Like the muckrakers of America, investigative journalists have always been looked upon with scorn and distrust. At a time when journalists and journalism are facing an unprecedented level of attack in terms of public cynicism, Legal constraints and the turbulent political fall-out created by the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the media’s watchdog role faces extinction.
The undercover journalism, which challenges the activities of the dominant institutions in our society, is on death row. Since the late 1970s there has been a decline in the nature and the amount of investigative journalism in the world’s media, particularly, sadly, in Britain.
At a time where there is a demand for instantaneous news, journalists and news organizations are neglecting their duties of detecting, investigating and exposing society's ills in favour of the more easily and mass-produced, audience-friendly task of light entertainment and live reporting. News has now become a business force, focused on profit and political spin rather than our traditional fourth-estate role of keeping the powerful in check.
Investigative journalists used to be the feather in the cap of any well organized newsroom, with some of the most famous being Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposing the scandal at Watergate in America, which brought down President Richard Nixon's administration. Similarly exposing were Seymour Hersh on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Wilfred Burchett, the first Westerner to enter Hiroshima, the Japanese city razed to the ground by an American nuclear bomb, in September 1945; and Israeli journalist Amira Hass, reporting candily from the Gaza Strip in the 1990s, to name but a few.
The most prolific purveyor of investigative scoops, in the last century has been the Daily Mirror newspaper, whose innovations, which included the now widely imitated, ‘shock issue,’ in which page after page was devoted to a single subject, usually exposing some social evil. The then editor, the legendary Hugh Cudlipp, called it an “exercise in brutal mass education”.
The first shock issue in 1960 was a searing account of the suffering of horses shipped from Britain to the butchers of Belgium and France. This was followed by scandals of poorly equipped youth clubs, cruelty to children, environmenmtal pollution, the suicide club of teenagers on ton-up motorbikes and the neglect of old and lonely people.
“Forward with the people!” said one masthead, during this time, which encapsulated the democratic role that journalists played in representing the public against the pillars of power.
However, in today’s more modern society such journalism, particularly by the popular press, has been confined to digging up dirt and revealing secrets about the private lives of the rich and famous, the British Royal family, politicians and rock stars. The resignation of left-wing campaigning journalist Paul Foot in 1993 brought an end to the Daily Mirror’s tradition of hard-hitting political investigations and marked the rapid decline that beset all news outlets. With the quality press, technology, competition and new owners have acted to curtail investigative work.
Investigative journalism defines what it is for fearless journalists to write in the public interest and to be part of a democratic society. Democracy is founded on a number of principles, one of which is the accountability of elected representatives and civil servants to the people.
Ideally, a host of scrutinising mechanisms should help ensure accountability but even the very best systems are open to abuse. Experience shows us that when wrongdoing does take place, investigative journalists are among those best placed to expose it and ensure that justice is done.
In fact, because of the great public interest in the conduct of Government, including the exposure of corruption and other misuses of public office, the European Court of Human Rights has frequently noted the important ‘watchdog’ role of the media.
However, journalism has been the victim of a political role reversal, which has seen politicians holding the balance of power. They have actively sought out new and improved ways of restricting journalists, in what they report and in their working practices while influencing the public in thinking that reporters are underhand and dishonest.
News of the World reporter David McGee found himself in the dock after his investigation into the failings at Woodhill Prison, in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. McGee had taken a job guarding prisoners. After months working undercover he took exclusive photographs in his cellof Ian Huntley, who was serving a life sentence for the notorious murder of two young girls in Soham, The pictures were published in June 2003, and prompted a Home Office review of prison security.
McGee got the job in his own name, providing passport ID showing his profession as a journalist. Yes, this was illegal but if one man with a camera can get in that position, what is stopping a crazed feminist protestor in a shell suit and a claymore, or an armed terrorist getting through?
Moreover, due to his investigations McGee, working in the public interest, managed to reveal the problems with security and administrative procedures. This did not stop him, however, being charged with taking a camera into a prison, which is a crim inal offence. The government is punishing investigative journalists for pointing out that they are not doing their jobs properly.
Legal proceedings, in my view, should not be taken against investigative journalists, if they have acted in-line with what it means to write in the public interest and they have followed the ethical guidelines set out by the National Union of Journalists.
A further example is the BBC’s Real story documentary, ‘Detention Undercover,’ which took nine months of investigative research, including three months of secret filming, to reveal that asylum seekers and immigrants are being racially and physically abused by security guards in a Cambridgeshire detention centre.
The programme’s findings were presented to the Home Office and also to the private security company who employed the guards whose deplorable behaviour had been caught on camera. As a result, a number of employees were suspended. This is another classic example of investigative journalists providing a public service by using methods, which stretch the laws of the land to breaking point. Investigations by undercover journalists have the potential to reduce crime, improve national institutions and the people who work in them by calling them to account.
Journalists face many enemies in their work, but exposing our society’s ills for the good of the people is surely something which should be promoted. In my view there are three main conditions that can be identified to create an ideal environment for investigative journalism to flourish.
Firstly, the media should be both interested in and capable of undertaking investigative journalism.
Secondly, journalists should be able to identify problems and investigate them. This means they should be allowed access to all relevant information from a variety of sources.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the media must be free to publish or broadcast the stories their journalists have uncovered in the public interest, without fear of censorship, recrimination or penal sanction. For me, investigative journalism neatly answers the question: 'Who guards the guardians'.