Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Mistakes were made, but investigative journalism is vital, now more than ever

Trust takes years to establish but can be destroyed in a few seconds. It is the main asset that any news organisation has.

But two flawed editorial decisions on Newsnight over child abuse allegations have damaged the BBC’s global reputation as the world’s largest and one of the most trusted news organisations. Its rivals around the world have been quick to pounce, but the consequences could be felt closer to home.

BBC Northern Ireland produces much of Panorama, the flagship network BBC investigative programme.

Its own Spotlight programme is one of the few remaining properly resourced and effective investigative programmes on the island of Ireland.

The other, RTE’s Prime Time Investigates, was scrapped last year after a startlingly similar controversy involving the broadcast of false sexual allegations against a priest.

The career-ending consequence which these broadcasts had for personnel in RTE and BBC have sent a chill through every reporter and has put many off robust investigative work.

It has also sent a message to senior management in media organisations to stay away from investigative journalism.

But while the media must re-earn the trust of the public, journalists are human and mistakes will be made, however inexcusable.

Thousands of accurate stories are produced daily.

There is already more than 52 pieces of legislation and bodies in print and broadcast who regulate the output of media.

These constraints may be tightened further.

This is at a time when there has never been more of a requirement for investigative journalism.

Nor when competitive and financial pressures are so acute for media outlets.

Too many issues that are important to the welfare of the public are going unchecked because media outlets no longer have the resources, commitment or both to investigate them.

The tightening of regulation generally for the media and the BBC’s editorial chain of command in particular may mean a reluctance to have robust current affairs produced away from London in places like Northern Ireland.

This would be detrimental for the public in general and journalism in particular.

Dr Colm Murphy is head of School of Media, Film and Journalism at University of Ulster, Coleraine

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