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Investigative journalism – a new golden age?

The state of investigative journalism is looking particularly healthy, and we’re not just talking about the Times’ Andrew Norfolk. The emerging non-profit newsrooms and news networks are changing the rules of the game and exposing dark deeds. Peter Preston looks at the old and new players in the investigative game.

By Peter Preston

It’s a mantra that can seem like a dirge. Investigative journalism isn’t what it was. No Woodward and Bernstein running Nixon out of the White House. No Harry Evans and his Sunday Times Insight team exposing the dark scandal of thalidomide. Newspapers and broadcasters can’t afford this stuff any longer. Budgets have shrunk and so have newsrooms. Libel costs are a dire deterrent. The churnalism of beating out copy fast rules not OK. Investigations take time and money and readers prefer celebrity tat anyway. So the great old days are dead and gone. Except that they’re not. Except that, when you look closer, this is a surprisingly golden age for reporters who want to turn over stones.

The dirge-mongers aren’t entirely wrong, of course. Investigative journalism is expensive. It often consumes weeks and months of inquiry. It needs scarce resources - and, sometimes, for nil result. It can have all manner of tedious side effects: hard-working general reporters growing stroppy because the great investigator on the next desk is staring vacantly into space again: hard-driving finance directors wondering where that last £250,000 went; legal eagles growing fat. Operatic egos burgeon in the shadow of Watergate. Revelations, once finally nailed, can be infernally complex - too much detail for any busy customer. And remember always that investigative journalism is a technique and perhaps a calling. The term doesn’t define the subject matter investigations throw up, nor guarantee reader interest in them. Even if you get the story, that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get a round of applause - or extra readers. There’s disappointment as well as glory in these trenches.

Fleet Street’s finest

And yet: pause for a moment and remember the big stories you remember from the last few years. There’s Andrew Norfolk from the Times winning award after award for his exposures of Rotherham’s miserable history of sexual exploitation. There’s David Hencke and the Exaro News team hunting the “great and good” paedophile rings of the sixties and seventies, slime in the shadow of Savile. There’s Nick Davies of the Guardian exposing Fleet Street’s phone hacking horrors - and Glenn Greenwald’s disturbing encounters with Edward Snowden. There’s the Sunday Times and FIFA. Plus, of course, the Daily Telegraph’s delvings amongst the seedy detail of MPs’ expense claims.

All those stories make waves, big headlines and reputations. They are what many journalists and many of their readers think journalism is all about: a force for good, for transparency and truth in a grey old world. Without question or thought, they have to be done. But they also shed a lustrous light on those who do them - one that mere marketing effort can’t come near. They give the brand an edge of danger, intelligence, integrity. Who can argue with that?

And actually, when you look closer, very few editors are even attempting to argue, because the terms of trade are changing too. On the one hand, discrete teams and brilliant individuals on particular staffs are making their marks. Look at this year’s Pulitzer Prize list and you’ll find the Daily Breeze from Torrance, California, suitably garlanded alongside the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But, on the other hand, the whole nature of investigation has changed as well. There are many more trained investigative reporters than once there were. They are professional masters of the digital arts and university courses that hone their skills. They are colleagues in a community rather than driven competitors. Call it the ‘foundation effect’.

New players

America, you may recall, specialises in flimsy public safety nets and a stout belief in charitable funding: what we briefly called the Big Society ethos before it shrivelled. And since investigative journalism is deemed a public good, it was natural enough that foundations and not-for-profit benefactors would step in once newspapers complained about bearing the cost of good work. ProPublica, employing nearly four dozen digging journalists in its New York newsroom, is probably the most famous such support mechanism around: two Pulitzers and many more lesser awards collected since it began eight years ago. But there are many more, dotted across the cities of the States. They are mostly well established by now. They have boards, trustees and other foundations footing their bills. They are one way out of the digital bind - but probably not the surest, or best. (How does a board of local dignitaries react when the investigative team they support wants to investigate them and their neighbourhood chums? How can funding be turned into something regular and reliable, rather than ad hoc and anxious?)

