The future of investigative journalism - Communications Committee Contents

CHAPTER 8: Conclusions and recommendations

263.  As we explained at the start of this report, the purpose of our work has been, against the background of perhaps the greatest political media scandal of a generation, to look at the future of investigative journalism in the light of the problems currently facing the media and the technological revolution unfolding in this area.

264. We hope that what we have done will enable those going into the issues in greater detail than us to come forward with proposals which will be relevant to and protect the responsible investigative journalism of tomorrow.

265.  We urge the Government to recognise the financial problems facing newspapers and encourage them to think creatively about any tax breaks or other financial incentives which might help the industry through this difficult transitional stage. (Para 49)

266.  We welcome the evidence given to us by commissioning editors from different broadcasting channels about their commitment to investigative programming. This should continue to remain a priority, particularly for public service broadcasting channels, despite the difficult economic circumstances currently facing the sector. (Para 58)

267.  We note that Lord Justice Leveson and Lord Hunt of Wirral, together with the Government as part of its forthcoming Communications review, have confirmed that they will consider whether it may be appropriate to bring certain forms of online content which currently fall outwith the scope of regulation into the remit of the relevant regulatory body. This should continue to remain a priority. We look forward to their recommendations in this area and to their suggestions on how to put them into practice. (Para 63)

268.  We wholeheartedly believe that media organisations themselves should take responsibility for the decisions they take regarding how to investigate and whether to publish a story. In coming to decisions on these matters, however, it is important that journalists and editors do so in a way that is rigorous, structured and leaves an audit trail for future external scrutiny. (Para 70)

269.  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. (Para 87)

270.  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. (Para 88)

271.  We do not recommend that a definition of the public interest be included in legislation. Instead, it should be defined by reference to good and responsible practice, not least as defined in the relevant regulatory Codes of Practice which contain examples of what could constitute a sufficient public interest justification for breaching a rule or regulation. In addition, in implementing such regulatory provisions, the regulator should bear in mind the underlying rationale and purpose of the rules they enforce. (Para 97)

272.  We welcome the changes made in December 2011 to the Editors' Code of Practice requiring that in order to argue a public interest exemption to breaching a certain section of the Code, an editor must show not only that they had good reason to believe the public interest would be served in doing so, but also how and with whom that was established at that time. (Para 98)

273.  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. (Para 108)

274.  We believe regulators should, in turn, take such an audit trail into account when evaluating the responsibility or otherwise with which investigative journalism has been undertaken. (Para 109)

275.  The regulators should also take into account the actions taken ex post facto in considering what penalty is appropriate for any particular breach. (Para 110)

276.  The working of the libel laws in the UK can, on occasion, have a discouraging effect on responsible investigative journalism, and this needs to be examined. We welcome the Government's work in this area and look forward to the introduction of a Defamation Bill later in this Parliament, which we believe should include provisions along the lines of those set out in clause 2 of the Draft Bill. (Para 125)

277.  It is important for the future of responsible investigative journalism that journalists are able to offer adequate protection to their sources. We therefore call on the Government and Lord Justice Leveson to make the question of the suitable protection of whistleblowers a core part of their ongoing inquiries. (Para 130)

278.  In the context of investigative journalism, it is incumbent upon journalists and news providers to be rigorous and proactive in checking the accuracy of press releases, as with other sources of news, as part of their commitment to accuracy. In addition, we recommend that journalists themselves be transparent in their use of press releases particularly online where barriers to publishing links to press releases are low. (Para 139)

279.  To address the concerns that the Committee has heard about the potential adverse impact of the public relations industry on investigative journalism, we recommend that PR practitioners should abide by a stringent code of behaviour which could be derived from the existing CIPR code or something similar, and which might be overseen by a third party. (Para 140)

280.  We also reiterate the recommendation made by the Committee in 2008 on the need for the Government to communicate accurately and in an impartial way information about its policies and we urge the Coalition Government to set the benchmark in this area by ensuring that their press releases are universally transparent and straightforward. The Government and political parties should require their press officers to follow guidelines similar to those found in the CIPR code of conduct. (Para 141)

281.  We encourage the Government to lead by example in ensuring its press releases do not mislead and in particular, when data is made public, it is in forms which enable those capable of analysing it to do so, as advocated by the Open Data Institute. (Para 142)

