Ian Burrell: Investigative journalism is getting harder – but we need it more than ever

The media column: You can no longer protect your source like you used to

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The Independent Online

Never mind the sweet smell of spring, the stench of corruption seems to be hanging in the British air like never before. Barrister Mark Ellison’s recent report into Scotland Yard’s disgraceful handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry points to deeply corrupt links between police officers and career criminals. Other revelations surrounding undercover officers in the Yard’s Special Demonstration Squad show a terrifying lack of accountability at a force that was once a beacon in international policing.

In the City, the foreign exchange scandal has followed the shame of Libor and the London Whale in a Square Mile where the reputations of once-great institutions from the Royal Bank of Scotland to Barclays have been irrevocably tarnished by the greed and financial mismanagement of senior staff.

A widely-shared article in The New York Times last week derided our famed business district as “London’s laundry”, where the pin-striped decorum of old has been replaced with a pirate culture and an unlimited appetite for filthy doubloons.

Politicians are seen as on the make, lining their pockets through false expense claims, undermining the reputation of the Mother of Parliaments. British sports fans, who for years scoffed at fixed matches overseas, have lately seen huge betting scandals in football and cricket as the global betting industry puts new pressures on professional players. The fact that Britain has slipped down the global Corruption Perception Index from 11th to 17th in the past decade shows our international reputation is under threat.

So where is the media in all this? In it right up to its neck, if you believe public opinion. Transparency International, the anti-corruption organisation, carried out an annual poll last summer which ranked the media as the most corrupt sector in British society. That is due, of course, to the Leveson Inquiry’s highlighting of venal relationships between politicians, public officials and the hacking and blagging elements of the red-top press.

This lack of public trust in the media has profound implications. And it “isn’t fair”, says Transparency’s Rachel Davies. “It does not reflect the fact that there are people in the media doing great work in fighting corruption. They play an absolutely vital role in society.”

Some people appear to have forgotten that it was the media – and specifically the newspapers – that uncovered the rotten culture of MPs’ expenses, bribe payments in Test-match cricket, criminality at News International and some of the corruption in the Metropolitan Police.

The notoriously tenacious British media, criticised at the Leveson hearings for being overly aggressive, can rightly claim credit for the absence of bungs and stuffed brown envelopes in public life.

But its ability to act as a breakwater to a rising tide of corruption is now seriously threatened. At a time when the new Local Audit and Accountability Act has raised fears that a reduction in independent accounting will lead to increased local government corruption, the cash-strapped regional press is struggling to deploy reporters to municipal meetings.

The ongoing pressures on newspaper budgets and the cost of defending libel actions mean that potentially litigious investigations into corruption by the powerful are a luxury that is easy to pass up when entertainment journalism can often generate greater internet traffic.

In order to encourage more news organisations to recognise their role in exposing crooked behaviour in public life, the One World Media Awards will this year include a special category for corruption reporting.

Somehow, despite the mistrust, the media and responsible citizens must find a way to work closer together. There is a growing public awareness that corruption isn’t confined to crude backhanders. The succession of scandals in politics, banking, policing and media has increased public awareness of the subtleties of bent relationships. The Freedom of Information Act – one of the big modern pluses in combating public malpractice – is available to everyone, as is the vast amount of data now published online.

Perhaps most importantly of all, some individuals are in a position to highlight corruption by acting as whistleblowers. But such people are vulnerable as never before. 

Christopher Hird, the managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is unconvinced by the fashion for internal hotlines at organisations that are anxious to demonstrate their transparency. “My suspicion is that people will always be suspicious of a system that’s internal,” he says. “We need a proper independent whistleblowing structure staffed by people with the skills to investigate the allegations that are made.”

He suggests that a suitable title for the body might be the Committee for Public Integrity. Without such an entity, there are growing fears that media organisations alone can no longer give whistleblowers the protection they once could.

Paul Lashmar, a journalism academic at Brunel University and an investigative journalist for 35 years, is studying the issue. He says Edward Snowden’s recent revelations of mass electronic surveillance by the intelligence services have “really worrying” consequences for reporters on sensitive stories as whistleblowers are quickly identified.

“Electronic communication gets sucked up by this vacuum cleaner set up by the National Security Agency and GCHQ. You can no longer protect your source in the way you used to. The new era of mass surveillance will cause a raft of problems in [the media] investigating not only corruption but bad behaviour in the public sector,” he says. “The days of whistleblowers in government, the public sector and key industries may be gone.”

Despite the problems, Transparency International remains hopeful that an increasingly aware public will abandon its cynicism and actively put pre-election pressure on politicians to make the fight against corruption a manifesto commitment.

And hopefully those fair-minded citizens will recognise that the media – at least key sections of it – is an essential ally in ensuring that fight is successful.