Afterword: manifesto for investigative journalism in the 21st century

Paul Lashmar

Investigative journalism is one sinew of a developed, healthy society. It connects those who run a state to their obligations — to the people; to fairness; to their duty, honesty and justice. At its best, it has set the innocent free, it has convicted the guilty and has made demagogues run. It uncovers material that the guilty want hidden, and it throws light into darkened corners of our societies; through its sunlight, it disinfects. Yet everywhere, across the globe, these ties are being loosened. Investigative journalism is under threat.

The situation is fragile. Leaders in many nations verbally support the Fourth Estate and investigative journalism, but when they come under its spotlight frequently counter it with exceptionalist arguments. President of the United States Donald Trump has undermined public confidence in journalists and journalism. Others have followed his lead of crying ‘fake news’ to divert attention from inconvenient truths. Investigative journalists are murdered in Russia and Malta, are arrested in the Philippines, are harassed in Turkey and Brazil and many other countries.

Since the war on terror was launched, with the consequential increase in the number of national security entities, it has become harder for journalists to undertake their Fourth Estate role. Organs of the state, including democratic states, snoop, surveil and seize. Documents released in 2013 by the former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the Five Eyes electronic spying agencies and their partners now have extraordinary surveillance capability which they have used against almost anybody, including journalists. Many other countries have similar capabilities which they have used in order to repress freedom of expression and the freedom of the media.

Nor is it only the state about which we should be concerned. Individuals have used increasingly stringent privacy laws, brought into being by those with things to hide and the credulous, to hamstring investigations. Well-remunerated professional lawyers chill speech. Media proprietors and Editors misuse investigative journalism, deploying it as a marketing tool. Celebrities and business moguls make full use of the laws.

Social media companies have taken the lifeblood, in other words, the attention and the money that people will pay to be informed and entertained, from news publishers. They have left nothing in return. The news media of many countries, especially the press, have been further financially damaged by the Covid-19 pandemic and changes to the consumption of news. Due to the financial crisis in the media, great expanses of many nations no longer have professional news media.

Investigative journalism, notwithstanding the many upbeat stories previously, faces an existential threat because it pays its way only with great difficulty and ingenuity. What’s to be done?

The way forward is to have the functions of investigative journalism understood and accepted in every society, not merely by the state but throughout the polity.

States

The interests of the governors are not necessarily the same as the governed, nor the institutions that permit them to govern. Those in power must recognise that even if investigative journalism may harm them, it helps society.

Nations should openly recognise and espouse the value of ethically driven investigative journalism. This extends to recognising that the Fourth Estate has a role in monitoring the more secretive parts of the state, including the national security community' and police.

Agencies of the state must protect investigative journalists. States and their agencies must not harass, provoke, unduly' interfere with and harm investigative journalists. They' should provide access to information and recognise the letter and spirit of laws that are designed to do just that.

The courts should respect and protect journalistic sources; laws must not permit bullies to hide behind legal actions and costs to chill investigative work and there must be sufficient public interest defences in criminal and civil law for public service investigative journalism.

All serious threats against journalists, including those on social media, should be prosecuted.

Media companies and employers

It should be recognised as part of the contract of employment that investigative journalists have the right to chase a story' wherever it leads, even if their proprietor, or the advertising desk, finds that uncomfortable.

Companies and employers must not have control over the publics attention. If they' do, this stifles viewpoints and diversity. Publishers (electronic ISPs and other) should acknowledge this.

PAUL LASHMAR

Funding

Any negative rights and freedoms - against interference and restriction — granted to investigative journalists are nothing if there is not the positive power to exercise them. That is why investigative work needs to be properly funded:

  • • by media companies and employers, who should acknowledge a moral obligation to fund an activity that protects a well-functioning society, because that is the sort of society which allows them to do business successfully;
  • • by public service broadcasters, who have a moral obligation if they benefit from taxpayers’ money to produce journalism of public benefit;
  • • by social media and information and technology companies, which have a moral obligation to ensure that the polemic and propaganda which makes up so much of social media is interrogated and exposed for what it is;
  • • through a levy on technological hardware for social media or broadband to feed back into the funding of quality, properly regulated and ethical journalism.

The journalists themselves

Investigative journalists cannot expect their roles and status to be acknowledged in these ways, let alone valued, unless they prove their necessity and unless they fully acknowledge the responsibilities that justify these rights.

Investigative journalists should therefore be bound by an ethical code that balances freedom of the press with other rights in society'. The code should be enforceable. If a journalist breaches that code, there must, as there are with other codes, be consequences. These consequences are to protect the public.

Investigative journalists should take every step to ensure that their training and abilities are as up to date as they can be: their education does not stop at the university' door or with the granting of a professional certificate. Employers should guarantee retraining.

Investigative journalists should not investigate with the intention of only of protecting the commercial interests of their employers or of advancing the interests of lobbies.

Journalists should always act within the law wherever possible. If a journalist undertakes an illegal act, it can only be done in the overwhelming public interest.

Investigative journalists should not have dual roles where they are open to allegations of a conflict of interest, for example, working for corporate investigators or law firms.

Investigative journalism should never be subservient to political control, and journalists should reject allegiance to any political organisations in order to serve the wider public interest and be trusted by those of any politics and none.

Every effort should be made to encourage investigative journalism from diverse perspectives to ensure that all benefit from the safeguards that good journalism can bring.

 
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