Sunday, 9 August 2009

Review: Investigative Journalism (2nd edition), Hugo de Burgh (2008)

What can you say to the Chinese authorities to get them to relax media restrictions? How about this line from the book, in chapter 2, ‘The Emergence of Investigative Journalism’ (p 35):

… according to [Prof John] Hartley [of the Queensland University of Technology] … [the poet John] Milton argued the case that liberty is a condition of national greatness and journalism the means by which that liberty is to be assured. Hartley also makes the point that the idea of the reporter as someone identifying truth, what he calls the ‘ideology of the eyewitness’ predated the scientism normally associated with the Enlightenment.

De Burgh writes that the scepticism associated with the religious mindset “as the century wore on” (presumably the 17th century as Milton’s Areopagita, where the above idea originates, was published in 1644) played its way into a number of channels, including historical enquiry and scientific investigation. This trend led by stages toward the establishment of “the basis for the idea of impartial evidence”.

De Burgh thus shows that the polemical bent of the Renaissance bled, in England in the years surrounding the Revolution, into a way of thinking in objective terms - of course toward achieving a dearly-held goal, it goes without saying - that fostered the rise of science in the following (18th) century.

No doubt the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695, after which publishing became much easier, helped in this historical project. Early-18th-century writers such as Defoe and Steele partook of the enthusiasm for well-written and trustworthy prose by writing on a range of topics including weather, science, manners, crime, and society as a complex of secular interactions involving rational beings.

I am grateful to Hartley and de Burgh for drawing this historical artefact to my attention. If this were the only thing in the book worth reading, I would be satisfied. There is much more, however.

On one point, though, reservations should be expressed. This is a textbook and as such is designed to be discussed in a classroom with a teacher and fellow students. By reading it as a standalone object you miss out on the opportunity to question ideas and expand on presumptions.

One of the most topical, now, is the decline of investigative journalism in the 21st century.

Investigative journalism, it appears, boomed in the 1960s and -70s due to the large budgets of newspapers that attracted masses of advertisements and, hence, were driven to increase their page counts. The new type of ‘watchdog’ journalism that included interrogating sources and digging for evidence, was affordable.

[Australian-born journalist Phillip] Knightly … believes that newspapers’ loss of enthusiasm for investigative journalism came about because, first, before new technology, the salaries element of the total costs of production of newspapers was very small - he says 11 per cent; however, once new technology came in, salaries came to a much larger percentage of total production costs and were seen as ripe for cutting. Second, he says that new technology made it possible to see instantly the productivity, in terms of words per pound [we are in the UK here] spent on salary and overheads, of any particular journalist. Since investigative journalists had typically produced much less copy, they were vulnerable. (p 216)

De Burgh also notes that around the time investigative journalism started to wane at the Sunday Times, where Knightley worked from 1965 to 1985, it was purchased by News Ltd. Murdoch’s economic rationalism precipitated the decline of this valuable form of journalism at one of the most-respected newspapers in the UK.

Also of particular interest in addressing this question is Michael Bromley’s chapter, ‘Investigative Journalism and Scholarship’ (pp 174-88).

Digitisation held out the promise of a ‘new frontier’ to investigative journalists … Nevertheless, from the perspective of a growing body of those who professed to be most committed to journalism’s traditional professionalism, the new multimedia environment had fostered a ‘culture of news’ that was antithetical to investigative journalism … .

The outcome of this ‘culture of news’ where the ‘news hole’ begged to be filled constantly, now, in the digital era, cause PR operatives to gain the upper hand as they were able to feed information, packaged as news, to journalists. Sensationalism derived from the more highly-competitive environment, and an ‘argument culture’ led to an increased reliance on punditry, as opposed to copy that came from intensive ‘digging’. The list of five points on page 182 is highly instructive, but these are the main points. And I think they are the points of most interest for people with an interest in the media today.

Based on past experience these issues apply equally in Australia. I attended writing classes a couple of years ago and asked the presenter if investigative journalism was less prevalent now than in the past. She was unequivocal in her reply. “Yes,” she said. “Definitely.”

And even though the many examples covering print, radio and TV are British, there is a lot to learn. A student would get a lot of satisfaction from working with this book, I feel. The sentences are often long and complex and the types of techniques used by investigative journalists are various in their ethical aspects. But the overall tone of the book is both competent and exhaustive.

Each chapter finishes with notes and a bibliography so that you can go on to read source material if you feel inclined.

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