It pays to ask questions

Quality journalism in the mainstream media will continue to flounder unless young reporters get into an early habit of questioning every fact and claim that is put in front of them, a conference on investigative journalism has been told.

Unless that happens, there is a danger of 'information chaos'– with people reliant on bloggers, untrained and unregulated commentators and PR agencies to make sense of a flood of distorted news and misinformation from the internet.

What the business needs is a new cohort of hacks, predisposed to casting a sceptical and informed eye over official statements from government, institutions and lobbyists – and taking more notice of stories from eyewitnesses and the public.

Those were some of the messages from participants in a one-day debate on the future of investigative journalism, fronted by Daily Mail political reporter Peter Oborne and Flat Earth News author Nick Davies.

Channel 4 deputy head of news and current affairs Kevin Sutcliffe urged editors to provide incentives to reporters to dig beneath the story. He said: 'We need to encourage a generation of young journalists who are prepared to interrogate every fact and institution and every structure."

But it was a mainly pessimistic picture that was painted at the one-day conference at the University of Westminster's China media centre, staged to coincide with the launch of Routledge's second edition of Professor Hugo de Burgh's textbook, Investigative Journalism, on 13 June.

Davies, Oborne and other speakers agreed that financial pressures were pushing young reporters into a treadmill, where they simply process a steady stream of ready-made PR handouts, agency copy and celebrity titbits until they pick up their pensions.

All is not lost

Serious and investigative journalism has a future, but it might not be of a kind practised by the likes of World in Action, The Sunday Times' Insight team and The Washington Post, as the director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, based at London's City University, indicated.

Gavin MacFadyen revealed that current research in the US indicated that as much as three quarters of investigative journalism on the west coast of the US was being sponsored by private foundations, charities and campaign organisations.

But he caused some disquiet among the audience when he highlighted the existence of dedicated websites designed to allow disgruntled whistleblowers to leak incriminating documents and files with guarantees of anonymity, removing the need to deal with journalists.

It could be a useful and powerful resource for keeping governments and agencies in check, but it was also true that such sites could be used for malicious leaks and deliberate misinformation, the conference was told.

Stephen Grey, whose book Ghost Plane exposed the scandal of extraordinary rendition, said it was important that journalists should be able to look whistleblowers 'in the eye'and make a judgement about their credentialsand reliability.

Cottage industry

Birmingham City University online media lecturer Paul Bradshaw said: 'We have a cottage industry emerging of former journalists. There are some extremely passionate people who are setting up news operations because they are not being taken up by the mainstream media.'

Professor Steven Barnett, co-author of Westminster Tales, said: 'What has emerged is an immoral, lazy and mostly illegal industry concerned with obtaining private info about celebrities that has nothing to do with serious journalism.'

Senior lecturer at Westminster University, Paul Dowyer, said: 'The people who employ journalists no longer think of their organisations as the Fourth Estate or even a public service. The public no longer feel a duty to watch Panorama or read The Sunday Times.

'In order to compete in the marketplace, much investigative journalism has had to adopt the subjects and treatments that appear in more popular forms, about celebrities or using reporters as presenters, when the story is more about them than the subject matter."

Nick Davies said: 'It is dangerous for news organisations to define their story agendas and angles in terms of marketing. The classic example of that is what happened with the newspapers of the southern United States, which for years reported only on the lives of white people and their white advertisers.

'They simply failed to tell the truth about what else was happening. That made the newspapers successful and profitable, but it isn't journalism. So we have to stand back from saying we will give the punters what they want and sometimes say this story needs to be told.

'We were talking about foundations providing some funding. There could be some of that, but the future is uncertain. We run the risk of entering a world of information chaos.

'We can see a situation with a collapse of the mainstream media operation. We go back to bloggers and citizen journalists. But I don't believe they can replace journalists, because there is such a danger of misinformation and misunderstandings and poisonous ideas being recycled."

Peter Oborne said: 'There is a distinction between the private and public sphere and the marketing sphere, and I would argue that we as journalists are in the public sphere. The tragedy of Rupert Murdoch is that he doesn't appear to understand the existence of such a thing as the public sphere. That is presumably why he did such destruction to The Sunday Times, using the imperatives of the market which are, of course, entirely short term."

These issues and related topics are expected to be discussed at the Centre for Investigative Journalism annual conference held at City University, London, from 18 to 20 July. Speakers include Nick Davies and John Pilger.

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