The future of investigative journalism - Communications Committee Contents


The role and practices of investigative journalism have received unprecedented scrutiny over recent months. Its long history of exposing issues that are not in the public domain and speaking truth to power has come under the microscope as the phone-hacking scandal, perhaps the greatest political media scandal of a generation, has gradually unfolded, raising a plethora of questions surrounding the public interest, privacy and media ethics.

This report does not set out to propose solutions to these issues which are currently being considered in other forums, most notably Lord Justice Leveson's ongoing Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the press. Instead, this report explores the media landscape in which investigative journalism operates and argues that any changes should not be rooted in the past but should seek to enable responsible investigative journalism to flourish in the future.

Responsible, high quality, investigative journalism matters; it is a vital constituent of the UK's system of democratic governance and accountability. At its best, it informs and educates us, enhances our democracy, and is a force for good. However, it has become clear during our inquiry that rapid economic, technological and behavioural change is creating profound economic, legal and regulatory challenges for investigative journalism and how it might be conducted in the future.

Investigative journalism is suffering as a result of inconsistencies and lack of clarity in the law. We therefore make recommendations in this report which would provide clarity on the complex and sensitive issues surrounding the public interest. We do not recommend that all relevant criminal law be re-drafted in order to iron out inconsistency between different pieces of legislation when it comes to a formal, statutory defence relating to the public interest. We do, however, urge the prosecuting authorities to publish their broad approach to determining which cases should be prosecuted or otherwise in cases where illegal activity undertaken by journalists in the course of an investigation might be considered to be in the public interest.

Furthermore, we recommend that media organisations implement a two-stage internal management process whereby they track and formally record their decisions first to investigate and secondly to publish a story if such decisions rely on the public interest. We also recommend that regulators should, in turn, take such an audit trail into account when evaluating the responsibility or otherwise with which investigative journalism has been undertaken. The regulators should also take into account the actions taken ex post facto in considering what penalty is appropriate for any particular breach.

Investigative journalism is also suffering from a lack of proper investment and organisational support. To offer some respite from the funding crisis, we recommend an investigative journalism fund. Any fines which are levied for transgression of journalistic codes of conduct—including fines that might be introduced under a new system of press self-regulation and a proportion of fines issued for breaches of the Ofcom code—should be allocated to this fund which might be used for investigative journalism or for training investigative journalists.

We are encouraged, however, by the number of new funding and organisational initiatives that have started to materialise as a means of promoting investigative journalism, and believe it is vital that measures are taken to support and foster further initiatives which are independent of public subsidies or state support. We believe that charitable status may be one route to encouraging philanthropic investment in this area and therefore recommend that the Government reconsiders its current disinclination to legislate in this area. Given the vital contribution of investigative journalism to the wellbeing of democracy, we also ask the Charity Commission to provide greater clarity in this area and to take into consideration both the current pressures on investigative journalism as well as its democratic importance when interpreting the relevant legislation.

While we recognise the enormous economic pressures on traditional media enterprises, we urge them not to vacate the vital area of journalism training. We see some of the new media initiatives as opportunities for training in the skills of investigative journalism, and recognise the invaluable training opportunities provided by the mainstream broadcasters and by university departments.

Analysis of the media is a crowded field at the moment, but we hope that our examination of the media landscape, investigative journalism's place in it, the challenges and opportunities facing it, and the impact of media convergence, will inform the current debate and assist in influencing any regulatory or legislative reforms that may be forthcoming.

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