Insight and analysis from Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford

Why the Bureau of Investigative Journalism deserves a second chance

 

The future of the three-year-old Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been questioned following its involvement in the 2 November Newsnight report which reported a false allegation that a senior Conservative politician was involved in child abuse.
 
Last week a group of Tory MPs called for backers of the Bureau to withdraw its funding, to effectively close it down, and the Dail Mail reported that charities Stamp Out Poverty and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust have no current plans to work with the Bureau after previously paying it £2,500 and £4,400 respectively for specific projects.
 
Yesterday, the Observer reported that the organisation's last set of accounts show it had losses of  £1,406,827 to 31 December 2011and that turnover dropped from £450,000 in 2010 to £170,000 last year.
 
The future of the bureau now lies in the hands of its trustees who are in the process of gathering evidence about the Newsnight affair.
 
While the 2 November Newsnight report displayed  obvious and basic journalistic failings, and editor Iain Overton’s tweet of the afternoon of 2 November was incredibly ill judged (“If all goes well we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile”) - the Bureau deserves a second chance.
 
Overton has paid a heavy price for sanctioning the Newsnight report carried out by his lead reporter Angus Stickler. He has resigned and it is worth noting that had he not done so the likelihood is he could not have been sacked.
Making an honest mistake, even one as bad as this, does not constitute gross misconduct.
 
We found that out when Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan was sacked in 2004 for publishing a faked Iraq torture picture on the front page. He sued for unfair dismissal and secured a hefty payout.
 
 
The Bureau does not deserve to be shut down, any more than the Daily Mirror deserved to be closed in 2004.  All news organisations make major editorial mistakes at some point in their histories.
The Daily Mail’s then proprietor famously penned a piece headlined ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ in 1934. The Sunday Times was taken in by the Hitler Diaries Hoax. There was the Express titles and Madeleine McCann, The Sun and Hillsborough, The Guardian and the misreporting of the Milly Dowler ‘false hope’ claim. The list goes on.
 
The Sun is currently being sued by X-Factor star Louis Walsh over a false report that he carried out a sex attack on another man. The paper will no doubt pay a heavy price when that libel settlement is finally agreed. But no one is suggesting that the paper should be closed down as a result.
 
If we responded to every major journalistic foul-up by shutting down the publisher concerned (as the group of Tory MPs want to happen to the Bureau)  we would be pretty soon be left with no newspapers or broadcasters at all. Mistakes are inevitable in journalism – but are far outweighed by the good our imperfect trade does.
 
The years since The Daily Telegraph MPs’ Expenses revelations of 2009 have, in my view, seen a resurgence of great investigative journalism in this country and the Bureau has been in the vanguard of that.
 
Its biggest hits include: the revelation that 9,000 public sector employees earn more than the PM, GPs making millions by running their own surgeries, analysis of the extent of US drone attacks and the covert war on terror, revelations over billions of unspent European growth fund assets, the Iraq War Logs investigation and exclusive analysis of the extent that special interest groups fund UK political parties.
 
If – as currently seems to the case – the child abuse report for Newsnight was a one-off mistake made without malice than it would be a tragedy if this error sent it to the wall. Not just because of the many stories which would remain untold as a result of the Bureau being silenced, but because - following the closure of the Journalism Foundation last week - it could deal a death blow to UK attempts to follow the US and find a philanthropicly-funded future for serious investigative journalism.
 
Whether the Bureau can survive now depends on: its ability to withstand the cost of Lord McAlpine's expected legal action, the resolution of the trustees (and main funder David Potter) and its ability to do a credible investigative journalism job on itself by revealing in forensic detail (within legal constraints) what went wrong and what has been done to put its journalistic processes right.

 

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