Its death has been much predicted and is long in coming but Investigative Journalism in Britain is still in rude health.
In the last year alone we have seen Rupert Murdoch catapulted to crisis by 'Hackgate', Sepp Blatter forced into a corner and Jack Warner out of FIFA, a policeman prosecuted for the unlawful killing of a bystander at the G20 demonstrations in 2009 ,a quarter of a million previously secret diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, Winterbourne View , a 'care' home exposed and closed by 'Panorama' and more wrongdoers brought to justice all thanks to the diggers of the journalistic world.
Investigative journalism is alive and well in the UK most certainly in the broadsheet press and on television. It had been the conventional wisdom that Britain's draconian libel laws, cuts in editorial budgets and loss of interest and will by editors and proprietors had killed it off.
First a broad definition. Investigative journalism results in a audience seeing or reading something which somebody did not want them to. It is almost always uncomfortable for the exposed. The best of the craft yields instant and public results. I have just edited a volume of thirty essays by some of the contemporary great diggers (Macintyre, Kenyon, Ware, Woodward, Lewis to name but four) and by 'hackademics' (those of us in the academe with journalism in our background) together with my colleague and friend Professor Richard Keeble of Lincoln University (the doyen of 'hackademia').
Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? will be published by Arima on September 21st with a launch party and debate at London's Frontline Club. It should prove to be a seminal collection.
Digging deep is alive and well especially on the public service airwaves of the BBC and Channel Four. They have both courage in commissioning and good lawyers plus adequate budgets. You cannot make a John Ware or Paul Kenyon 'Panorama' or a 'Dispatches' unless you have that trinity. To make 'Macintyre Undercover' took two years and £1.5 million of licence payers money back in 1999.ITV which for years has been claiming penury is largely out of the serious Investigation game. Channel Five and Sky never really got on the pitch.
Some newspapers are the natural home for the diggers and investigative trouble-makers. Alan Rusbridger Editor in Chief of the Guardian is a believer. His paper is going through a purple patch with the Tomlinson/G20 verdict, those Wikileaks cables and the Afghan Papers and most recently the triumph of phone hacking/'Hackgate'. Their dogged detective work and refusing to take no for an answer by just one journalist-Nick Davies-resulted in revelations that brought that modern Citizen Kane-Rupert Murdoch to his knees, or at least to the Commons Select Committee, the Prime Minister being forced to apologise for his judgement, the forced resignation of several senior newspaper executives, the resignation of very senior policemen, the re-opening of a dormant police enquiry and to date thirteen arrests in connection with journalists hacking mobile phones of celebrities and others. The results are there for all to see. The Courts will be kept busy over the next few years.
The Daily Telegraph, not previously known for its anti-Establishment positions, did splendid work on the MP Expenses Scandal in 2009 where it simply bought the purloined data from an insider and exploited it on the page slowly surely and deliberately. Six Members of the Mother of Parliaments are serving or have served prison sentences as a result of those revelations.
Peter Oborne, the 'Torygraph's Chief Political Commentator( and no left wing radical) has justly been lauded for the moral positions he takes after digging away at a story on the paper or at Channel Four. His right wing voice carries much weight.
It all harks back to the Glory Days of Groping-the 1960's and 1970's. Harold Evans (in the book) ruled the roost at The Sunday Times where week after week 'Insight' came up with a corker. Thalidomide being the best known story and campaign. But digging needs luck too as Phillip Knightley reveals in the book. The Vestey/Tax dodging story resulted simply from somebody walking in off the street to tell it to him. Evans was afraid of no targets. Other papers followed suit with 'Investigation Units' but with less profile and less success.The cornerstone of much of the investigation of that time was the small satirical magazine 'Private Eye'. There, Paul Foot and Martin Tomkinson dug away to expose dubious dealings by the likes of John Poulson and T Dan Smith.
On TV World in Action on Granada on Monday nights week after week relentlessly exposed the crooked and the sad. Its scalps included the judicial system for the flawed conviction of the 'Birmingham Six' and 'The Guildford Four'.'Panorama' had ace investigators like Tom Bower(who has turned his journalism into best sellers) Tom Mangold and one Jeremy Paxman. There were even whole investigative series like 'Rough Justice' whose inventor Peter Hill laments in the book British TV losing its bottle when it comes to long range investigations.
On the other side of the Atlantic, two young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of 'The Washington Post' plugged away for two years at the Watergate story through thick and thin and false leads. They were determined to nail then President Richard Nixon for authorising a break in at the Democratic Party HQ during his re-election campaign and then organising a cover up. They did, with his resignation in August 1974. Woodward writes in the book on 'How to Find a Story'.
Journalism students today could do worse than view the film of the Woodward/Bernstein exploits 'All the President's men'.Not many will.Out of the scores of courses in the academe in journalism just four (one undergraduate at Lincoln.three postgraduate at Strathclyde, City and Falmouth Universities) exist in pure investigative journalism. So Investigation is alive and well in British journalism. It always will be so long as their are cracking stories waiting to be told. It just needs time, courage, legal cover, money and plenty of shoe leather. You can't teach that.
John Mair is a senior lecturer in Broadcasting at Coventry University.He was a BBC producer helping to invent 'Watchdog' and has produced for 'World In Action' and 'Dispatches'
Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? Edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble is published by Arima on September 20th 2011.Price £17.99. ISBN 978 1 84549 490 2