Belfast Telegraph

The pressing dangers facing investigative journalism

By Paul Connolly

Is investigative journalism under threat? For many, investigative reporting is the apex of the trade: probing, scrutinising, nailing the bad guys, or shining a light on stuff that's meant to stay under a rock.

Sometimes it's the glamour end of the job – but more often it's the toughest, with the longest hours and frequent disappointments.

As the media comes under increased revenue pressures, it's also the type of journalism widely viewed as most under threat.

A toxic cocktail of declining budgets, oppressive libel laws, especially in Northern Ireland and the Republic, and fragmentation/disruption of audiences are all combining to undermine the fine UK and Irish tradition of investigative reporting. Not necessarily fatally, but there are undoubted pressures.

By its nature, investigative reporting is difficult to define. In some respects, all proper journalism is investigative in its nature. (I exclude most – though not all – showbiz reporting because it usually involves collaboration with fluff and spin).

But investigative journalism essentially means the big expose, the dramatic uncovering of malfeasance, crime, or hypocrisy. Generally in a big newspaper exclusive, or TV documentary.

Recent newspaper exclusives include the MPs expenses affair, the ongoing Edward Snowden revelations and the Sunday Times brilliant expose of a major London crime baron after years battling obstacles from the police and within the legal system.

Locally, the Belfast Telegraph's revelations of Stormont adviser Brian Crowe's sexual antics forced his dismissal. UTV's investigative capability has been sadly reduced, and its Counterpoint programme is missed by many who remember Chris Moore's explosive revelations about paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth that almost literally rocked the Irish state to its foundations.

Easily the most famous of the local investigative scoops was Darragh McIntyre's jaw-dropping BBC Spotlight investigation into Iris Robinson. That report, and others, was recalled yesterday at a seminar to celebrate Spotlight's 40th birthday.

It was a bit of a trip down memory lane – the big dog-fighting expose and the Red Sky controversy to name just a few of the more recent highlights. To be fair, there was more than a nod to Spotlight's apparently rather lightweight beginning back in the 1970s, when it was criticised for being reactive and not setting the agenda in a province on fire.

But perhaps journalism – or the BBC, anyway – was less robust then. At yesterday's events, some UK and Irish heavy-hitters were there, including Heather Brooke, whose work led to the Daily Telegraph's MP expenses disclosures.

Much debate centred on the nature of the threat to investigative reporting by crumbling media business models and the chilling effect of regulation and libel.

It was predicted that new business models will develop to fund investigative journalism. Websites like Buzzfeed were repeatedly cited as new models. But I have a problem with that, and it's on a regional level.

These web news entities rely on gigantic audiences so, yes, they'll investigate China, or the National Security Agency, or fraud in a global corporation.

But they won't care a jot about investigating Red Sky, or the antics of a Stormont adviser. That will only deliver small local audiences: so the question is how do we fund investigative journalism at a regional level?

Philanthropic models like Northern Ireland's The Detail website (funded largely by an American billionaire)? The idea of accepting money from third parties leaves me suspicious over the limits to their freedoms and capability. What happens to The Detail, for example, when the seed money runs out?

Not enough was said about the lack of transparency and accountability at the BBC itself. But I guess that's a debate for another day.

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