N aming and shaming the four alleged Omagh bombers last week was a meticulous investigation conducted by BBC Panorama stalwart, John Ware. Ware is considered by many of his peers to be the best investigative reporter currently working in television. "Who bombed Omagh?" had all the ingredients of the best in TV investigation: a worthwhile target, confrontation, stunning evidence and inside sources.
On screen, Ware comes over as the archetypal investigative reporter, often leather jacket-clad, handsome in a craggy, world- weary sort of way, outrageously persistent and fearless.
Praising Ware's programme, the Daily Star's TV reviewer Dominik Diamond gave him film star status: "The reporter bloke in it who was marching on to the doorstep of some seriously unfriendly sorts is just about the hardest geezer in the world as far as I am concerned."
In the States, the highly-rated film The Insider has just inspired a new generation of American reporters, with its real life plot based on the story of the legendary CBS investigative journalist Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino) and his source, a tobacco industry whistleblower. In the film, the fearful CBS TV channel comes out of the storyline nearly as badly as the tobacco industry. According to Bergman, CBS would not put the story out until their counterparts in the print media had run the story.
Investigation journalism on British television is having its own crisis as it contracts and adapts to an ever more showbusiness agenda. There are fewer and fewer places for the aspiring investigative reporter to make their reputation.
For the British public, ITV's villain-confronting, brickhouse- sized Roger Cook is probably the most famous TV investigative reporter. But reporters that are virtually unknown to the public, like John Ware, have produced the greatest moments of TV investigation. David Leigh's film for World In Action was the beginning of the end for Jonathan Aitken. But the best moment for me was then World In Action reporter Andrew Jennings confronting a marathon-running senior Scotland Yard detective. In a picture that said more than a million words, Jennings and camera crew ran alongside the suspended officer, Jennings inquiring how such an obviously fit man had avoided a disciplinary hearing by pleading ill health.
But to the ratings-seeking programme controllers, serious current affairs and investigation, with their low viewing figures, are a career deathtrap. One long-running current affairs series after another has bitten the dust to be replaced by a more "accessible" series that itself has quickly been consigned to oblivion. Since Granada TV pulled the plug on World In Action, its replacement Tonight with Trevor MacDonald is viewed as investigative journalism lite, with style winning over content. Martin Bashir's interviews with George Best on the programme must be seen as a nadir for serious journalism. In May the ITC criticised the programme for relying too heavily on celebrity interviews and lightweight social affairs issues. These, it said, "tended to provide insufficient depth and brought little in the way of new information or insight".
Only two serious, long-term operators remain: Channel 4's Dispatches and the BBC's Panorama. Although moving to a more populist agenda, Dispatches delivers good investigations, like a recent one revealing BA flight staff drinking heavily while on duty. Dispatches has provided a forum for reporters like Martyn Gregory, Deborah Davies, Mark Hollingsworth, Sarah Spiller and Nick Davies.
Alongside John Ware at Panorama are highly regarded investigators such as Andy Bell and Tom Mangold. …