposé should, in theory and in practice, be all for the public good and with a sense of moral importance.
In 2010, BBC’s Newsnight led an investigation into what it termed ‘bogus bomb detectors.’ (22 Jan, 2010) The device (ADE-651) was sold throughout the Middle East by British company, ATSC. According to the story, Export ban for useless ‘bomb detector,’ the Iraqi government shelled out £52m in no-bid contracts on the equipment that contained “nothing but the type of anti-theft tag used to prevent stealing in high street stores.” The report also claims that their use may have “failed to stop bomb attacks that have killed hundreds of people” (ibid). The initial story sparked a slew of subsequent investigations and resulted in the arrest of ATSC director, Jim McCormick, in January 2010 and an export ban on the devices. (BBC News, 1 Jun, 2010)
“You can say that that these [stories] make an impact in the real world and that’s a lot to do with the impact of our programme: that we actually change things and do things,” Meirion said (2011). But, by their nature, the likes of Newsnight, Panorama, Dispatches et cetera, are purposed for these kinds of investigations because the BBC News, and UK TV news, relies on the same wire service stories as everyone else. And as far as the researcher could uncover, the above story was never once picked up by the Sun, – the biggest-selling daily national – despite its penchant for, admittedly soft and ideological, stories on Iraq and Afghanistan.
The remit of the tabloid press to sell newspapers is paramount to how it chooses to deploy its staff and resources. It is often said that ‘what interests the public is not always what is in the public interest,’ and rarely is this more arguable than when discussing the ‘investigations’ carried out by the ‘red tops,’ where much of the same techniques are used, but the public interest defence carries less clarity. Journalists, like other groups such as lawyers, politicians and estate agents, tend to be grouped together, so the sins of the few become regarded as industry-wide.
For the past few years a few journalists, most notably Nick Davies, have investigated what is described as the ‘dark arts’ of Fleet Street: using illegal means to acquire confidential personal information for the purposes of confirming stories and digging dirt. On 6 August 2006, several news outlets reported the arrest of News of the World Royal Correspondent, Clive Goodman, and private investigator, Glenn McCaire, for illegally accessing voicemail messages and “conspiring to intercept communications” of royal family staff members. (BBC News, 09 Aug, 2006)
The duo were investigated and subsequently gifted some jail time in 2007 – four and six months respectively. However, in 2009 the Guardian ran a series of stories that widened the scope that implicated additional journalists and News International staff, including an attempt by the organisation to “gag” Professional Footballers’ Association Chief Executive, Gordon Taylor, who was suing them for illegally accessing his voicemail. According to Nick Davies, this suppression of evidence on behalf of News of the World also happened to “[protect] some powerful and influential people from the implications of that evidence,” and in particular, allegations against former editor, Andy Coulson (2009)
The investigation is still ongoing, but each succeeding revelation about the NOTW brings home, firstly, the realities of the seemingly ubiquitous questionable practices of journalists, and secondly, that the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity and public figure scandals is fuelling the need for information ‘at all costs,’ ethically or otherwise. Davies attests that the cultivation of illegally attended information is something endemic in Fleet Street, affecting not just the tabloids, but the likes of the Daily Mail, Observer, Evening Standard, Sunday Times, and the Times.(2008, p 260) No proper formal investigation has ever been made, but that is another story entirely. [At the time of research and writing, the Leveson inquiry had not been set-up]
How this affects investigative journalism may not immediately be obvious, but as Stephen Baxter succinctly offers, “the case for real investigative journalism would be so much clearer without a fog of intrusive garbage clouding our perceptions of what newspapers are there to do, and what they want to sell us.” (2011) Also, the legal ramifications of libellous and privacy breaching actions of celebrity journalism is not limited only to its perpetrators. The evolving path of privacy and libel law is being determined by judges rather than parliament, which is to say on a case-by-case basis in suits that are overwhelmingly to do with celebrity. Legal precedents are, in many cases, being set by stories that are not public interest, but rather in the commercial interests of the respective news organisations. Max Mosely’s recent campaign to “impose on newspapers a duty to warn people before publishing stories exposing their lives,” (Bowcott, 2011) came about as a result of a breach of privacy exposé piece by the News of the World into his sexual antics. Mosley subsequently won £60,000 damages (Holmwood & Fitzsimmons, 2008), but it has been argued, and confirmed by Mosley, that his proposals for prior warning would increase the use of gag orders (Independent, 2011) – the effect of which are discussed below.
