Don't sell readers short

A lawyer is not allowed to represent a client in an area of the law for which he or she is unqualified. A surgeon is not allowed to learn ‘on the job’by practice or error, and a pilot is not allowed to progress to another aircraft without a period of re-training. But journalists are fed on a newsroom philosophy that requires them to turn their hands to any event or story that comes their way. ‘We want a Jack (or Jill) of all trades – someone who can interview the Prime Minister in the morning and a heroin addict in the afternoon”, is probably not an unfamiliar bluster to many in the business.

But if editors employ reporters to churn out copy to order, and journalists don’t care about the stories they write, then why on earth should the readers care about what they read? Take any other profession or body with a public watchdog or regulatory remit and you find individuals have undertaken training programmes geared towards particular tasks or roles.

This applies to auditors, the police, health service regulators and the legal profession. Where are the national training courses, examinations and qualifications for financial journalists, for health correspondents, for local government reporters, for sports commentators, for crime specialists, for legal affairs reporters, and for environmental correspondents?

How many newspapers at regional or national level employ dedicated Freedom of Information reporters? How many papers employ reporters who are trained in analysing company accounts, or have an employment background in banking, industry, local government or accountancy?

Consider how thousands of institutions and public bodies prepared for the introduction of the FoI Act. A large number of them recruited and trained FoI officers to handle requests from the public and the media, in advance of the legislation going live. It wouldn’t have occurred to the managers or bosses to do anything less.

Understanding the FOI

The FOI is being put to good use by some journalists. Freelance Heather Brooke’s authoritative book, Your Right to Know, provides ideas on extracting details that should be disclosed in the public interest, but are kept under wraps by officials and politicians. For instance, she applauds The Birmingham Post for challenging a local authority which tried to charge £9,000 prior to releasing details of taxi and first class rail journeys made by staff and councillors. In that case, the paper took up the cudgels on behalf of local taxpayers and lodged an objection with the Information Commissioner’s office.

But there is a lot of junk out there. Take one example from a regional newspaper, which ran a story on the fact local taxpayers had paid for council staff to travel the equivalent of 15 trips to the moon and back. The revelation this particular authority had spent more than £3m on travel expenses for thousands of employees, was splashed on pages one and two, together with an invitation to readers to post their reactions. But this story does not stand up to any kind of detailed analysis.

Public services cost money. Councils spend public money. Why should any variation on the theme ‘council spends taxpayers money on services’be considered to be news? What was the newspaper getting at? What was the alternative to paying the travel claims? Unfortunately, this particular newspaper article did not go into much detail beyond the bottom-line sum.

An eye for detail

Here’s an example of what can be done with an eye for detail and a bit of detective work. Given that consultancy deals and construction contracts are fertile ground for kick- backs and payola scams, it makes sense to examine payments that are authorised towards the end of each financial year. That is because departments are usually in a rush to spend unallocated money before the subsequent year’s financial share-out is fixed (so that they don’t invite cutbacks by failing to spend up to budget), and because internal auditors are often rushed off their feet between the New Year and April.

When we discovered a consultancy had been paid £14,000 to run a series of ‘master-classes’to teach a very small number of council staff how to ‘get the most’out of email, we decided to go digging – and came up with an object lesson for investigative journalists. No doubt some ‘hit and run’ editor would have been satisfied with a front page scoop along the lines of ‘council spent £14k to teach Town Hall bureaucrats how to write emails”, before being distracted by another sparkly object and losing interest in the issue altogether. But our attention span went beyond the total cost of the enterprise, because it was obvious a large public authority with its own computer and technology department would have had plenty of people on its staff more than capable of fulfilling the training role.

Journalists have a watchdog duty

That a contract had been awarded in the first place was what mattered here. Why had it been awarded in the first place? The bottom-line figure was incidental. After some routine checking with Companies House and other official sources, we discovered the firm was formed only a week before it was hired by the council. Then we discovered that the council’s procurement rules had been broken when the deal was struck.

The rules were clear. All contracts worth more than £10,000 had to be subject to open competition. Then we discovered that the firm was dissolved a week after the contract finished. Something wasn’t quite right. Editors and journalists have a watchdog duty to alert taxpayers, auditors, politicians and regulators to these types of stories. If they don’t fulfil that role, public servants will be all the more cavalier about how they spend other taxpayers’ money.

That’s why journalists need to care about their readers. That’s why specialists need more than on the job training. Anything less risks selling your readers short.

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