282.  We encourage Ofcom, Lord Justice Leveson and the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport to consider carefully the following issues as part of their inquiries:

  • Whether the criteria for application of the public interest test should be extended to include cases of organic growth as well as in proposed mergers;
  • Whether the decision to invoke the public interest test in media mergers should remain solely with the Secretary of State; and
  • The application of the 'fit and proper person' test and whether this should be extended to cover newspaper mergers. (Para 149)

283.  With regard to the public interest test, we believe that there may be a case for legislation to allow for this to be invoked in cases where a news organisation develops over a 25% share of the national newspaper market through organic growth, rather than just in cases of proposed mergers, as is the case at present under the Enterprise Act 2002. (Para 150)

284.  In assessing this, we encourage Ofcom, Lord Justice Leveson and the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport to consider the following issues in more detail:

  • Whether 25% would be the right threshold for invoking the public interest test in cases of organic growth; and
  • How would market share be determined? For example, would Ofcom be required to conduct a regular review of the newspaper industry in order to determine whether this threshold in terms of market share had been reached? (Para 151)

285.  Given the importance of ownership, we wish to repeat the recommendation made in the 2008 ownership of the news report by our Committee that the Communications Act 2003 should be amended to enable the public interest test to be invoked at the discretion of either the Secretary of State or Ofcom. (Para 152)

286.  We encourage the relevant inquiries examining this issue to consider whether or not it may be appropriate to extend the 'fit and proper' test, currently determined by Ofcom before awarding a broadcasting licence, to include potential newspaper proprietors. If this is deemed appropriate, we believe that as Ofcom currently conducts this process with regard to broadcasting it may be best placed to set the criteria and carry out the test in cases of proposed newspaper mergers as well. (Para 153)

287.  We note the Government's recent removal of rules relating to local cross-media ownership and hope that this will provide an opportunity for local media organisations to develop a sustainable business model through consolidation in future if they wish to do so. (Para 160)

288.  At a local level, we recommend that Ofcom's role in assessing local media mergers should be strengthened compared to the Competition Commission's in order to ensure that the vital watchdog and informational role of the local media is given greater weight when assessing merger proposals. We welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to look at this issue and we support the suggestion that any legislative changes required should be included in any Communications Bill. (Para 161)

289.  It is crucial that the existing media ownership rules at a national level are examined to assess whether the correct balance is being struck between the need to protect the plurality of news ownership, essential in a democracy, and securing the financial viability of the industry. Any proposals to amend the cross-media ownership rules should form part of the Government's Communications review. (Para 165)

290.  In order to encourage continued investment in broadcast investigative journalism, we recommend that Ofcom, working with the public service broadcasters, amends the definition of current affairs in the guidance on public service quota requirements to include, but not expressly require, investigative journalism in this genre. This would provide further stimulus for public service broadcasters to broadcast high-quality investigative programmes which we hope would be replicated by other commercial broadcasters. (Para 170)

291.  Zero-rating VAT is a form of state support for the newspaper industry which is a transitional power open to the UK Government to implement as it deems appropriate under the terms of the EU Directive. Given the economic pressures facing the newspaper industry, we believe it is appropriate that the Government should maintain zero-rated VAT for newspapers in order to provide a continued form of public support for this struggling and vital industry. (Para 175)

292.  We recommend that the Government should consider further the legality of any proposals to limit the receipt of zero-rating for VAT purposes to those newspapers which are members of the PCC (or any successor body). (Para 177)

293.  Given that the BBC receives public money in the form of the licence fee in order to deliver a public good, we believe that it should continue to provide high-quality investigative content in both its television and radio services, including at a regional level. We are concerned about the reported cuts in staff on the flagship investigative programme, Panorama, but we welcome the BBC's commitment to continue to invest in investigative content at international, national, regional and local level. We encourage it to continue to do this, despite the cost-saving measures which the corporation must make. (Para 184)

294.  We have found that what matters in terms of ownership and support for investigative journalism is not the type of ownership structure but whether the owners be they an individual, a company, a charity, trust or co-operative, are prepared to ensure the money to support this type of journalism. (Para 189)

295.  We call on the Charity Commission to provide greater clarity and guidelines on which activities related to the media, and in particular investigative journalism, are charitable in the current state of the law. Furthermore, we ask the Charity Commission to take into consideration both the current pressures on investigative journalism as well as its democratic importance when interpreting the relevant legislation. (Para 201)