Some could make the case that there is a place for clandestine reporting operations in investigative journalism; investigations that are necessary and in the public interest –the BBC’s Panorama investigation Undercover Care: The Abuse Exposed (31 May, 2011), is one such example where it is possible to argue that the ends may justify the means.
The programmers sent an undercover reporter to work at Bristol’s Winterbourne View care home to observe and film the violent abuses of power by staff members on vulnerable patients. The footage was shocking and brought the issue into the public realm, along with the subsequent arrest of several employees (BBC News, 9 Jun 2011). Former Guardian editor, Peter Preston, praised the BBC’s use of subterfuge, the kind of which is often criticised on ethical grounds: “Panorama’s filming inside Winterbourne View care home saw the public interest served – and public conscience awakened – in clear, compelling terms. Sneaky tactics? Privacy infringed? …don’t believe that for a second. Here, from the BBC and its reporter, Joe Casey, was public interest journalism incarnate – and making waves in a way no “proper” investigation could have.” (5 Jun, 1011)
The story itself contains all the necessary public interest elements. Society deserves to know how these patients are being treated in order to implement any changes. Whether they also have a right to know what drugs supermodel Kate Moss prefers to ingest privately, or which footballer conducted an extra-marital affair with Big Brother Contestant, Imogen Thomas, is a little less transparent. Often it is the motivations that help to determine what good investigative journalism is. “A Daily Mail investigation into a celebrity sex scandal is one thing,” says Schechter, “a Greg Palast investigation into BP is something very different. This is the problem: Why are you doing it, and what is your goal in doing it?” (2011) Judging by the reputation of journalists in the UK, it would appear that some of the public does not always differentiate. And without clear understanding about what motivates the two, public support and opinion for the latter will remain crooked.
PROBLEMS WITH INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM IN BRITAIN AND AMERICA
Analysing the differences between investigative reporting in Britain and investigative reporting in the United States produces some interesting issues. Where both sets of interviewees tend to agree is on the problem of funding. “Well, there’s a saying in America: ‘Opinions are cheap; reporting costs money,” says Danny Schechter. (ibid) In fact, the question of funding occurs so often that it is hard to imagine that any reporting gets done. Investigative work is time consuming and is expensive – particularly if there are resulting legal complications – also there is no guarantee that a particular story will appeal to readers and sell newspapers. It is for these reasons, says Nick Davies, that investigative reporting “has little commercial appeal for the owners of new organisations.” News media is still, after all, a business for those that pay the bills and since those news organisations are “going through a period of special financial difficulty, they are particularly likely to withdraw funds from investigative work in favour of journalism which is quicker and cheaper to produce and more likely to sell papers.” (2011)
Paul Lashmar reinforces the view that editorial policy is important part of investigative journalism output, that resources and experiences are necessary tools in the pursuit of stories. But not all editors are willing to release the assets: “my experience is that I’ve heard editors say, “Oh, I don’t go in for this investigative thing because, in my view, all reporters are investigative.” But they are often very much the same editors who fail to resource properly the reporters they do have.” (2011)
Meirion Jones echoes a similar sentiment when asked whether the news press is actively encouraging investigations from their staff these days, saying that he didn’t believe they were, but that he thinks there are “individual editors, at times who say, ‘go out and get me stuff,’ and so on, but it’s quite difficult to show that it sells papers or whatever.” (2011)
This returns the situation to the complications of public interest versus private interests, and also conflicts of interest. There are lots of factors that have contributed to a decline in investigative reporting, but you will find that more often it is the manner in which one directly influences another that helps construct an accurate picture of where it is going wrong. The problems of investigative journalism can only be measured if its own failings are analysed, both those within and beyond its control.
The corporate interest in the United States’ news media has long been considered in hegemonic terms. The mainstream media in the United States in owned by six corporations: General Electric, Disney Media Networks, News Corps., Time Warner, Viacom and CBS, and each control the flow of television and radio news output, to varying different degrees (Freepress.net). “[Getting real investigations] on air in the US is virtually non-existent, it simply does not exist,” explains Palast. “Even the so called ‘investigative shows,’ like 60 Minutes, is all [still] pre-fabricated stuff… you might get a couple of programmes on what I call ‘Petroleum Broadcasting’ (PBS), but they’ve been mostly, if you look, supplied by Channel 4 or the BBC” (2011). With such corporate concentration people often look to public service broadcasting to get what they consider to be a more unbiased and less sycophantic viewpoint, but it too is beset with problems, particularly when it comes to specific investigations.