In fact, the new entries with the clearest clout are more networks than tight little units. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists - 190-strong in 65 countries - grew out of the Centre for Public Integrity (born 1997 in Washington DC). The Centre has often had to travel a rocky road, scrabbling for funding, expanding then contracting. But its central concept - investigations that cross borders because today’s dodgiest dealings cross borders - is bang on the money. And Europe, which has many borders clustered close together, is a very happy ICIJ hunting ground. Last year, its reporters uncovered the displeasing truth about Luxembourg’s tax avoidance habit, a tale that made headlines round the globe and caused the new president of the EU Commission much pain. This year already, it has exposed the ways (only just past) that HSBC’s Swiss arm used to shelter the fortunes of the rich, famous and dubious.

The consortium is by no means alone. Harry Evans and I are both judges for the new European Press Prize, and this year the level and ambitions of the investigators made a special mark. “This is absolutely on a Pulitzer level”, said Harry; and he was right. Reporters from six countries joined forces to track the routes the long-standing president of Belarus uses to spread his riches far, wide and unreachable. The fantastic Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in the Balkans entered a host of hair-raising exposures of double dealing at the top - including one, the Russian Laundromat, which followed black money from Moscow to a bank in Moldova and back to Latvia, before disappearing without trace in the wider channels of European commerce. On the one hand, the OCCRP’s reporters - attached to a whole range of different investigation centres in individual countries - are as relentless and determined as the reporters of the Daily Breeze in California, unearthing something rotten in Torrance’s education administration day after day. On the other hand, the stories they’re running are big ones in small, often wildly lawless nations. These are national investigations featuring millions of euros or roubles scattered far and wide, trailing international implications. Danger and threat are part of this mix. There is no such thing here as “local”.

Networks are significant for a variety of beneficent reasons. They raise the profile of investigative work, encouraging more to join in. (One of the fascinating things about the latest European prize entry list was the volume of individual investigations launched by German, Dutch and Norwegian papers: and another fascinating thing that the ultimate investigative prize actually went to a fearless Basque reporter for El Pais in Madrid who discovered that units in Colombia’s army were making a mint by murdering random lads, dressing their corpses in terrorist kit - and claiming the world’s grisliest incentive payments under blood-stained false pretences). And further, beyond the honour and glory of the scoop, they also encourage co-operation and comradeship. You may be the one who gets the story for Paper A or Website B. But you probably need others in the network to make the checks and follow the leads you depend on. The honour, intrinsically, is shared; the glory belongs to the whole trade.

Following the money

Better still, the network approach seems precisely geared to detecting today’s biggest scams. It’s no accident that crime and corruption come linked in that Balkan project. It is absolutely no accident that the consortium scores its clearest hits in the international smog where illicit billions float back and forth. Follow the money? Skilled data journalists can do that, often without leaving their desks. Whistleblowers anxious to expose crookery have simple ways of passing over detailed information. The “laundromats” of Moldova and Latvia, just like the submerged channels of Belarus and the secret accounts of Switzerland, are there to be prised open. There’s proof positive down among the data; there is also, with luck, a contracting time frame for inquiry. When the killer facts are only a press of the right button away, they can be revealed in a trice, not in years. The whole business of disclosure - at least in theory and often in practice - gets more expert, more definitive.

Of course, at newsroom ground level, none of this is cheap, or easy. Of course, it involves hard training and hard investment. Of course, many areas of investigation - including the human tragedy of paedophilia, as tracked by the privately funded Exaro team from their Covent Garden HQ - still need shoe leather, notebooks and human resource. And, of course, the libel courts can weave a costly blanket of silence, as the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger sadly points out. Yet the record of present achievement, coolly assessed, remains formidable. In the past few months and years, it has precipitated a drastic American re-think on what’s illegal in national security surveillance; what’s acceptable when you go to a Swiss bank; where Russia’s recycled black money goes; how Members of Parliament are recompensed and regulated; who raped who and got away with it years ago. Those are just some of the stories in our new investigation city. They are worth whatever needs to be paid for them; and journalism - standing tall among the debris - is finding a way.