Submission to the House of Lord Communications Select Committee

The Future of Investigative Journalism

1. Summary

Two kinds of institution have, to a very large extent, funded and directed journalism, including investigative journalism, in Britain; commercial media groups and the publicly funded BBC.

This combination of market and public service provision has failed to keep the general population tolerably well informed about matters of deep common concern for long periods of time. Investigative journalists have tended to concentrate on private or marginal matters and as a result comment and analysis have been starved of relevant information and democratic decision-making has been severely impaired.

It is necessary to introduce another mechanism for directing and funding investigative journalism. I propose that we each – in virtue of our being citizens – are given some power to allocate public money to journalists and some power to determine the publicity afforded to their findings.

This joint power, to commission and to publicise, is currently in the hands of owners, managers and employees of large institutions. They have not been able to use this power responsibly and can no longer claim the exclusive right to direct journalism.

2. The Economics and Politics of Investigative Journalism

In the marketplace investigative journalism is usually a low profit or loss-making proposition. It also carries significant legal, economic and political risks. Market institutions have usually had to cross-subsidise investigative journalism with other kinds of content. Executives and editors at the BBC also keep a careful eye on their investigative journalists, being mindful of their need to maintain the appearance of political impartiality and to avoid attacks from commercial rivals.

Effective investigations can disrupt important external relationships and present significant conflicts of interest. In both commercial media operations and in the BBC, investigations are subject to close supervision by editors and executives who make essentially unaccountable decisions about the level and duration of support given to particular lines of inquiry. Often it seems that newspapers in particular use investigative journalism to prosecute vendettas rather than to serve the public interest.

Journalists are often reluctant to talk about the pressures with which they work and sometimes prefer to insist in public that no such pressures exist. Many of their colleagues would disagree. More importantly, the major media repeatedly fail to describe reality when doing so threatens their own interests or the interests of those who have the power to help or harm them. Their track record should count for more than the arguments of their apologists.

Neither market forces nor the principles of public service have succeeded in delivering adequate investigative journalism in recent years. Governments have presented essentially fictitious rationales for war, banks have misrepresented their financial position, and media companies themselves have been hosts to widespread and prolonged criminality.

The state, the financial sector and the media have operated for long periods without fear of exposure by a free press. Institutional arrangements that have repeatedly failed us must now be changed.

3. Public commissioning – the Democratic Principle

There is another way of directing journalism that has not yet been tried on any significant scale. Money raised from the general public could be distributed to journalists on the basis of a vote. Journalists would post proposals for projects that would be costed according an agreed scale. Each of us would have an opportunity to review these proposals and to vote for the ones we supported.

Once an investigation was complete we would vote to determine how much publicity was afforded to what was discovered. The broadcasters could be required to summarise information from investigations in their news bulletins. They could also provide space in the schedules for stand-alone documentaries written and produced by publicly funded journalists.

Rather than relying on market forces or the principles of public service, we would make decisions for ourselves about what we wanted to know more about. Different voting mechanisms would deliver different outcomes but the principle – that each citizen should have some power to shape the investigative agenda – is clear, and clearly now necessary, given that every other method for securing journalism in the public interest has failed.

This power to shape the content of what is widely known and therefore politically relevant would encourage citizens to engage with one another as citizens; it would provide an effective means for marginalised and excluded groups to speak back to their fellow citizens, to correct stereotypes, and to introduce new perspectives in a media landscape dominated by privilege, complacency and demagoguery.

Most importantly, the system of public commissioning I propose would provide support for journalists who want to investigate those aspects of the social, economic and political settlement that are currently ignored or inadequately described in the media on which most people rely. Vested interests that can, to a considerable extent, shape the ways in which they are described would be subject to effective challenge. Problems that cannot now be sensibly discussed would become available as objects of democratic deliberation. We could discuss the economic crisis, for example, without relying on the dubious expertise of financiers and their favoured economists. Once the general public are able inquire for themselves the mystifications and evasions that pass for economic debate will give way to reasoned debate between civic equals.

4. Establishing the Principle of Public Commissioning

If the Committee wishes to support investigative journalism it should recommend that a series of pilots be run in the devolved nations and the English regions. The pilots would test out various models for public commissioning that use existing municipal resources (libraries, schools and colleges, and so on) that and develop new ones, online in particular. The pilots would enable people to exercise power in their own interests, to discover what is currently hidden, and to take an active part in the public conversation.

These pilots would surely find support among those who campaign against social exclusion, environmental degradation and a host of other ills. Public commissioning would be particularly appealing to the many, sincere supporters of the idea of a ‘Big Society’. The opportunity to collaborate in this way will surely create new forms of political sociability that challenge the deadening control of both state and corporate bureaucracy.

Those who currently control journalism in Britain might object and say that no possible system could perform better than the one over which they preside. They too should welcome and encourage the pilots. If they are right then public commissioning will fail. People will find the power they have been given repellent and will demand that they return to their former state of innocence. Editors, executives and owners will then take back the monopoly they currently enjoy with an easy conscience. If they are wrong, they will surely acknowledge that their loss of unaccountable and indefensible power is outweighed by the vast public benefit.

The money for these pilots could come from existing BBC revenues (perhaps from its marketing and public relations budget) and from lottery funds. It could be taken from new levies on the communications industry that ensure that News International, for example, pays a level of tax comparable with that of other companies. There is no lack of public money for journalism. The BBC’s revenues, for example, are somewhat greater than £3 billion annually.

The next round of quantitative easing might also be worth considering as a source of funds. Scarcely anyone understands how money is created or why it matters. It therefore seems apt that some fraction of the billions that would otherwise be handed over to the banks is used to create a system that allows citizens to understand what is going on in the economy.

5. Note on the author

I worked in book publishing from 1998 to 2009, at Penguin, Constable and Robinson, Duckworth and Random House. In my time as an editor I commissioned a number of books on matters of general concern, including the pharmaceutical industry (The Emperor’s New Drugs by Irving Kirsch), the financial sector (The Gods that Failed by Dan Atkinson and Larry Elliott and Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson) and the US-UK invasion of Iraq (Fuel on the Fire by Greg Muttitt).  I was also responsible for the UK publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Joel Bakan’s The Corporation and Sheldon Rampton and James Stauber’s Weapons of Mass Deception.

I have written two books, The Threat to Reason (2007) and The Return of the Public (2010). The Return of the Public, an argument for democratic reform of the media, was the winner of this year’s Bristol Festival of Ideas book prize.

I am submitting the above on an individual basis.

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