Sunday, 11 November 2012

Rumour, Credibility, Corroboration, And Proof

Crowd SourcedTHERE IS MUCH MORE to responsible investigative journalism than the public might realise. In particular, the Leveson revelations regarding the inappropriate use of communication intercepts by Murdoch’s Red Tops and the questionable employment of private detectives by newspapers and national broadcasters to pursue a story have made it seem that journalism is all about muck-raking.

But it most definitely is not.

The Press has a duty to expose corruption wherever it exists, and it also has a responsibility to ensure that the powerless are heard and given the same opportunity as the powerful to present their case. It is the duty of the Press to uncover the truth that others wish to suppress.

It is not for journalists to pass judgement, their job is only to gather, test, and present the facts. Judgement is for the reader, viewer – or jury if the case goes to court.

In a perfect world, nobody would lie. But the sad fact is that everyone does. The guilty lie to protect themselves, and their accusers often embroider the truth in their frustration to be heard. Witnesses repeat as fact what they have heard or suspect as evidence to lead others to their prejudiced conclusions, and investigators misrepresent facts so they might be challenged and a new lead found.

All stories begin as a rumour, and all rumours have an originating source. It is the journalist’s job to identify that source before taking any investigation further, since just because the same rumour is presented by different sources does not indicate it is true.

Sadly, there is a current trend, in these days of a readily accessible internet, for young, would-be, investigative journalists and researchers to resort to ‘data-mining’ social sites and Twitter trends to ‘uncover’ a story that might further their careers. Often, their previous stories have not directly been concerned with people, but about wider political and national issues relying upon FOI responses and confirm or deny requests made from comfortable arm chairs.

There is little real ‘work’ in such journalism, although such research is valuable nonetheless; but, unlike true investigative journalism, what the new breed of journalists report is simply an angle upon what has been revealed by ‘unimpeachable’ sources (although often presented in a partisan way). It is worth noting that, at no time, is the truth or reliability of the source ever questioned. If the information is supplied as the result of an FOI request, by a faceless individual, it is de-facto accurate and true!

Research is not journalism. Julian Assange and the Wikileaks brigade did nothing but collect a heap of old, out of context, disjointed material with which to shower the public in an incomprehensible ‘truth,’ which was never revealed. It was left to real journalists to try and pick through all the tittle-tattle for vestiges of a credible piece.

Context is crucial in any investigation, just as it is equally important to know what any investigation is trying to achieve. Trawling the internet for story ideas in the event of a clear desk is now standard practise; but the exercise cannot be conducted in the same way as trawling the Press, or its archives, where all information (it is hoped) has been rigorously checked.

The Press has a duty to ensure the powerless have a voice; but it is as much for the source’s protection as it is for the journalist to ensure that everything that is said, particularly on the record, has been scrupulously tested against known facts. Sadly, that was not the case when Newsnight researched Messham’s testimony. They should have tested his McAlpine allegations by providing him with a photo array from which the accused could be identified – but they did not. That simple omission, along with their unbelievable failure to front the subject under investigation, illustrates just how easy it is for any journalists to undo all their previous good work.

It is easy to throw one’s hands in the air in disgust and belittle the Newsnight team for not exercising due care; but I suspect that the real problem here is not primarily of Newsnight’s making – rather, I would hazard, that it is the BBC’s unfortunate trust in the fledgling Bureau of Investigative Journalists, with whom the broadcaster now seems to have broken all ties. It was they who, on Twitter, anticipated the naming, which never transpired in that evening’s Newsnight broadcast, to avail their own organisation of the kudos for providing the programme its material.

It is an unfortunate state of affairs. Responsible investigative journalism takes a great deal of time, endeavour, and is extremely expensive to conduct – so it is not so surprising that many news organisations resort to employing private detective agencies to conduct specialist research in an effort to reduce costs. It is even less surprising that they should employ a not-for-profit organisation that offers its services for free. However, it is one thing to employ a separate organisation or contractor for fact gathering – but quite another to permit such researchers to be involved in grading, or corroborating, any of the material that they personally produce. Any investigation is only as good as its material, and that material is only credible if it has been independently corroborated and verified (by any means necessary, if that is what it takes).

It is a sad fact of life that serious investigative journalism rarely, if ever, makes a profit. It eats away at precious financial resources that few titles can afford, so, when an organisation comes under financial pressure it is often the case that the investigative team is the first to feel the cuts. Experienced, expensive, staff journalists are fired and replaced by cheap juniors; experienced editors are retired and young ‘managers’ take their places; staffers are pressurised to produce more stories to fill diminishing pages that once contained profitable advertising – and corners are ultimately cut. Pressure leads to falling standards; mistakes are made; and Leveson is the ultimate result.

This has not been a good week for the original two TV broadcasters. It has included the bungling Schofield on ITV demonstrating infantile behaviour in asking a closed question of the PM about internet rumours, and has culminated in one of Auntie’s flagship programmes revealed as undermining the evidence of a powerless victim by failing to examine his testimony in detail.

It seems that only Channel 4 can be trusted to consistently produce weighty investigative broadcasts that true journalism is all about…

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