PBS is the United States’s non-profit, public broadcaster. It is allocated funds by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that oversees over 350 individual member stations. It has a public service remit and carries news and news magazine shows such as Frontline and NewsHour, both highly respected –a poll published in January 2001 by the Public Policy Polling revealed that 50% of those polled trusted PBS above all other networks, with 30% distrusting and 17% ‘not sure.’(19 January, 2011) The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio frequently sees assaults from congress against its funding, but there are other reasons to fear for its operations.
According to its 2005 accounts, 56.3% of their revenue in generated from “private” sources, which does call into question its “public” credentials (cpb.org, March 2006). PBS’s chief sponsor is Chevron Corporation. The influx of corporate money into public organisations can essentially act as the privatisation of freedom of the press, and remains a largely under reported problem in regards to PBS. Greg Palast believes that the question of ‘who’s paying?’ has caused direct problems with some investigations that are carried out on PBS. As he puts it, “[PBS] can’t say a word about Chevron Oil,” (2011) in very much the same way that the commercial sector prohibits absolute freedom to investigate:
“Investigations are limited to those targets which support the owners’ interests. Chevron doesn’t call up the [PBS] execs and say, ‘Don’t you dare run a story about the oil industry!’ They just know it. And they don’t hire people in the first place [who will cause problems].” (ibid)
It is easy to be cynical about the funding issues with PBS, but that fact remains that the oil industry has infiltrated the one facet of news media that may be in a position to broadcast its failures. “[PBS’s Frontline] had a documentary call The Spill (26 October, 2010), about Deepwater Horizon, and their whole thing was kind of a ‘single bullet’ theory; that the culture of BP is bad and ‘BP, BP…’ and that’s problematic,” says Pascarella (2011). Palast illuminates this observation in his story, The Petroleum Broadcast System Owes Us an Apology, which was published on the non-profit website shortly after PBS broadcast its investigation. The piece attests that the programme had the equivalent effect of “shooting the wounded,” and consisted of research made up from “…old stuff from old papers that PBS forgot to report the first time around… The ‘Frontline’ story was an exercise in damage control. If it’s just bad-boy BP’s ‘management culture,’ then the rest of the industry is off the hook…[and] its recent failure to run ‘Crude,’ (Berlinger, 2009) about Chevron in the Amazon, certainly stands out.” (27 October, 2010)
“The job of an investigative journalist is just like the job of any journalist, that’s public service,” says Matt Pascarella, “…and part of that public service is not being reactionary; it’s predicting what’s going to happen; it’s not waiting for Deepwater Horizon to blow out and then report[ing] on it. There have been blow-outs in the Gulf of Mexico for a long time… [but] you don’t hear about the root causes and the systemic issues that are involved with these topics. We should avoid disasters; we should avoid genocide; we should avoid all of these problems that we’re facing instead of just being reactionary. (2011)
Crude, the film to which Palast refers, is an award-winning, 2009 documentary by Joe Berlinger that follows the Ecuadorian, class action suit against the Chevron Corporation over the ‘Amazon Chernobyl’ affair. In contrast to Spill, its criticisms are industry-wide and, for his troubles, Berlinger is being sued by Chevron who is demanding he turn over all unused footage and reveal sources. It has yet to be shown on PBS and the cases against Berlinger and Chevron are ongoing. (Folkenflik, D, 4 June 2010)
In 2010, PBS broadcast Turmoil and Triumph, (Devries, 2009) a three-hour feature about George Shultz, the US Secretary of State under Reagan. Following the broadcast, the non-profit, media watchdog, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), criticised the programme and PBS’s decision to air for what it deemed to be a “completely uncritical tribute… partially sponsored by corporations linked to Shultz’s corporate career.” (7 July 2010) The complaint turned out to be valid, even in the eyes of PBS ombud Michael Getler, who admitted that there may have been a conflict of interest in the production –two of the funders, Stephen Bechtel Fund and Charles Schwab, specifically, had previously employed Shultz— and although it “[didn’t] mean that funders exerted any editorial influence… [the programme] left me feeling they didn’t have to.” (fair.org, 20 July 2010) PBS disagreed with both FAIR and Getler, responding that the programme “fully meets our standards for editorial integrity.” (ibid)
The removal of corporate interest is no guarantee of independence, at least for the big players who have the most to lose. Reporters with a pathologically investigative mindset are often referred to as muckrackers, hell-raisers, trouble-makers; which are all true and for the individuals engaged in such practices the epithets are complimentary; for the organisations answerable to shareholders, not so much. But a press independent of corporate influence is no guarantee that public service journalism will flourish.
