The news: Lawsuits and world inaction

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The Independent Culture
Last week three officers of the Metropolitan police were awarded six-figure sums each because a court found that Granada Television's venerable World in Action investigative team had inaccurately suggested they had given false evidence about the death of a man in custody.

Good news for three individual policemen. Very bad news for Granada Television, which has been showing signs of going off World in Action and its vigorous investigative tradition for some time anyway. And bad news, too, for those who feel there is too much comment and too little fact in British journalism these days.

Compare and contrast the image of Sir Paul Condon, a trim figure in full uniform, being interviewed, courteously but relentlessly, by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. The interview was a classic: it revealed the utterly different value systems of interviewer and interviewee. The Commissioner of Metropolitan Police drew a line in the sand. Was there racism in the Met? he said, using the trope with which Bill Clinton defended himself to the grand jury. Yes. Should it be stamped out? Yes. Ah, but was there institutional racism in the force? Absolutely not.

Condon's priority, plainly, was to defend his men's reputation, and their morale, at whatever cost. Paxman's was to get him to accept the adjective "institutional". But surely, he insisted, the Lawrence case was permeated with racist reflexes, racist decisions. And it was not isolated. There had been other cases, like the horrifying one of the black musician found burning to death in the street. For 16 days he lingered between life and death, yet it never occurred to the police to question him about his story that he had been set alight. Sir Paul was indignant. The circumstances, he implied, were quite different.

But how can we know where the truth lies? Transparency in the police would help. What makes it easier in the United States than in Britain to find out what has happened is not so much the First Amendment, which says that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech, as the First Amendment climate.

It is a climate where journalists feel they have a right to know, and public servants feel they have a duty to come clean. Not all the journalists are reasonable, and not all the public servants are truthful. But there is a presumption in favour of openness. Contrast the evasiveness and bullying of our prime minister's press spokesmen with the dignity of Mike McCurry, who is standing down as press secretary to Bill Clinton. "Crap", or "bollocks", says Mr Blair's Mr Campbell, when asked about things that turn out to be true; while the admirable Mr McCurry apologizes for inadvertently misleading journalists because he has himself been misled.

But transparency is not enough. It has to be policed by active efforts to find out what has happened. Granada Television, a company run with a sharp eye to the bottom line under Gerry Robinson, this week had to shell out pounds 1.5 million. How keen do you think that is going to make Granada to give World in Action a free hand?

It is not just the damages, either. The company will have had to pay as much or more to the lawyers. Then there will have been the worry, the diversion of executive time and energy. The chilling effect on the journalists involved, and on those who might be considering taking on other difficult investigations in the future.

At the best of times, the climate in Britain is hostile to investigation. My own experience of difficult investigations (Maxwell, for example) was that until you published, those with well-dressed minds would say, "Oh, I very much doubt that that could be true!" Then, when you published, they would say, "Oh, everyone knew that all along!" At an even earlier stage the arrival of a writ, however ill-supported, would persuade half the executives in your own organization, let alone competitors, that you had got it wrong.

To its credit, if for apparently arbitrary reasons, the Daily Mail did stick its neck out on the Lawrence case. It accused, on its front page, the five young men suspected of murdering Stephen Lawrence. Which may or may not have been a courageous and useful thing to do. But it was not investigation. Investigative journalism means painstakingly finding things out that someone seriously wants you not to find. It is slow, difficult, expensive, if only in terms of manpower and legal advice (one of the most overpriced items in an overpriced society), and dangerous for the careers of both the journalists who do it and the executives who take responsibility for them. In this country, it is unnecessarily expensive an dangerous. But it is vital.

If we want to know what the police are doing in our name, we must make it possible for journalists, and especially television journalists (since it is from television that most people get most of their information about society) to investigate.

The penalty for presiding over widespread racist behaviour for years is merely to be subjected to a semantic argument about how much racism qualifies for the adjective "institutional". Meanwhile three coppers lucky enough to be standing in the way when some journalists get something wrong win a small fortune. That is not a climate in which we are in much danger of finding out what is going on.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, as someone said, the uninvestigated society is not safe to live in. Let's see what happens to World in Action now.