One of the enduring myths espoused by veteran reporters is that investigative journalism is dead. I think I heard it first in 1987 when I joined the Sunday Times, the newspaper generally considered to have pioneered agenda-setting investigations. Several of my new colleagues were convinced, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that the paper was no longer committed to providing the necessary resources for lengthy probes into institutional bad behaviour. They held fast to the myth even as the paper went on publishing investigations.
Later, I discovered that the same mistaken belief existed across the industry and has persisted over the course of 30 years. It gained ground once the digital revolution took hold, and I admit to sharing concerns about the negative effects of the resulting cuts to editorial staffs. But digital tools have turned out to be a wonderful addition to the reporting armoury and it is possible to argue that investigative journalism today is in a healthier state than ever before. Computer terminals have proven more effective in discovering secrets than shoe leather.
We still rely on whistle-blowing Deep Throats, of course. But they leak their material to journalists online rather than by meeting them in underground car parks. Then it is for reporters, as has always been the case, to decide on its relevancy, to check what can be checked, to select, to analyse and to add value. Drilling down into big data has produced countless scoops. Think Edward Snowden’s global surveillance disclosures and the Panama Papers leaks. On a different scale, think also of the MPs’ expenses revelations. Then think again. Aside from those ground-breaking stories, excellent public service investigative journalism at a lower level has taken off.
Newspaper newsrooms may have shrunk, but they have benefited from working in partnership with startups dedicated solely to long-term investigative reporting. These include UK organisations such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) and the Centre for Investigative Journalism. The BIJ works with national media groups to produce stories of major significance. In December, this enabled the Guardian to report on the epidemic of antibiotic-resistant superbugs discovered by Palestinian doctors.
A year ago, I also highlighted the BIJ’s Bureau Local initiative. This involves its London-based team crunching national data and feeding the results to reporters across the country to produce local stories. Since its launch in March 2017, the project has resulted in scores of investigations. One of its best, run in collaboration with Channel 4 News, was last year’s exposure of the large number of homeless people who die relatively young. One of the key collaborators on that project was Emma Youle, who had won Private Eye’s Paul Foot award in 2017 for an investigation into the scandal of the people living in temporary accommodation in the east London borough covered by her then paper, the Hackney Gazette. Now a special correspondent for the Huffington Post, she continues to do similar work.
That award, given annually for outstanding investigative and campaigning journalism, is named in memory of one of the best practitioners of the art, who died in 2004. He would have been delighted by the fact that the award attracted a record number of entries last year, further proof of the vitality of a trade that the doom-mongers would have us believe is over. Padraig Reidy, chairman of the Paul Foot award judging panel, is looking forward to another bumper entry this time around. He says: “It’s heartening that Brexit has not consumed our entire press. There is a wonderful and broadening range of work in the submissions we have seen so far.”
Flying in the face of the received wisdom that local papers no longer carry out investigations, he says they “continue to carry out their vital function by scrutinising abuse of power that resides far from Westminster, which can have a far greater effect on their readers’ everyday lives”.
Reidy points out that there is still time for people to submit their work. Not much time, admittedly, because the closing date is 1pm on Tuesday. But he is confident of more entries arriving. “We usually receive submissions within two seconds of the official closing time,” he says, pointing out that journalists who submerge themselves in a story are sometimes unaware of deadlines. Perhaps they simply need to be reminded of the incentive: the winning entry gets a prize of £5,000.
Passing of a great editor
One of the great champions of investigative journalism has died, aged 79. It is irritating that Brian MacArthur’s obituaries have headlined his connection to the Sunday Times’s ill-fated serialisation of the faked Hitler Diaries in 1983. He was an innocent in the affair, caught between a historian who, having verified the diaries as genuine, changed his mind after they had gone to press, and a proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, who was willing to publish and be damned.
MacArthur should be remembered instead for being the founding editor of a newspaper, Today, that helped to transform the industry by using computer technology. He should also be recognised for his wisdom as a senior executive at several papers, for mentoring young journalists and for writing, for 18 years, one of the most authoritative and balanced media columns. He should also be celebrated for what he achieved after saying farewell to the press. He wrote two books of enduring historical value: Surviving the Sword, about men imprisoned by Japan in the second world war, and For King and Country, about men who fought in the first world war.
His investigations into the past were informed by a scrupulous attention to detail, which came naturally after his lengthy journalistic career. Like all those who worked with one of the most civil men ever to edit a newspaper, I mourn his passing.
Apple news minus
I am ambivalent about Apple News Plus, the service that offers subscribers the chance to read the content of 300 newspapers and magazines and thereby enjoy what it calls “a beautiful and curated experience”. According to the company’s announcement, the bundle will include the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vogue, National Geographic, the New Yorker, Elle and People. And all for just $9.99 a month (£7.65).
Before rushing for your credit card, please note the weasel word “curated”. In other words, you will not get unrestricted access to those publications. So it may not be quite as beautiful an experience as Apple suggests.