Britain isn’t immune from such detracting influences. On 29 May 2003, BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, alleged that the government had ‘sexed up’ the intelligence dossier, and the threat from Saddam Hussein, in order to make a case for war against Iraq. He also maintained that he had a legitimate source for the information. The Labour government demanded that the BBC disclose their contact. They refused. Just over a month later, David Kelly, a weapons expert in the employ of the Ministry of Defence, admitted to his involvement but denied he was the main source (news.bbc.co.uk). His name was leaked to the press and shortly after Kelly was found dead in the woods near his home from self-inflicted wounds.
The government set up judicial committee, overseen by Lord Hutton, to investigate the circumstances surrounding Dr. Kelly’s demise. Essentially, it was a battle between the BBC and the incumbent Labour government. In January 2004, Hutton published his findings in which he largely vindicated the government, but was highly critical of the BBC. (the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk)
It was the failings of the UK (and US) news media that allowed the case for war to roll along relatively unimpeded. In a presentation to the Action for UN Renewal on Disarmament in 2009, Journalist, Robert Fox, who has covered war and conflict throughout his career, asked question of why there was such a “general acceptance of the ‘drift to war’ in 2002:”
“By the summer recess in July 2002 there was a broad spectrum of opinion among Westminster journalists that the UK would support an American offensive in Iraq soon. The metropolitan press, least of all the BBC, failed to examine the proposition that such a deliberate move to an offensive was neither desirable nor necessary. (action-for-un-renewal.org.uk)”
Much of this complaints are, once again, against the culture of news reporting, but as subsequent revelations have proven – lack of WMD, the Downing Street Memo etc… – there was no shortage of material worth investigating. Such is the way the news environment operates, once the BBC had made the jump, much of the rest of the news followed suit and repeated the claims – with varying ideological bents, as is often the case. But the attack from Hutton towards the BBC was damning enough that they are still rocked by it now. The BBC is frequently accused, usually by Murdoch’s operations and the right-wing press, of having a ‘liberal-bias.’ A typical example is a story that the Daily Mail ran with, Facebook reveals the BBC as a liberal hotbed, alleged that a survey of BBC employees with Facebook accounts showed that “11 times more of them class themselves as ‘liberal’ than “conservative’” (Merrick, J & Walker, K. 27 October 2009). Putting aside the question of whether individual, personal politics can influence the agenda of such a large organisation, on the subject of Iraq the BBC were, in fact, found to be the most pro-war of the four main news broadcasters (BBC, Sky, Channel 4, ITV ) (Lewis, J et al. 2003). It was the he Sunday Times that first published details of what would become the ‘Downing Street Memo’ on 1 May 2005. The memo stated that President George Bush had made up his mind to take military action in Iraq, which was in contrary to what was being said publically. It also said that the “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” (timesonline.co.uk). Although, Murdoch’s other UK titles, The Sun and the News of the World, were explicitly pro-war, the scoop was no doubt too good to pass up, and in any event never really hurt Murdoch’s interests. Incidentally, the only coverage this smoking gun memo was afforded in the US was by way of a Greg Palast story Impeachment Time: “Facts Were Fixed,” published on internet site Buzzflash.com (4 May 2005), which was hardly industry imprimatur.
The real failings over the war in Iraq is that in spite of the evidence, there has been almost no genuine coherent case made for criminal indictments against either the Bush administration or the Labour government from any mainstream news source, for what may have been illegal conduct.
According to David McQueen or Bournemouth University, Panorama, the BBC’s ‘investigative’ current-affairs show, is beset with failings: “Serious flaws in the government’s claims about WMD were well known in advance of March 2003, and while some of these views were reported, they received relatively late attention from Panorama investigators” (2009). McQueen does state that although there was heavy pressure from the government, which undoubtedly had an effect, Panorama’s agenda was being most likely being dictated by “journalistic culture and practices operating more widely within the BBC’s News and Current Affairs Department. It can be no surprise after all, that a major cultural institution such as the BBC is ‘tied’ to the structure of power that funds its existence” (ibid): Which may be another way of saying they were simply self-censoring. But if they were prone to pulling their punches before the Hutton Inquiry, the state of the organisation policies subsequent might cause some alarm. Their recent broadcast, The Death of Bin laden (9 May, 2011), with its dramatic, made-for-TV style reconstruction and lack of critical opinion, showed an embarrassing void of journalistic originality for an organisation that considers itself investigative.
