Veteran investigative journalist David Leigh has said he is concerned that the global financial crisis and the decline of newsstand sales will turn serious investigative journalism into an ‘impossible luxury’.
Leigh, the Guardian investigations editor, was speaking at a seminar on the future for investigative journalism held yesterday at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University.
He said investigations were among the first areas of journalism to come under threat when money is tight.
‘Investigative assignments can take a long time and are expensive,” he said. “There’s an economic crisis, there’s a collapse in advertising.
“Newspapers are being driven out of business in Britain very fast. In those kind of circumstances, investigative journalism becomes an impossible luxury.”
Leigh compared today’s situation with what he said was the “golden age” of investigative journalism in the Seventies.
He pointed to the Sunday Times’s exposure, under Harry Evans’s editorship, of the effect of Thalidomide – the anti-morning sickness drug proved to cause deformities in new-born babies – as an ‘iconic triumph’for the profession.
Leigh highlighted the work of ProPublica, the US group that conducts independent not-for-profit investigative journalism, funded by foundations, but said he was not optimistic that the concept would work in the UK.
“I really don’t see that the steady revenue is going to be there in foundations, certainly in Britain,” he said, adding that such a business model risked producing “donor-driven journalism”.
‘What I investigate is driven by me and the predilections of my editor. It’s absolutely not driven by the predilection of specific sponsors or advertisers,” he added.
Leigh said he felt the best way to conduct investigations in the current economic climate was to pare back expensive in-house teams and only employ journalists on an ‘ad hoc’basis as required.
When challenged on his pessimism by visiting Reuters international journalists, Leigh pointed to the global disparity in the profession.
“As far as I can see in developing countries, conventional media are very influential and powerful. Investigative journalists there have a big impact,” he said.
‘In western countries newspapers are dying, conventional broadcast is dying. The amount of influence you can exercise as an investigative journalist is reducing everyday because the market is fragmenting into dozens and dozens of outlets. The currency is being debased.”
Leigh drew on the experience of his five-year investigation with Rob Evans at the Guardian into corruption at arms manufacturer BAE Systems.
For the investigation, for which the pair won the Paul Foot award in 2007, Leigh worked closely with Swedish and Romanian journalists, both from countries involved in the case.
‘Ever since I decided to go down a route of cooperation rather than rivalry, I’ve got much better results,” he said.
Leigh criticised the investigative reporting carried out by the Daily Mail and the News of the World – the Sunday tabloid that last year paid £60,000 in privacy damages to motorsport boss Max Mosley over its front-page story on his “orgy” with five women.
‘It’s not journalism in the public interest, it’s journalism in a commercial interest pretending to have a moral agenda,” Leigh added.
“The stuff I do only gets to be allowed to published by lawyers if we can demonstrate that it’s in the public interest.”