Why we must recognise and support the independence of investigative journalism

Investigative journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney, who worked on the film No Stone Unturned, on the way into the High Court in Belfast earlier this month following their recent arrest for the alleged theft of material from PONI. Photo: Hugh Russell

AS the digitisation and democratisation of news and entertainment accelerates, there are those who have recently questioned the once sacrosanct position of the BBC for the industry's biggest stars. At least that has been the analysis of many pundits when discussing the recent departures of Eddie Mair and Chris Evans from the national broadcaster.

While the decision to disclose the salary of its staff will undoubtedly have been a factor in their decision to leave, the growth of commercial radio and the internal regulations of the BBC has also been a driver in some of the biggest departures in recent years. There are rules that every broadcaster must abide by, but the requirement for balance within every programme can stifle the individualism and the independence of Evans and others.

In contrast are confrontational digital stars like LBC's James O' Brien, whose listenership has grown exponentially, regularly topping one million. His controversial style represents a growing trend in consumers turning towards sources of news that are deemed independent and open in their viewpoint.

Since LBC went national, its number of weekly listeners has increased from 1.3 million in 2014 to 2.2 million in the most recent 2018 survey, including a growth of 65 per cent in the number of younger listeners (aged 15-34). Meanwhile the most recent figures from the official body for the monitoring of radio audiences, RAJAR, shows a considerable drop in listeners from BBC's flagship current affairs programme Today on Radio 4, with an 800,000 fall over the past year.

As consumers we all need to be cognisant of the growing diversification of alternative news sources and the need to recognise substantiated news from fake news, but this should not detract from genuine independence of voice and its long tradition within journalism. A more diverse and democratised news media supports accountability and transparency and outlets such as LBC and VICE, with their probing and opinionated news broadcasting is part of that diversification.

Of course, there has been a long line of independent and investigative journalists and media that have shaken the foundations of many modern societies and it is important that we, as a society, continue to embrace and cherish that. They are a prerequisite for an inclusive and just society and play an integral role in the unseen checks and balances of a successful democracy.

When journalism is done well it has the ability to act as a powerful catalyst for change. In early 2002 The Boston Globe published results of an investigation that led to the criminal prosecutions of five priests and thrust sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy into the spotlight. The Globe's coverage encouraged other victims to come forward and it lifted the lid on the extent of the abuse in large dioceses across the United States. Similarly, a 1971 article in The New York Times revealed how the Johnson Administration had ‘systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress' in relation to US military operations in Vietnam resulting in a public outcry that many view as a turning point in opinion towards the war.

Indeed, the BBC itself has a proud history of uncovering both political and commercial misconduct and corruption including the Panama Papers, NAMA and of course the very live RHI scandal.

But one story locally represents the embodiment of that independence of voice and the critical role investigative journalism can play within society, and that is the much scrutinised documentary film ‘No Stone Unturned'.

The NUJ stood four-square behind Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey following their recent arrest for the alleged theft of material from PONI, which has widened the debate on journalistic freedom and the perceived rule of law. Though investigative journalists operate with a clear legal understanding of their actions, many of the most important stories have required them to step outside legal parameters in order to uncover what can often be appalling truths.

In these cases, the protection of journalistic sources of confidential information is paramount. For his disclosure of the Pentagon Papers, which looked at the United States' political and military involvement in Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg was initially charged with conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property. Over 45 years later, prices continue to be paid in the pursuit of truth.

The role that large news corporations such as the BBC play in providing trusted, balanced, insightful and timely news cannot be under-estimated. They can finance and break very important stories that other smaller organisations simply cannot.

However, in this era where there is a prevalence of fake news, we must also continue to recognise and support independence of voice and investigative journalism from a variety of sources which are so integral to ensuring there is that all important accountability and transparency across our society. The rise of James O'Brien, the transferability of talent such as Chris Evans and support for investigative journalism is integral to this.

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

:: Next week: Richard Ramsey

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