“The BBC tends to be pro-government because that’s where its money comes from, and ultimately it does not like upsetting the government,” says Meirion. “After Hutton there was a terrible panic at the BBC. For maybe a year and a half… they wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to a goose; I had stuff axed. There was a real, absolute, panic because they were so scared at what the government might do to them” (2011) However, Lashmar suggests that the period of panic may have lasted longer than 18 months:
“The BBC is, by default, the one place where you can get, in theory, unbiased investigative journalism because it’s not playing to tune of any particular proprietor. However, what you have got is a BBC that is very nervous… they are still reeling over ‘Hutton’. There are some very good things going on, but you do wonder, if one presented the BBC with a really serious investigation about major figures in the government, how would they do it? It’s a difficult one to call… They know that if they took out, say, three ministers, the climate would be even more anti-BBC. And that’s worrying.” (2011)
In spite of the protection that the First Amendment offers, there is a still reluctance on the part of the US media to criticise certain aspects of the government – unless that criticism come from the likes of Fox News or right-wing talk radio. Even the Washington Post is failing to live up to the infamy produced by the Watergate Scandal. Says Danny Schechter, “there are some people, like Bob Woodward [associate editor of the Washington Post], who do all these White House investigations, but they are very superficial and not very critical” (2011). It is the same romanticism felt towards the past successes of journalism that allow its failures to continue. The suggestion that even the Washington Post has finally caved is little surprise to Palast, who believes that, under modern circumstances, Bob Woodward would not publish his own story on Watergate because, he says, “it contradicts an official denial, and there’s a single source without documentation.” (2011). Danny Schechter in part agreed with Palast on the issue of Watergate in the modern climate; that Woodward would bottle it:
“It’s very possible. Remember that Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein got into the story by being court reporters on a Saturday when some of those arrested were indicted in a D.C. courtroom, not because the heavies at the paper were tracking all the crimes of the Nixon cabal and recognized the story’s import. They lucked out, but even then they went off course and started pursuing Donald Segrettii and missed the White House angle. That came later when the Times and CBS got into the story adding a competitive dimension. That gave the story more gravitas. It wasn’t one story that blew it open.” (2011)
Of course, failure to upset the-powers-that-be isn’t always a corporate or governmental influence. Part of the problem lies in the personal and financial sacrifices that some journalists are unwilling to take; what essentially amounts to individual self-censorship. We have seen that it is possible to get hard-hitting stories into the public realm, but it isn’t always the threat of legal or governmental repercussions that are forcing journalists to pullulate towards ‘safe’ stories. As Palast boldly claims, he could point blindly at the stock tables, at any corporations and: “give me a month I’ll have enough for a criminal indictment. And there are no exceptions” (2011). With such fodder to go at, why would journalists in the US, and the UK, not want to make a name for themselves by exposing these wrong-doings?
“Careerism is the main animal. And fear is secondary. Unfortunately, I think it’s careerism.” says Greg Palast, “in the US you can make millions as a reporter, which you just don’t see in Britain. You have this lucrative prize which is to become a superstar celebrity… and you don’t do that by coming up with reports that get you in trouble… Also, they love being members of the Club, members of the Elite. You have correspondents from newspapers as official invitees at state dinners: What… is a reporter doing taking a meal?… They become part of that ruling elite and that’s why they don’t investigate the ruling elite; they are their friends, their buddies.” (ibid)
Palast isn’t wrong. In 2007, Forbes published a Top 20 rich list of TV personalities, which news anchors were included, for the 2006-07 period. The list showed that news anchors took up slots 20 to 14. ABC Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer came in at number 20 with earnings of $12m; down to CBS Evening News anchor, Katie Couric at number 14, with a salary of $15; and none of those placed could be considered investigative journalists (Goldman, 2007). Criticising governments and corporations isn’t going to win any powerful friends; Palast is evidence of that, in spite of that fact that his books always top the best-seller lists.
Constitutionally, the United States is an easier place to work; their libel laws tend to protects free speech over privacy and even poor journalism. Britain only introduced a Freedom of Information Act in 2000, and didn’t come into full effect until 1 January 2005, nearly 40 years after the United States’s. The then incumbent Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has since claimed that the signing of the bill into law was one of his biggest regrets, because he believes it became a fishing tool for journalists, rather than the public (Pidd, 2010). It is, after all, the same legislation that allowed the MPs expenses scandal to materialise, as well as questions about political donations, and countless others, so perhaps he is right.
