Re-establishing investigative journalism

I remain a big fan of the BBC, but last month’s BBC NI “Spotlight” programme on welfare reform was, I’m afraid, an example of non-investigative journalism where real investigative journalism was called for.

The programme began with two pensioners in Rathcoole. I am unsure why, state pensions for current pensioners have nothing to do with the reform.

It continued with a blind couple. Again I am unsure why, their benefits will be unaffected by the reforms because they will clearly qualify. This point of clarity was not made.

It then moved to a single mother struggling to make ends meet in Newtownards, and to the father of her child in nearby Donaghadee. He explained that 69 quid jobseekers’ allowance was nowhere near enough to live on; but it was not clarified that, in addition to that money, his child’s mother receives benefits both to look after the child and to provide it with shelter (a large percentage of any working parent’s income, in fact almost certainly the vast majority, would go on mortgage and children, so this is a point of high relevance). It was then revealed that he was 24, had never really worked, but had three children – never was the obvious question asked as to why he had seen fit to have three children, with no apparent means of supporting them.

In the midst of it all we had an interview with a so-called “benefits expert”, but it was never clarified how that title had been earned; she managed, incredibly, to bring global warming into the debate without challenge.

Into the mix also were thrown figures without any detail – we were told we spend 5 billion on benefits in NI (in fact 5.23 billion in 2011/12), but nowhere was it clarified this is a quarter of all public spending (I may note in addition, on that subject, that nearly a quarter of our taxes currently go to pay interest on the national debt rather than to provide any public service or benefit), nor was it clarified that this excludes annually managed expenditure on pensions (another 2.24 billion). Is it not incredible that barely half the tax we pay goes on actual public services?!

Essentially, what had happened was this: a journalist had been asked to do a piece about welfare reform, and he had gone off and selected people in receipt of various benefits at random, interviewing them without challenge, while then inserting the odd note from an economist (that’s the right covered) and a “benefits expert” (that’s the left).

In the meantime, what precisely is being reformed was left unclarified; the relevance of some of the interviewees was left in doubt; and no one anywhere was challenged about anything.

If that is the best the BBC can muster, is it any wonder the “traditional media” is in such trouble? Newspaper reports range from the made-up to the erroneous; television documentaries completely miss the point; the press in general is hit by scandal. Good journalists are paid the precise same salary as poor journalists, meaning many of them leave the profession for much less important (but bizarrely better paid) press office jobs or such like. As journalism thus declines in value, so does journalism training, with some turned out too often unable effectively to challenge and cross-examine subjects, to analyse and report accurately information, to research and clarify facts. Meanwhile the public loses all faith, and switches over – stopping buying newspapers and moving from television to, well, blogs and such like…

The media industry has to sort its game out, or it will simply cease to exist. Good journalists need to be valued, and paid proper wages; bad journalists simply should not exist (training should see to that); an understanding that journalism is about a lot more than a quick trawl through the internet for a story must be promoted. I wonder is there a gap in NI for a “premium newspaper”…?

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5 thoughts on “Re-establishing investigative journalism

  1. Rab says:

    Ian,
    Interesting and thought provoking post. Here’s a few thoughts of my own. First of all there is no gap in the market for a ‘premium newspaper’, and certainly not one that wants to engage in serious investigative journalism. The market simply won’t sustain it because investigative journalism is expensive, very expensive relatively speaking. Don’t get me wrong, there are still examples of fine investigative work, but they are increasingly the exception not the rule in the modern news environment.

    So, you’d think then that the BBC with it’s public service ethos, which should rise above market considerations, would be the home of serious, investigative journalism. Alas, no. The BBC is increasingly judged in commercial terms; it is laying journalists off (cutting it’s way to ‘excellence’, I presume); and it is terrified of offending power and in particular it is rather slavish in its relations with whatever government is in office. In any case, governments everywhere have definitional authority and tend to set news agendas, something else that mitigates against investigation journalism, although one might think that such an arrangement would inspire it. But I suppose with the license fee always in the gift of the government, the BBC tends to tread lightly…

    Secondly, perhaps journalism training is a problem in itself. You can do an undergraduate degree in Journalism and progress to an MA, accredited by industry and professional bodies. Universities and colleges are happily pumping out ‘industry ready graduates’, all technically proficient, no doubt. But don’t you long for a journalist with genuine expertise in an area? Someone who can guide you as a viewer, listener or reader, through a complex issue. I’m thinking of people like Paul Mason (economics) and Susan Watts (science). I’d rather journalists had academic backgrounds in history, politics, economics, anything but Journalism Studies!

    • Second sentence second para is the vital one for me.

      The BBC should not be judged commercially. That’s why, for example, it has no business paying entertainment presenters wages measured in millions – that’s not why it exists. If ITV can sustain that commercially, let it.

      Your final para is interesting too. I have had, for example, highly talented and well qualified journalists ask what the difference is between, say, the PfG and the Budget (i.e. before reporting on them!) My instinct remains that “Journalism Studies” hasn’t caught up with the new world where, never mind governments, Twitter can set the news agenda (and all for free!)

  2. Seymour Major says:

    As to the BBC, I was never much of a fan. Their political non-neutrality is quite obvious. I refuse to watch their version of the News.

    I agree with much of what Rab says

  3. Mark says:

    Ian, in a very different arena (the sensible wing of Ulster-Scots, one which we share an interest in) I get a fair amount of emails via my blog from junior desk-based researchers whose skills seem to begin and end with Google. There is an inherent laziness in what might broadly be called the media sector (with a few notable exceptions). I’m not sure if the public have an appetite in this economic climate for another printed newspaper – and I don’t think that print is dead yet – but I believe 100% that the general public are not as dumb and unthinking as the media producers seem to assume.

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