The chilling of investigative journalism

Law lords should not judge what reporters can and cannot say.

Tessa Mayes

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After the resignation of BBC director-general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavyn Davies following the publication of Lord Hutton’s report on the suicide of Dr David Kelly, will there be other media casualties?

Hutton has no legal powers to enforce changes over the BBC and the media, but he has exerted an unprecedented level of influence. Even before his report was published on 28 January, the BBC instigated editorial changes to monitor more closely journalists’ reports; it also stopped its reporters from writing controversial newspaper articles. Hutton’s conclusions have given Blair’s former head of communications, Alastair Campbell, ammunition to argue for more resignations at the BBC.

What worries me, and others, is that investigative journalism in Britain will be ‘chilled’. Reports containing allegations by witnesses to important events will be the main media casualty. Either they will be put on ice, or never reported at all.

Journalists should aspire to report the truth. The ‘live’ report by Andrew Gilligan, the reporter for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, who detailed a source’s allegations against the government over its intelligence on Iraq, was attacked by Hutton as ‘unfounded’.

Gilligan admitted he made errors. In his controversial report for Today at 6.07am on 29 May 2003, he said: ‘And what we’ve been told by one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier was that the government probably knew that that 45-minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in.’ (Italics added.)

Gilligan admits that he used ‘imperfect’ words and ‘did not report entirely carefully and accurately what he had said’. It turned out that David Kelly, his source, had not directly said the government ‘probably knew’. In short, Gilligan had presented his own opinion about what Kelly said as fact.

Gilligan’s story had inaccuracies, though he maintains that his source did voice concerns about the 45-minute claim and the way it was included in the dossier. Yet even if Gilligan had made a more accurate report for the Today programme, in Lord Hutton’s view it still should not have been broadcast. As Hutton stated this week: ‘The right to communicate such information is subject to the qualification (which itself exists for the benefit of a democratic society) that false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media.’ (Italics added.)

But the nature of investigative journalism is such that sometimes journalists quote sources without knowing 100 per cent if their sources’ claims are true or not. Journalists try to substantiate allegations with other evidence, but this isn’t always possible. If journalists cannot rely on sources whom they judge can shed light on the truth of an issue – in this case, Kelly was a government scientist who had been used for other BBC stories – the result will be a severe decline in investigative reporting. The public will be denied knowledge of what witnesses to important political events have to say.

To suggest that journalists should never report or repeat such allegations made by sources is to equate the media with a court room. What gets discussed in the media should not be limited by what judges think is admissible beyond all reasonable doubt as truthful evidence. This is not to justify journalists reporting lies – the point is that people should be trusted to make up their own minds about the truthfulness of what is said in the public domain without censorship by law lords.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and his colleagues took Gilligan’s report as a serious smear on their reputations. But did the errors in Gilligan’s report justify his trial-by-inquiry? Wouldn’t a straightforward defence of the government’s position have sufficed, forcing Gilligan further to substantiate his claims? Or does Number 10 really think that everyone thought the government lied simply because an unnamed intelligence source in a BBC report was said to have made such allegations?

Blair may consider that Hutton has established the truth with regards to Gilligan’s report and other matters. Yet why should the view of one man – in this case, Lord Hutton – deny others the ability to keep asking questions? That is what investigative reporters do best, as they try to establish the truth.

Will Wyatt, chief executive of BBC Broadcast from 1996-9, has said, ‘I certainly hope [the furore surrounding Gilligan’s report] does not stop the BBC from taking on big stories, investigating stories and trying to break news’. He also says the BBC should instigate changes to its editorial guidelines. But will policy changes guarantee the restoration of public trust in BBC reporting standards?

The problem with Gilligan’s report is not simply that editorial checks were not made to ensure its accuracy. In the era of emotionally attached news reporting, investigative journalists seem more interested in reporting their impressions of what sources say about public figures and their motivations, rather than focusing on investigating the facts. Gilligan’s role as the diplomatic and defence correspondent for the Today programme was to find out what happened and to report it accurately. There is a place for news reporters to make analyses of events – but increasingly reporters are called upon to speculate and provide their own views, which end up dominating news reports. The danger is that reporters start sounding more like pundits or opinion-formers, as investigation of the facts is deprioritised.

Now Hutton is considering an investigation of the Sun, after it leaked the contents of his report on the morning it was due to be published. The last thing we need are gags on the media that stifle what they can know about – even if it might prove uncomfortable for the authorities. What we do need is for investigative journalists to shift their emphasis from reporting their views to investigating the facts.

Tessa Mayes is an investigative journalist and has reported for BBC Panorama. She is author of Restraint or Revelation? Free Speech and Privacy in a Confessional Age.

Read on:

BBC: cut the crap, by Jennie Bristow

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