All of the examples of investigations used, by the nature of their publication, explain things in terms of successes. And the publication of one story does a successful industry make. There are corresponding issues between Britain and the US: corporate pressure; government influence; careerism; lack of funding; shoddy journalism. The largest difference in the culture of reporting between Britain and America comes from a legal perspective. In essence: America censor themselves; Britain has libel laws.
The British libel laws are world renowned for their stifling of free speech and protecting the wealthy from criticism. For those who work in the industry, it harangues every word and claim that they make, and the British High Court’s affection for the ‘defamed’ has earned London the not-so-flattering moniker of ‘libel capital of the world.’ It is reported that there were 298 writs issued in 2009, a 15% increase on the previous year (Robinson, 2010). There are clear and set defences against libel, but that rarely tells the story. Each of the interviewees, and all of the research carried out, points to British libel law as the major factor in publishing investigations in the UK. “They are absolutely terrible,” says Meirion Jones, “you don’t see the half of what’s going on. The number of stories that are killed, that the public never sees because of the threat of libel action and the number of stories that go out in a very weak way because of the same threat.” (2011)
This is not exclusive to investigative reporting. There have been libel suits against food critics giving bad reviews (news.bbc.co.uk); doctors for giving a professional opinion (Henderson, 2009); and authors having to pulp unsold and library copies of a books deemed to be defamatory against a Saudi banker – even if said book sold a whole 23 copies in the UK (indexoncensorship.org, 7 Sept 2007). Newsnight’s story about the bogus bomb detectors was plagued with legal issues. Such is the state of the law, according to Jones, that even calling them ‘bogus bomb detectors’ meant:
“[the BBC] would have to prove what was in the minds of the people selling them. You can prove they don’t work; you can prove that they are selling them for a thousand times what it is costing them to make… but how do you actually prove what is in the head of that person? It’s the burden of proof thing that makes it impossible.” (2011)
The cost of defending against the threat of civil proceedings is what creates the ‘Chilling Effect’ that dissuades many editors from going after certain ‘risky’ stories, if at all. The financial cost of defending a libel suit is 140 times greater than the next nearest European rival, according to a study carried out at Oxford University and cited by Elizabeth Renzetti in a piece for theglobeandmail.com (2010). The coalition government has pledged to launch a review of libel with a view to increasing the protection of freedom of the press (bbc.co.uk, 9 July 2010), but the spate of super-injunctions and gag orders in recent years has upset the balance a little too aggressively. The implication is that the wealthy and large corporations – setting aside celebrity – appear to be being afforded the right to purchase protection from criticism, even if that criticism is in the public interest. At least that is the way it plays when these stories eventually hit the public consciousness. Like the stories involving Dutch company, Trafigura, anda new thing called a ‘pre-libel hyper-injunction.’
“In Britain, libel (or defamation) is used as the rich man’s sedition law, stifling criticism and exposure of all kinds of malpractice. Dating back to the 13th century, it was reframed during the past 200 years specifically to protect wealthy people from criticism, based on the presumption that any derogatory remark made about a gentleman must be false. The law of defamation is the only British instrument which places the burden of proof on the defendant. Given the inordinate costs involved, it’s not surprising that it discourages people from investigating abuses of power.” (Monbiot, 2009)
On 19 august 2006, the Probo Koala, a ship chartered by Dutch independent oil-trading company Trafigura, unloaded 500 cubic meters of ‘slops’ in Abidjan. Compagnie Tommy, a newly formed waste contractor with no experience in toxic waste disposal, took hold of the cargo and instead of treating it, began illegally tipping the material in and around the city. Soon after, the tens of thousands of Abidjan’s residents began to seek medical treatment for nausea, breathing difficulties and severe sickness. 16 people died, including four children (Leigh &Hirsch, 2009).
As it turns out, the ‘slops,’ as they were described by Trafigura, were actually the result of an oil cleaning process called ‘caustic washing,’ and very toxic. Designed to clean heavy, dirty oil cheaply, caustic washing creates a by-product that results in a cocktail of several highly poisonous substances, including Hydrogen Sulphide. Trafigura had tried to dispose of the load in Amsterdam with the same ‘slops’ line, then instead chose to head for Abidjan once the Dutch authorities upped the price after discovering the true nature of the material.
In August 2007, BBC’s Newsnight broadcast a report alleging Trafigura’s negligence in the affair (news.bbc.co.uk). Trafigura weren’t happy. “We had a hellish time,” said Meirion, who was at the centre of the investigation for Newsnight, “I ran the first film on Trafigura in 2007 and we were absolutely bombarded by Carter-Ruck: threats turning up every hour, on the hour, by messenger, fax, email, phone: Absolute bombardment!” (2011)
Stories about the dumping had been covered by a few of the newspapers prior to Newsnight’s report, but very few were properly investigated. And once Carter-Ruck’s bullying began taking effect, the story was pushed to the sidelines. Anyone who took the story and new evidence to Trafigura was hit with the same aggressive treatment. Trafigura had already paid the Ivorian government £100m in February 2007 to compensate victims and cover the cleanup, a move that both secured the release of two employees that had been arrested, and granted the company immunity from future prosecution.
“There is a lot of stuff that I know about that happened in the early days,” said Meirion, “if you like, the ‘James Bond’ options that were being looked at by Trafigura to get their guys out of the Ivory Coast: mercenaries; coups; all these sorts of options were being looked at. It was high-stake stuff.” (ibid) Trafigura’s questionable ethics will come as little surprise for anyone familiar with the company and their Marc Rich instincts. They have been involved in buying and selling fuel to Iran (reuters.com, 2010); the Oil-for-food scandal (Vickers, M, 2005); and more recently, the story concerning a $31m donation to Jamaica’s former Prime Minister (Jamaica-gleaner.com, 2011). But none of Meirion’s allegations ever made it to print.
Trafigura had enlisted the services of the public relations company, Bell Pottinger, and libel specialists, Carter-Ruck, to limit the damage to the firm and keep the story from progressing. But in May 2009, Newsnight returned to the story (news.bbc.co.uk). “It wasn’t until we went back to it in 2009 that we could then prove exactly what they’d done,” said Meirion. “I went to [the Guardian’s] David Leigh and, ‘Look, I’ve got this stuff.’ And he said, ‘Right, we’d love to go with that too. [Guardian Editor, Alan] Rusbridger wants stuff on Trafigura.’” (2011) Trafigura sued again. This time Meirion tried something different and set up a group, “Team Trafigura,” which included himself; David Leigh; Greenpeace, in the Netherlands; Amnesty International; a Dutch journalist who had been working on it; and a Norwegian Journalist. “We all had a meeting in Amsterdam… When we started putting all this stuff together we suddenly found we had all sorts of stuff that we hadn’t realised… And out of that we were able to run the story in September”(ibid).
On 11th September, Trafigura were granted a super-injunction prohibiting the publication of the ‘Minton Report,’ a 2006 investigation commissioned by the corporation into the chemical nature of the hazardous waste. Carter-Ruck also made legal threats try to prevent the Guardian from reporting on Parliament after discovering that Paul Farrelly, Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, intended to question Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, about the injunction –effectively making it void. The paper ran a front-page headline, Guardian gagged from reporting parliament (Leigh, 2009). Almost immediately users of the social networking site, Twitter, began publishing Farrelly’s question. The following day Carter-Ruck contacted the Guardian agreeing to end to end its attack on parliamentary privilege (Booth, 2009). But the injunction and the libel suit weren’t entirely ineffective, says Meirion:
The problem with the libel thing is that they went after us over the deaths. Now, people had reported the deaths at the time, it was in the official government reports: 16 of the dead’s families were compensated out of the Trafigura money. It really hadn’t occurred to us that they could go after us on the deaths. But that’s what they did. And even to this day people are very nervous about saying they killed people there. (2011)
According to Meirion, particulars of British libel law meant that in order to prove that the Hydrogen Sulphide in the waste was released – Trafigura’s denied this had happened – and caused the deaths, investigators would have had to dig up the dead. A level of proof Meirion describes as insane: “How are you going to prove that three years later? It’s just not possible.” (ibid) Once again the burden of proof lay with the defendants, just as in the case of the bomb detectors. Eventually Trafigura were convicted in the Netherlands of “illegally exporting toxic waste from Amsterdam and concealing the nature of the cargo” (bbc.co.uk), but have never faced any charges relating to the deaths in the Ivory Coast.
The trafigura affair was as much a victory for citizen journalism as it was for investigative reporting. Social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, have traditionally fallen outside of the High Court’s jurisdiction. More recently, Twitter has been used to actively flout gag orders, although mostly against celebrity malfeasance (Evans, 2011). However, there is in existence what has been described as a ‘pre-libel hyper-injunction.’ The injunction effective bars any UK based person from disclosing in any format allegations that would, in any journalist’s or conscientious citizen’s mind, fall within the remit of a public interest defence. However, the ex-parte injunction – meaning no one who might have wanted to contest it was notified – is intended to stem any investigation or publication before it occurs by assuming that any revelation could automatically be libellous.
