“News is something someone wants suppressed. Anything else is advertising.” Sooner or later every journalism student in the world has heard this quote, even though nobody seems really sure of who actually said it first. It is an intriguing way to imply that all journalism is in fact investigative journalism – in the sense that it should go deep, hold power to account, tell people what someone does not want them to know.
And maybe that is the case. But it is also true that by investigative journalism we mean a very specific, long term, time consuming and stressful type of journalism. The kind that requires spotting something wrong, coming up with an hypothesis, digging so deep into the subject that it becomes an obsession, and then finally – only then – telling the audience what you have found out.
Last year, the Guardian’s journalist Felicity Lawrence said that “now that the extent of fake news is understood, people want original investigative journalism more than ever”. While this is most certainly true – especially while so much information that need to be interpreted is available around us – it does not make investigative journalism any more financially sustainable.
Investigative journalism is not something every media organisation can afford any more. It requires long hours of work, which often do not even lead to publication – sometimes wrongdoing simply cannot be proved. Secondly, even when the investigation abides to the highest journalistic standards, the legal costs can be overwhelming. Only big organisations can deal with it. And this is about to get worse if some of the most radical clauses of the data protection bill that is being discussed in parliament were to pass.
Instead of making investigative journalism increasingly harder to practice, we should realize that it lays at the very heart of our democracy. And use some taxpayers’ money to fund it.
There are predictable objections to this idea, the main one being that investigating public organisations is a major part of investigative journalists’ work. But conflict of interest is not inevitable, although the ideal condition of investigative journalism is undoubtedly independence.
It could also be argued that there are endless causes that would deserve more public support, which is true indeed. But does it mean that we should give up on them all? I do not think so. In fact, it would establish a virtuous circle, considering that public finance is one of investigative journalists’ main concern. Follow the money, as they say.
The BBC already does some excellent investigative work with Panorama – but it is not a dedicated organisation and it is nowhere near enough. Panorama staff is in fact facing major cuts, which have been said to have dealt the programme “a terminal blow”.
Maybe thinking that the state should make sure that investigative journalism has the means to survive is too simple and naive. But it does not seem unreasonable to me. We do not want to live in a place where the elite’s secret are kept secret forever just because investigating them is not profitable any more.