296.  While recognising the Government's current disinclination to legislate in this area, it seems to us that reform of charity law is the only way in which certainty in this area could be achieved. We therefore urge the Government to reconsider. (Para 202)

297.  We admire the non-traditional model of providing investigative journalism which originated in the USA with organisations such as ProPublica and we welcome its development in the UK with organisations such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Whereas in the past investment in long-form investigative stories relied on support and continued investment from a newspaper proprietor or broadcaster; newspapers and television and radio stations are increasingly outsourcing this to—or responding to initiatives from—specialist organisations. We encourage UK broadcasters to support these organisations by working in partnership with them. (Para 211)

298.  We recognise that public funding is a potential model for financing investigative journalism and one which works in other European countries. However, given the strong independent character of the printed press in the UK and our political traditions, we do not believe that it would be appropriate for the UK Government to fund investigative journalism directly in the form of state subsidies other than with the continued support for zero-VAT rating for newspapers and of the BBC licence fee in broadcasting. (Para 216)

299.  If fines are introduced for breaches of the Editors' Code of Practice by newspapers and magazines under a new system of press self-regulation, we recommend that a proportion of all media fines (including fines for breaches of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code) should be allocated to a fund reserved for financing investigative journalism or for the training of investigative journalists. This fund should be open to all investigative journalists and journalism organisations—big and small, who publish in print, broadcast or online. The money would need to be distributed fairly by an independent regulatory body, such as Ofcom or the reformed PCC and there would need to be a system of accountability in place to ensure that the money was used appropriately, bearing in mind that, due to the nature of investigative journalism, some investigations would not lead to material which could be published. (Para 219)

300.  We welcome the use of social media by journalists as a means of contacting people around the world in order to access content and information which might otherwise be extremely difficult and time-consuming to identify. We recommend that the PCC tightens its guidance on the use of information provided by citizen journalists using social media and we warn journalists to be extra vigilant in verifying information found online. Where appropriate, news organisations should issue clear internal guidelines for all staff on how to use such data. In addition, given the challenges which will only intensify in this area, we recommend that further thought be given to considering what, if any, workable ways might be proposed to aid the processes of validating material and verifying sources. (Para 230)

301.  We welcome the innovation which is emerging in trying to find a way of monetising investigative journalism content online and making this information available to users in a variety of different ways at a range of different price-points. However, although take up of online services is increasing rapidly, these remain relatively new developments and we are in the early decades of a digital revolution which will bring change on a scale that is irresistible and profound. We heard much evidence which painted a pessimistic picture of the economic problems facing investigative journalism but we have heard no evidence that leads us to conclude that investigative journalism will disappear: we believe that it will continue. (Para 240)

302.  As news organisations adapt their business models to these changing circumstances and new players enter the marketplace, we will observe with interest the extent to which people are prepared to pay to access online content and if so, which devices will prove most popular and what the correct price-point for investigative stories will be. (Para 241)

303.  The technologies upon which investigative journalism now often relies are developing at an ever-faster rate. The outcome of developments in this area remains uncertain but we are confident that investigative journalism will adapt if sufficient scope is given to allow the industry to build successful models online. It is essential that any legal or regulatory reforms take account of these new technologies and that in an age of increasing convergence it is often the same content which is delivered through different platforms. It is vital that any such changes do not make the position of investigative journalism yet more precarious in what is already a difficult market in which to operate. (Para 242)

304.  We welcome the investment made in training journalists by the whole media and encourage continued investment in this area, especially in digital technology skills. In particular we appreciate the financial pressures facing all media organisations, especially the local newspaper industry but we encourage local newspapers, wherever possible, to provide both paid and voluntary opportunities for aspiring journalists to gain practical experience in local news organisations. (Para 251)

305.  We welcome the opportunities which internships offer but these should not be considered as an alternative to paid employment opportunities for journalists. (Para 252)

306.  We encourage all media companies to offer training opportunities. In those media industries where there is a regulator, the regulator should consider whether there are circumstances in which they should mandate the offering of training opportunities. (Para 253)

307.  We recognise the important role played by universities in training investigative journalists and encourage the Government to support these educational facilities in providing useful and practical training opportunities for aspiring journalists. (Para 257)

308.  We welcome the establishment of charitable sponsorship and mentoring bodies, and hope to see this model replicated more widely. (Para 262)

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