Tessa, Ashley, Jonathan and the death of investigative journalism

On The Press
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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


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.