Traditionally, an offense has to be committed before the offended can sue for libel, but it is clear that the legal system is showing little regard for the rights and the freedoms of the press to investigate matters in the public interest when a complaint is made. In this case, the allegations would fall within the remit of public interest; as would the unlawful killing of Ivorian nationals. In both cases, and many others, the public’s right to know is secondary to protecting corporate interests.
THE FUTURE OF INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM
The future of investigative reporting is a mixed bag. None of the interviewees have any quick, sure-fire solutions to problems facing journalism and investigative reporting. There are ways to fix the practice, but the responses are beset with the harsh realism that it is unlikely to be the industry that saves it, but collaboration and new way of thinking. Effectively, the investigative reporter in print is a thing of the past. As bleak as the outlook for the mainstream press is, there are investigations taking place in other areas. The internet is the most significant platform, particularly in the United States. Said Danny Schechter:
“We have, in America, a much more vibrant, independent, alternative media environment than Britain. We have lots of websites that are competing to expose things; we have a much more left-wing media, like Democracy Now!, and they make an effort to bring the stories to the peoples’ attention that the mainstream media doesn’t.” (2011)
The problem with the internet is, like print media, it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Online it is often only journalists with a pre-existing reputation who tend to be trusted by the average reader. And an increasing number of people are getting their news online. According to a 2008 Pew Research Centre study (85), 37% of American’s now use the web to access news, with 27% still buying newspapers. Only cable television was higher with 39%.
“I think that what you are going to see, and we are already seeing it and not necessarily with just with investigative journalism … is the journalist as a brand,” said Pascarella. (2011). However, only those with a pre-existing reputation are successfully crossing over. Many journalists now have their own websites and blogs where they publish reports that have usually been in print or on a news site elsewhere. There is also the factor that how much time is spent engaging a particular story. In 2010, the Guardian reported on Google economist Hal Varian’s claims that the average online user spends only 70 seconds per day reading news (10 March 2010) – a statistic that raises the question of how informed online news consumers are. Engaging readers in a modern age is the key to ensuring that investigations get due attention. “You have to have different options available for each story: the short video, the long video; the short story, the long story; all tied to that one story,” said Pascarella, “It’s harder online, but if it looks good and it’s produced well, and it’s an interesting story, chances are people will spend more time with it.” (ibid)
A few well produced, well researched stories on the internet are not enough to reverse the deterioration of the investigative culture in journalism. When Palast, Pascarella and Schechter talk about the failings, they are directed toward the dominant press, the big broadcasters and most of print. The independent news media in the US is more prolific than the UK. In Britain, investigations do occur in the mainstream; the problem is that there simply isn’t enough of it and nor is it the norm. On the whole, certain news organisations are willing to publish investigations, just not fund them. Increasingly, non-governmental organisations and charities, like Greenpeace and Amnesty International, are doing the leg work. But Britain has begun to embrace the same independent models as the US, at least in one instance. In 2010, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism was launched. Like ProPublica and The Palast Investigative Fund in the US, they operate as a charity, funded by donations. Theoretically, this should allow them to operate outside of both governmental and corporate interests, though only time will tell whether the form will be effective. But it is a step towards new thinking.
Ultimately, employees of any organisation will deliver what their employers ask of them. Across the board reporting has declined in quality, and investigative journalism is just one limb of model that can no longer make bold claims at journalistic idealism; it is systemically incapable upholding the principles of a public service provider on any consistent basis. But the internet has stepped in, not as a stalwart contributor of investigations, but a defender of a few hard earned freedoms: Twitter continues to defy super-injunctions and Wikileaks provides information that many journalists are not uncovering themselves – and although neither is investigative journalism per se, it does tilt towards new possibilities of future collaborative efforts.
In the case of Trafigura, it was the combined efforts of a few journalists working together, along with Twitter, which eventually allowed the story to be published in a form closer to the truth; Investigative reporting is no longer a staple of traditional media, encouraged and supported as a craft or respected by the populous, instead it is the cause of the few who work tirelessly in pursuit of a higher ideal in spite of the industry’s lethargy. For the news, ‘Truth’ is not the ultimate objective: survival is. Once that fact is fully realised, society can finally drop the sense of general romanticism that obscures the issues and instead both champion more deserved guardians and work at re-establishing the news media as an effective and convicted arm of the public’s desire for fairness and justice.