After the glory, the silence

When a reporter finds himself at the centre of a big political story, the effect on his career is unpredictable. Is anonymity a vital tool for investigative journalists?
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The Independent Online

My contact, an independent-minded Congressman, invited me to his office on Capitol Hill, ushered his staff out and recounted an intriguing theory. If it was right, then it was as scandalous as he clearly believed. But it was of scant relevance to a British domestic audience. It was 1993, and I was working for BBC Radio. I had carefully cultivated this Democrat politician because of his close interest in foreign policy. I explained that he was talking to the wrong journalist. He looked pained and asked whom he ought to brief. I was new to America and, half-jokingly, suggested Bob Woodward of The Washington Post. My man was dismissive. "Woodward?" he said. "Come on. You don't go to guys like him until you're sure the President is about to launch an unauthorised first strike on Moscow."

He was wrong (as, it turned out, was his theory), but his point was not. He would have talked to the hero of Watergate if Woodward had called him, but the legendary reporter seemed too grand to bother with mere Congressional intrigue. My source feared that any such approach would risk giving his suspicions a profile that they did not deserve. It is an issue for any journalist who becomes as high-profile as the story that makes their name. When the Hutton inquiry has finished, irrespective of what it concludes, it may well become a concern for the BBC's Andrew Gilligan.

Deborah Vogel, senior lecturer in broadcast journalism at the University of Westminster, says: "There are journalists who become synonymous with detailed, analytical investigation of specific issues. Reporters who become associated with intimate knowledge of a particular subject tend to attract sources. People go to them because they know a lot. Coverage of Northern Ireland has turned up some good examples. But they are usually newspaper journalists.

"That doesn't happen as much in broadcasting. Is celebrity a help or a hindrance? Yes and no. Sometimes it encourages people to call. But there are times when it scares people. They worry that by taking information to a particular reporter the story may become too big, that it will be presented as more than it was."

Vogel points out that long-running investigative series like Radio Four's Face the Facts avoid putting emphasis on the identity of reporters or presenters. "They ask listeners to call the programme with stories." She believes that in cases like that "people think they are talking to the BBC, not to individual journalists".

The opposite is the case when allegations are taken to controversial star investigators like Donal MacIntyre of Channel Five and previously the BBC. When MacIntyre published a book to accompany his BBC series MacIntyre Undercover, colleagues ridiculed him for claiming that "journalism is too small or distant a word to cover [my work]. It is theatre, there are no second takes". But MacIntyre was right. His brand of journalism is based on a cult of personality. It is just the kind of populism that Vogel suggests might deter a serious whistleblower. That is why sources like the government scientist Dr David Kelly go to journalists like Andrew Gilligan not to celebrity reporters like MacIntyre or ITV's Martin Bashir.

Of course MacIntyre and Bashir deal in the television equivalent of tabloid scoops, stories that interest millions but only occasionally delve beneath the surface of public policy. The dilemma for journalists like Gilligan is whether the unwanted profile ensured by a bruising confrontation with the Government has a deterrent effect on their sources of information.

The problem stems as much from journalistic jealousy as public reluctance to bother a famous name. Before his damaging run-in with the singer Michael Jackson, Martin Bashir provided a master class in how to break spectacular exclusives without becoming the primary focus of attention. With a persistence some colleagues maligned as obsession, he persuaded Diana, Princess of Wales, the Stephen Lawrence murder suspects and Louise Woodward, the British au pair charged with murdering a baby in her care, to spill the beans on camera. Bashir consistently rejected invitations to talk about himself, or his work. He let the stories speak for themselves and gave the impression that he loathed the glamour and attention that is routinely focused on successful investigative journalists.

But Max Clifford, the celebrity PR guru, recently explained that it was Bashir's profile, not his persistence, that put him into the big league. According to Clifford, Bashir was made by his interview with Diana, Princess of Wales. "Once he had Diana, his place was assured," Clifford says. "He became the star - and they all wanted to be interviewed by a star. People feel that being interviewed by him, they are putting themselves on the same level as Diana." That, it seems safe to assume, was exactly the fate Dr Kelly wanted to avoid when he took the principled decision to risk his career by briefing reporters on his concerns about the Government's justification for war in Iraq.

Peter Meech of Stirling University's Department of Media Studies says: "Celebrity journalism is not new, and historically famous journalists have been able to maintain their sources of information." But Meech identifies two areas of difficulty. "If journalists become too associated with one particular position - as, for instance, John Pilger has - they will attract certain sources and deter others." Drawing a distinction between plain celebrity and the attention attracted by controversy, he adds: "In Gilligan's case, it may make professional life very difficult. He may well find it hard to attract sources."

Speaking on American public television last year, on the 13th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the other half of the team that brought down President Richard Nixon, Carl Bernstein, identified another problem that is created when serious reporters are made famous by their work.

Bernstein says: "I think we have created an atmosphere that has a kind of 'gotcha' environment. A new reporter is assigned to go to the county fair, and instead of looking at the cows and the exhibits, he is looking at the cookie jar and somebody with their hand in it. What happens is you lose context, so that if you're covering the city hall, what you're really looking for most of the time is to catch the mayor saying something that's a little untrue and turn it into a big story - when, in fact, the sewer system of the whole city is falling apart and people can't get their water and they're getting poisoned. You're missing the news. And I think that's a big problem."

The analogy with Britain's present journalistic cause célèbre is almost precise. A story that exposed government wrong-doing has been turned into a diversionary debate about personalities, their motives and agendas. Whether or not it restricts Gilligan's future ability to conduct discreet meetings with dissident officials in anonymous hotels, it certainly conveys the impression that naming and shaming is a more valuable and career-enhancing activity than steady, persistent investigation.

It is unlikely to be enough for Lord Hutton, but if Gilligan's reporting had pointed the finger at the Government instead of seeking to apportion responsibility to individuals within it, public opinion would still have been better informed and the reporter would not have become the story. Without celebrity he would never have had to face concerns about his capacity to repeat the trick, but without celebrity the story may not have had the impact it deserved.