Investigative Journalism – Dead or Alive?

Many high-profile journalism names joined the list of ‘Coventry Conversations’ speakers on March 9th.

Among others, such figures as ‘Macintyre Undercover’ series star Donal MacIntyre, ‘The Secret Policeman’ Mark Daly and ex-Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans visited Coventry University to discuss the past, present and future conditions of investigative journalism.

Kevin Marsh

Presenting the event, titled ‘Investigative Journalism – Dead or Alive’, was Kevin Marsh- executive editor of the BBC College of Journalism.

Paul Lashmar introduced a scene-setting fact as one of the first speakers to contribute to the discussion: the 1980s saw around 150 working investigative journalists, 2008 saw “fewer than 90″. Compared to 30 years ago, the numbers have dwindled somewhat. So, it may not be dead, but is it dying? Apparently not, says Lashmar who nods to the recent WikiLeaks as a contemporary example of investigative journalism making big headlines. Although it can’t be considered a “Watergate moment”, “it’s drawn more people to investigative journalism than I’ve seen in donkeys years”, he adds. Writes Ryan Manders….

Joining the talk shortly after was Donal MacIntyre, one of the most well-known and respected investigative journalists of more recent years. His dedication to the job subjected him to be undercover for months at a time, fitting Eamonn Matthews’ description of investigative journalists as “living in cellars and not washing”, himself an award-winning executive producer of Channel 4′s ‘Unreported World’.

MacIntyre’s television documentary ‘MacIntyre Undercover’ ran from 1999 – 2003, exposing notorious football hooligans and brutal care homes along the way, describing it as a “window into a world that otherwise people would not be able to see”.

The investigative guru commented that the state of today’s journalism is of a “better and tighter quality” and was optimistic that investigative journalism is still alive and well. He defended his own, now deceased, show as being “more in the public interest and less about making good television”, therefore lending it to quality journalism, particularly his documentary of his expose of the Kent care home.

Professor Tim Lockhurst lead the discussion to the modern stumbling block that investigative journalism faces; “[failure] is not an option in this day and age considering the budgets we have”. The ‘Macintyre Undercover’ series, consisting of three programs are reported to have cost £2.5 million and two years to produce. Without the guaranteed success of investigative journalism, program makers are becoming increasingly hesitant to give time for labour and money intensive efforts which may bear no fruits. “We are not able to push [investigative journalism] as much as we used to”, adds Panorama investigative reporter and multiple RTS Award winner John Ware.

Sir Harold Evans, Sunday Times editor 1967-81 during the Thalidomide case, then proceeded to take centre-stage, offering his advice and words of legendary wisdom to aspiring young journalists in the audience. “You must learn how to report and check basic facts,” he began. “Learn to hold a sword before putting on the armour of investigative journalism.” “Follow something avidly, ask questions and don’t take no for an answer” he respectfully concluded.

City University’s course director of MA in Investigative Journalism, Rosie Waterhouse, followed Sir Harold Evans adding that aspiring investigative journalists should “have a nose for something not quite right”. “A genuine desire to get to the truth” and an “interest in people” are also important attributes to hold. Waterhouse claimed that investigative journalism is very much alive and well with her students the “living proof” of being its next generation, giving the impression that her contribution to the intellectual discussion was no more than shameless advertising of her course.

Developing Bob Woodward’s declaration that “investigative journalism has been reborn in a new age and is here to stay” was Professor Tim Lockhurst, informing the audience of the collaboration between old and new journalistic techniques. The modern-day has given investigative journalists “new tools” yet they “still require the ability to perform shorthand at 100 words per minute”.

Bob Woodward is one of the most influential and famous investigative journalists in the history of the field, being half of the team to uncover the Watergate scandal and forcing the resignation of President Nixon in 1974.

Speaking on the methods of investigative journalism, ‘Secret Policeman’ Mark Daly said: “Secret filming has become over-used, it should be the last resort.” Use of the method became Donal Macintyre’s Achilles’ heel; after the televising of his undercover series he was eventually recognised for his efforts and effectively forced out of practise.

The 3 and a half hour discussion highlighted the changing face of investigative journalism over the years. Unanimously, it was clear from Coventry Conversations’ latest speakers that investigative journalism is still alive. Though in a very different form from the Watergate years, it remains as prevalent and useful as ever




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