David Leigh, an assistant editor of The Guardian with a special responsibility for investigative reporting, delivered the Anthony Sampson Chair Inaugural Lecture at City University in London on November 1, 2007. He adapted an article for The Guardian based on his lecture, and that article, published on November 12, 2007, is reprinted here. His investigative reporting has earned him seven distinguished awards, including the 2007 Paul Foot Award for Campaigning Journalism (shared with his colleague, Rob Evans) and Granada’s Investigative Journalist of the Year, as well as an award from the United Kingdom Campaign for Freedom of Information.
I was dismayed to read Roy Greenslade’s recent blog about the rise of citizen journalists. “Journalistic skills are not entirely wiped out in an online world, but they are eroded and, most importantly, they cannot be confined any longer to an exclusive elite group,” he wrote.
As a result, media companies of the future will require fewer staff, and their job will be to process materials from freelancers, bloggers and citizen journalists. Greenslade continued—and this is the scary part: “It is also clear that media outlets will never generate the kind of income enjoyed by printed newspapers: Circulation revenue will vanish and advertising revenue will be much smaller than today. There just won’t be the money to afford a large staff.”
I am afraid he is right, that the journalistic future will be a future with less money around. That won’t be good. Too much competition leads to a race to the bottom. And you can’t report if you can’t afford to eat.
Yet the old media are clearly on the way out. So are we reaching the end of the era of conventional reporting? Certainly, we must soon imagine a world without—at least—weekday printed papers. I believe we are going to see a new model of newspaper production in all the British nationals within the year. But my fear is that everyone is too obsessed with new platforms, and not enough people are talking about values.
The Internet is an incredibly rich information resource and a great tool for worldwide sharing. But as well as overloading us with instantaneous terrors, it also degrades valuable principles—the idea of discrimination, that some voices are more credible than others, that a named source is better than an anonymous pamphleteer (that’s what they used to call bloggers in the 18th century, when they published, for example, the politically dangerous Letters of Junius). The notion of authoritativeness is derided as a sort of “top-down” fascism.
I fear that these developments will endanger the role of the reporter. Of EDITOR’S NOTE
A postcode in the United Kingdom would be the equivalent of a zip code in the United States.course, there will always be a need for news bunnies who can dash in front of a camera and breathlessly describe a lorry crash, or bash out a press release in 10 minutes. There will probably be a lot more news bunnies in the future. There will probably also be hyperlocal sites—postcode [see editor’s note] journalism fuelled cheaply by neighborhood bloggers. But not proper reporters.
I have just returned from the University of California, Berkeley, where I spoke to Lowell Bergman, a professor at the journalism school who is an investigative reporter with The New York Times and producer/correspondent for the PBS documentary series “Frontline.” I found him in a glum frame of mind. Reporting staffs are being cut all over the United States, he said. Virtually no investigative journalism goes on any more. Millionaire donors are being courted to fund online reporting operations that will do the kind of things that The Wall Street Journal, newly taken over by Rupert Murdoch, is likely to abandon.
You might have heard a few of the old warhorses on Radio 4’s “Start the Week” last month. Andrew Marr asked if all news organizations were cutting back. “Yes, indeed,” said the BBC’s veteran international correspondent John Simpson. “Reporters are under real threat. More than ever before. They [media owners] say, ‘You’re not needed—we just want people’s opinions about what’s happened, not the facts.’ I’m becoming an endangered species, and people are less and less interested in the wider world.” Max Hastings, ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, said: “It’s even more true in newspapers. All sorts of areas of the world are now thought to be too boring to keep a correspondent there. The commentariat has taken over.”
There are several reasons for this. The mass media can shine a light. Or they can reflect back light. The Daily Mail and Fox News, for example, are highly profitable businesses that make their money out of telling people what they think they know already. They reflect back their audience’s existing beliefs. They reassure them by hammering the world into a shape that suits their prejudices. This is less an information service than a form of cheap massage.
Too much interactivity, commentating and blogging can end up inadvertently doing the same thing. It is cheaper and excitingly faster, but it is not always a source of light. People shout past each other. They enjoy the sound of their own voices and confirm their own prejudices through the delicious experience of self-publishing. Paradoxically, more becomes less.
I’m in favor of the future, of course. We all have to be. It is coming to get us, whether we like it or not. We have to come to terms with what is going on. More than come to terms—we have to embrace it. But we should spend less time fretting about platforms and more about the loss of honesty in our trade. There is yet to be a proper accounting for the disgraceful loss of journalistic integrity on both sides of the Atlantic that cheerled us into the Iraq War on a false prospectus.
You can get junk food on every high street. And you can get junk journalism almost as easily. But just as there is now a Slow Food movement, I should also like to see more Slow Journalism. Slow Journalism would show greater respect for the reporter as a patient assembler of facts; a skilled craftsman who is independent and professionally reputable; a disentangler of lies and weasel words. And who is paid the rate for the job. Aren’t such people essential for probing the dodgy mechanisms of our imperfect democracy and our very imperfect world?
But the power of reporting does not lie entirely—or even mostly—in the nobility of its practitioners or their professional skills. Or their celebrity status. It also lies in the preservation of media outlets that are themselves powerful.
When I reflect on the investigations I have been involved in, I realize that the reporter does have influence. We [at The Guardian] have written about the scandal of tax-dodgers with private jets pretending to live in Monaco but still working four days a week in a London office. The government now says it will close that loophole. We wrote some rather savage articles about plans to restrict use of the Freedom of Information Act. They dropped the plans. And [my colleague] Rob Evans and I have written scores of articles detailing the corrupting influence of the defense ministry’s arms sales department. The government now says it will shut the department.
There is only one reason why these stories have an effect. I like to think, of course, it is down to our own personal brilliance. But it is not. It is because a story on the front page of The Guardian carries clout. So do reports on the BBC, for example—that’s why Andrew Gilligan’s stories about alleged sexed-up dossiers caused such panic and rage in Downing Street.
That is perhaps one of the biggest dangers of the media revolution. When the media fragment—as they will—and splinter into a thousand Web sites, a thousand digital channels, all weak financially, then we will see a severe reduction in the power of each individual media outlet. The reporter will struggle to be heard over the cacophony of a thousand other voices.
Politicians will no longer fear us. And if that day comes, I’m afraid it really will be the end of the reporter.