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Public show strong support for investigative journalism

October 24, 2013

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Journalist Heather Brooke says one problem is that readers believe news should be free. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/ Antonio Olmos

Journalist Heather Brooke says one problem is that readers believe news should be free. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/ Antonio Olmos

Members of the British public are much more optimistic about the future of investigative journalism than those working in the media industry, according to a poll by YouGov.

Other findings underlined strong support for investigative journalism’s role, with more than half believing the impact was positive compared with just 12% of people believing that it was having a negative impact on the UK’s democracy.

However, a significant gulf emerged in terms of how the future of investigative journalism was viewed by the public and those working in the media, with 62% of the latter group describing the outlook in negative terms, compared to 29% of the public.

The findings were released before a debate on Tuesday at the London Press Club where the topic “Can investigative journalism survive?” was tackled by four panellists, including Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who said that the law was a core issue and called for a public interest defence that can be used to protect all journalists.

He said: “It’s not just libel. In the work that we have been doing recently there is the Official Secrets Act and there are laws abroad like the Espionage Act. Who here in this room knew about Section Seven of the Terrorism Act and how it can be used to detain people at Heathrow airport as you are passing through with confidential material?”

Referring to recent pressure on the Guardian arising from its coverage of the work of the British and US intelligence agencies, he added: “I think we should also worry about politicians. It has been dismaying to me in the last week or so that politicians want to do the oldest trick in the book, which is to say: ‘Let’s discuss the Guardian, let’s not discuss the substantive issue.”

He concluded: “It’s not a case of can investigative journalism survive. Of course it can. Will it survive with us as a body of people depends on our editorial will, it depends on the law, it depends on having the nerve to keep on doing it because that is the path to editorial and commercial success.”

Among the other panellists, the investigative historian and journalist Tom Bower said that a fundamental issue revolved around how journalists could legally protect themselves, arguing that the libel laws were still an impediment to good investigative journalism. He said that the real funding problem was not money for journalism but money for defence of journalism.

Bower also launched an attack on the Leveson inquiry, saying that it cast a “ghastly cloud” over everything that journalists now do and said that the Guardian should join other newspapers that wanted to set up their own regulator.

“The only way that newspapers can survive as a free force in this country is by self regulation. The battle now is not to expose the wrongdoers in society … it’s the battle between the Guardian and the rightwing press,” he said.

“Unless the Guardian in my view agrees to the last chance of self regulation we are going to find ourselves disunited as journalists, fighting amongst ourselves, which will only benefit others.”

Andrew Gilligan, an award winning reporter at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, said that worries about the future of investigative journalism were “overplayed” for two reasons.

One was that, in a shrinking market, newspapers have realised investigative journalism makes them stand out. The Telegraph and The Times had engaged in little or no investigative journalism in the past but had both been embracing it in recent times, he added.

The second reason was that technological advances had made investigative journalism cheaper, enabling journalists to run searches on the Companies House website at any time, or scan parliamentary Hansard online. Read more at The Guardian.

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