The importance of investigative journalism
Tuesday 17 October 2000
Naming and shaming the four alleged Omagh bombers last week was a meticulous investigation conducted by BBC
Panorama stalwart, John Ware. Ware is considered by many of his peers to be the best investigative reporter currently working in television. "Who bombed Omagh?" had all the ingredients of the best in TV investigation: a worthwhile target, confrontation, stunning evidence and inside sources.
Naming and shaming the four alleged Omagh bombers last week was a meticulous investigation conducted by BBC Panorama stalwart, John Ware. Ware is considered by many of his peers to be the best investigative reporter currently working in television. "Who bombed Omagh?" had all the ingredients of the best in TV investigation: a worthwhile target, confrontation, stunning evidence and inside sources.
On screen, Ware comes over as the archetypal investigative reporter, often leather jacket-clad, handsome in a craggy, world-weary sort of way, outrageously persistent and fearless.
Praising Ware's programme, the Daily Star's TV reviewer Dominik Diamond gave him film star status: "The reporter bloke in it who was marching on to the doorstep of some seriously unfriendly sorts is just about the hardest geezer in the world as far as I am concerned."
In the States, the highly-rated film The Insider has just inspired a new generation of American reporters, with its real life plot based on the story of the legendary CBS investigative journalist Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino) and his source, a tobacco industry whistleblower. In the film, the fearful CBS TV channel comes out of the storyline nearly as badly as the tobacco industry. According to Bergman, CBS would not put the story out until their counterparts in the print media had run the story.
Investigation journalism on British television is having its own crisis as it contracts and adapts to an ever more showbusiness agenda. There are fewer and fewer places for the aspiring investigative reporter to make their reputation.
For the British public, ITV's villain-confronting, brickhouse-sized Roger Cook is probably the most famous TV investigative reporter. But reporters that are virtually unknown to the public, like John Ware, have produced the greatest moments of TV investigation. David Leigh's film for World In Action was the beginning of the end for Jonathan Aitken. But the best moment for me was then World In Action reporter Andrew Jennings confronting a marathon-running senior Scotland Yard detective. In a picture that said more than a million words, Jennings and camera crew ran alongside the suspended officer, Jennings inquiring how such an obviously fit man had avoided a disciplinary hearing by pleading ill health.
But to the ratings-seeking programme controllers, serious current affairs and investigation, with their low viewing figures, are a career deathtrap. One long-running current affairs series after another has bitten the dust to be replaced by a more "accessible" series that itself has quickly been consigned to oblivion. Since Granada TV pulled the plug on World In Action, its replacement Tonight with Trevor MacDonald is viewed as investigative journalism lite, with style winning over content. Martin Bashir's interviews with George Best on the programme must be seen as a nadir for serious journalism. In May the ITC criticised the programme for relying too heavily on celebrity interviews and lightweight social affairs issues. These, it said, "tended to provide insufficient depth and brought little in the way of new information or insight".
Only two serious, long-term operators remain: Channel 4's Dispatches and the BBC's Panorama. Although moving to a more populist agenda, Dispatches delivers good investigations, like a recent one revealing BA flight staff drinking heavily while on duty. Dispatches has provided a forum forreporters like Martyn Gregory, Deborah Davies, Mark Hollingsworth, Sarah Spiller and Nick Davies.
Alongside John Ware at Panorama are highly regarded investigators such as Andy Bell and Tom Mangold. But Panorama has its own problems. It moved last Sunday to its new 10.15pm "graveyard" slot and the number of programmes has been reduced to 30 down from 38. Last week John Ware, fresh from the success of the Omagh film, criticised the BBC for downgrading the programme.
For many years, current affairs editors had programmes made because the issue was seen to be important and because it was felt that such programmes had a vital public service remit. World In Action always ran a couple of programmes about the troubles in Northern Ireland a year, although they brought desperately low viewer figures. I myself can vividly recall the discreet but breast-beating debate inside TV in the Nineties to find a way of justifying the ditching of such programmes for those with high ratings. This meant that Northern Ireland was henceforth rarely covered and foreign coverage was severely cut back.
Instead, Panorama's interview with Princess Diana was seen as the new way to win viewer numbers, even if it was entirely a self serving exercise by the Princess.
Are TV investigative reporters a dying breed to be replaced by celebrity interviewers? There are probably about 50 people making their living as investigative journalists in the British media. I should declare an interest here, as for the last 23 years I have been one of them.
Intelligence expert Duncan Campbell left the New Statesman to make TV programmes. He denies the existence of the investigative reporter as a separate species, but admits the precarious nature of the trade. "Sensible risk-taking and commitment helps, but any bright and able reporter can be investigative - when managements allow, or (like me) they bear the profound burdens of a freelance existence."
So who are considered the best British investigative journalists? Are they in TV or print? A straw poll of 20 or so peers by e-mail resulted in a surprisingly consistent list. John Ware, David Leigh, Duncan Campbell, Andrew Jennings (whose 10-year investigation into the Olympics, featured on the BBC, has made him one of the few British reporters well known in the rest of the world) headed the field.
Roger Cook might be best known, yet he not highly rated among his investigative peers. As primarily a television frontman, the hard work of investigation is left to several teams of researchers and producers. The latest pretender to Roger Cook's throne as the TV hardman is "hunky" Donal MacIntyre, star of BBC's MacIntyre Undercover. But his series did not rate highly with other reporters. It is seen as technique-driven rather than story-driven, with the emphasis on playing up the use of hidden cameras. At least one of the last series, supposedly exposing Nigerian frauds, should never have been shown, as it did not achieve an investigative programmes primary aim - that is, deliver clear evidence that the people you are filming are real villains. But the ratings success of BBC's MacIntyre series has spurred Channel 4 into developing a rival series.
Much that appears on TV is billed as investigative journalism but less and less really justifies the term. With TV investigations taking on more of a tabloid style of sex and celebrity, Duncan Campbell has a succinct test for investigative journalism, "Investigative journalism can be tested for by a balance of social and political power. Uncovering intelligence abuse is acting for the relatively powerless against he relatively powerful. Outing gay vicars for Murdoch is the opposite."
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