Tessa, Ashley, Jonathan and the death of investigative journalism

On The Press

This has been the week of Jowellgate, an everyday story of joint mortgages and many questions. Personal finance moved to the news pages. It could have had a backing track of Sir Cliff's "It's so funny, how we don't talk any more", so little did one of the joint mortgagees know about the arrangements the other had put in place.

This has also been the week when a footballer sued two newspapers over a story about a "gay orgy" - even though they did not suggest he was involved. He maintained he had still been damaged by the story. Two kinds of investigative journalism.

Has Jowellgate been the product of dogged journalistic investigation in the great tradition? This begs the question "what is investigation?". Since journalism is about finding things out and telling your audience about them, the purists would have it that all half-decent journalism is investigative.

But if you refine the definition to "finding things out", various interested parties would much prefer you not to, and then you move on to the higher ground of disclosure and away from the spoon-feeding of spin.

Sentimentalists regard the 1960s and 1970s as the golden era of investigative journalism, and The Sunday Times under the editorship of Harold Evans, ITV's World in Action and Private Eye with Paul Foot's Footnotes as the leading exponents of the genre. What distinguished investigative journalism was that it was demanding of time and talented people, and always ran the risk of producing nothing at the end of the process. Powerful investigations like The Guardian's of Jonathan Aitken posed a constant danger of backfiring.

Today, publishers are obsessed with cutting costs; editorial staffs are smaller; editors are less likely to invest in investigation, and anyway audiences are thought to be more interested in bedroom than balance-sheet activities. But we are still, happily, concerned about the integrity, or lack of it, of those in power over us and we still see one of the roles of the media as holding them to account.

Appropriately enough, given its investigative history,The Sunday Times kicked off the past Jowellgate week with a story linking Tessa Jowell to her husband's £350,000 "gift". The story appeared under the Insight logo, which the paper has used since the supposed great days of investigation. Then there might have been eight or 10 members of the team; now it might be one or two.

The Sunday Times, like the papers that followed the story throughout the week, took advantage of the Italian frenzy surrounding prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and allegations of corruption against him. The Italian prosecutors have been making available to journalists what the Daily Mail called "an avalanche of incriminating evidence".

This has led to a rather new approach to "investigative" journalism. Rather than spending weeks painstakingly uncovering information, the modern technique is to do a bit of that and then ask questions rather than answer them. So a Sunday Times headline read "Questions Jowell must answer on payoff".

The asking continued throughout the week. The Daily Mail, which has given more space than any other paper to the affair, printed "10 questions Tessa must answer" on Tuesday and "15 questions Miss Jowell must answer" on Friday. The Independent had "Jowell fails to answer questions" on Tuesday and "the remaining unanswered questions in a story that keeps changing" on Friday.

One could challenge the Mail's use of the word "must". Nobody is under any obligation to answer a question simply because a newspaper says so, but newspapers can maintain pressure through repetition.

The person in the spotlight may richly deserve such treatment, but may not. In the case of a politician the drip, drip, drip of questions answered and unanswered may become "difficult" for the prime minister or party leader. So we read of so-and-so's position "becoming untenable" when actually nothing has changed apart from a few more stories being written. It happened with Peter Mandelson; it happened with David Blunkett.

Repeatedly asking questions may produce answers. But when it does not, and the asking goes on and on, does it become unjustifiable pressure, harassment or hounding? "Jowell cleared" of breaching the Ministerial Code was in most papers juxtaposed with "questions remain".

Ashley Cole is a public figure too, much better known and better paid than Ms Jowell. The Arsenal and England footballer has issued writs against newspapers that wrote of celebrated footballers taking part in a "gay orgy". Cole was not named, but is claiming that the articles in the News of the World and The Sun contributed to rumours that he was one of those involved.

That case is a matter for the courts, but stories of the sex lives of footballers count as investigative journalism in some tabloid newspapers. They are the product of investigation, possibly more demanding than going through easily obtainable legal documents in Italy. If you are "turning over" celebrities for the titillation of your readers it is no good talking about the questions that must be answered. The answers must be there in the first place.

They usually are. I wish they weren't. Investigative it may be, but not the way Harold Evans thought of this branch of journalism when he set up The Sunday Times Insight team. Evans says in his autobiography that he "wanted to reflect [Victorian editor] W.T. Stead's 'governing functions of the press' - its 'Argus-eyed power of inspection'."

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

MEDIA DIARY

No pots for this Kettle

The Guardian's Martin Kettle seems a tad out of touch. In Labour weekly Tribune, retired Guardian political editor Ian Aitken lambasted his old paper's columnist and leader writer for a piece on the "death of socialism". Aitken challenged "old chum" Kettle - a Communist turned model New Labourite - to justify his Guardian stance by writing a piece for Tribune "for the usual princely fee". Kettle duly produced a Guardianesque, and then asked Tribune editor Chris McLaughlin how much he was to be paid. Tribune, as any politico knows, has not been in the habit of paying contributors in all its impecunious 69-year history. Lefties, Martin, only do it for love.

A sycophant writes?

Journalists are not generally sycophantic, but should an exception be made for Times political reporter Greg Hurst?As secretary of the Commons press gallery, Hurst has written a grovelling letter to the Speaker, Michael Martin, to wish him a speedy recovery from his recent illness. He has even pasted the letter on the press corridor noticeboard. And this to an anti-press Speaker who got journalists thrown off the Westminster terrace?

Late for 'Today'

Rumours that the Today programme editorship has already been sewn up have been stoked by an advertisement for Kevin Marsh's successor in the BBC's Ariel magazine. Applications are required by February 10.

Sophie gets stripped

Sophie Bower, daughter of Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley and reporter for Oxford student newspaper Cherwell, has been stripped by the university Tory association of her role as treasurer. Among alleged misdemeanours was "a seemingly inexplicable £600 increase in the balance of accounts from the end of the previous treasurer's term to the end of Bower's," reports Cherwell's rival paper, the Oxford Student.

YouGov? Not us, guv

Apart from Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes, the big loser in the Lib Dem leadership election was YouGov chairman Peter Kellner. He forecast a Huhne victory of 52 per cent with Campbell on 48 per cent. Campbell's victory is a blow for the company that successfully predicted the winners of the Tory leadership race and TV'sPop Idol.

Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition