Once or twice a year, someone contacts me with a brilliant lead for an investigative journalist. Sometimes it’s a would-be whistleblower with inside information about an organisation, but more often than not it’s someone who’s discovered information that’s actually hidden in plain sight.
They contact me after my website comes up in their search results, and they’re always hoping I can either follow up their story myself or recommend someone who can. It usually upsets me that I can’t, because most of these stories are crying out to be reported: organisational malpractice, quietly-made decisions that will affect hundreds or even thousands of people... I could go on.
Why can’t I follow up the story myself? My training and experience as a journalist gives me the skills to turn what they’re telling me into a story. My problem is that I don’t have access to any outlet for that story, any way of getting it published.
I almost always offer to write the story anyway, without payment, and to publish it on my own website. The other person always refuses. This is someone who’s plucked up the courage to speak out about something, sometimes risking losing their job in the process. They don’t want the story to break on some poxy website with a few hundred readers. They want it published in a “real” newspaper. They want the legitimacy of print and a well-known name.
They’ve almost always already tried the Oxford Mail, thinking that surely one of its reporters will snap up a story like theirs. But invariably the reporter has rejected the story outright, or messed them around for a bit before rejecting it, or just ignored their attempts at contact. That’s why they’re contacting me. They’re hoping that because I have experience as a professional journalist, I can somehow help them to break through the wall of indifference and get their story printed. But I can’t.
Flat Earth News brought the problem of understaffed newsrooms to public attention; most people are aware that there’s a problem. When I chaired a public meeting on this issue a few years ago, over 70 people turned up. But despite public awareness, the situation has worsened, not improved, since then.
It breaks my heart when I see how much faith there still is in newspapers. So many people seem to believe that if you offer a newspaper reporter a lead, they will doggedly follow it up. But they can’t, even if they wanted to. Very few reporters are given the luxury of time to follow up a story when there may or may not be anything in it.
Where do we go from here? I usually suggest that people with stories should ring Private Eye, because I think its commitment to real, investigative journalism is second to none (although I am still angry about their ripping off Tim Ireland’s scoop without due credit and then allowing him to be smeared). The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is another possible. But most of the stories I hear about are local and relatively small, maybe worthy of a front page in a local daily but not necessarily stories for a national publication.
Of course, sometimes the problem isn’t the low-key nature of the story. I’ve recently returned from the NUJ’s Delegate Meeting, where I had the privilege of hearing Craig Murray speak about blogging. He told the story of his own, unpaid investigation into meetings between Liam Fox, Adam Werritty and Matthew Gould.
It’s clear that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were made very nervous by Murray's digging, and with good reason: he uncovered evidence that Werritty was being paid to push the Israeli agenda with the defence secretary. You’d think the media would be all over a story like that. But in fact, as Murray told the NUJ’s New Media Sector Conference: “It was the most depressing three weeks of my life trying to interest the mainstream media in this.” The Daily Mail eventually ran a story speculating about Mossad involvement, but the Guardian wouldn’t touch it.
Murray partly blames the way the news agenda works: stories are “hot” for a while then go off the boil, and follow-ups revealing that the original angle was wrong are not welcome. He also believes there’s an unhelpful tendency for media outlets to follow and copy each other, tacitly agreeing on what the lead story is. There’s also the chilling effect of the current UK libel laws to contend with. (Some have also speculated that in the case of the Werritty-Fox-Gould story, reluctance to publish is connected with fear of upsetting Israel.)
So, again, where do we go from here? The appetite for quality reporting is there. The stories are there. A surprising amount of faith in newspapers is still there. We need trustworthy local newspapers willing to spend money on good reporting. And we need national newspapers prepared to do persistent digging, revisit stories once new information comes to light and have the guts to publish them. But there’s a gap where all that should be. How do we fill it?