Dangers Mount for Future of Investigative Journalism; MEDIA ANALYSIS

Article excerpt

Byline: Roy Greenslade

THERE has never been a period in my life when the general interest in journalism has been so intense. Hardly a day passes without some sort of hand-wringing and headshaking discussion about the past, present and future of the news-gathering business.

In the past couple of weeks, I have attended two academic debates, a special meeting hosted by ex-Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans, a City legal firm's private conference and the first of Lord Justice Leveson's phonehacking seminars as part of his Government-sanctioned investigation into the scandal. The second seminar was taking place today.

Hacking has put journalism under the spotlight and it would appear that every aspect of the trade is now under scrutiny. The role of investigative journalism is also the topic chosen for consideration by the noble lords sitting on the Communications Select Committee in the House of Lords.

At yesterday's hearing, the peers heard from a couple of editors -- Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian and Ian Hislop of Private Eye -- and two awardwinning practitioners of the art, Nick Davies and Clare Sambrook. This is a quartet with a lot to celebrate but the overall message was, ultimately, depressing.

Though undoubted examples of good investigative journalism still abound, as a superb crop of entries to last year's major awards in the field illustrated, there is a spectre haunting journalism. And no one is in the mood to throw a party just now. In fact, there are two major spectres, and several smaller long-term ones.

The most obvious problem -- what Rusbridger called "the big existential threat" -- is economic. Most newspaper publishers are coping with an unprecedented assault on the business model that has sustained the industry for more than a century.

Three of the four national daily titles at the serious end of the spectrum -- The Times, Guardian and Independent -- are losing money, loads of money. Their Sunday equivalents are not making money either.

Editors can still produce their papers, and they will say that their journalism isn't suffering, but editorial budgets are so strained that investment in investigative journalism, the most costly branch of the trade, is bound to be squeezed.

The second spectre is being played out at the Leveson inquiry, where editors are doing battle to protect press freedom from an enhanced system of regulation which could, if we are not careful, hinder journalists' ability to carry out their work on behalf of society.

Add to that the problems highlighted by Sambrook, echoing comments aired twice in recent weeks by the Financial Times editor Lionel Barber, about the way companies are sealing themselves from proper scrutiny by preventing the publication of information that they deem to be commercially confidential.

Sambrook went a little further by suggesting that the Government is employing the same method by hitching many of its activities to business entities.

Then there is the continuing problem of our libel laws, still unreformed despite the best efforts of those dedicated to effecting a change. Alongside the development of a privacy law, these present another financial headache for press owners. Fighting legal cases costs a great deal of money.

As if that weren't enough, there is the growing might of the public relations industry -- and I use the word industry advisedly. …