Thursday, 15 July 2010

Alive and Kicking!

It is often claimed that investigative journalism is dead, or at least on its last legs – the victim of cutbacks in resources and investment by the news industry.

But from what I saw and heard at the July summer school organised by the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), truth-seeking and holding authority to account is not only alive and well, but safe in the hands of a new breed of “information activists”.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (right) believes the future depends upon networks of hackers and whistleblowers working to expose corruption and human rights abuses wherever they are found. Assange’s presentation was added to the schedule at the eleventh hour, possibly because he is constantly on the move to avoid spooks who would like to shut his network down.

Assange describes Wikileaks as an “uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking”. This aim has been achieved with remarkable success given its skeleton staff and total reliance for its funding upon individual donations. Launched in 2007, during its short life it has exposed more scandals than some newspapers in their entire lifetime.

It came of age this year with the release of an incriminating video that shows the crew of US helicopter gloating after an attack on civilians in Baghdad in July 2007 that left, amongst the carnage, two Reuters personnel dead and many others – including children – injured.

Also this year Wikileaks stepped in to publish the leaked “Minton Report” that exposed the danger posed by toxic waste dumped by oil firm Trafigura on unsuspecting residents of the Ivory Coast – leading 10,000 people to fall ill. Despite the clear public interest in this story, Britain’s media was gagged by a super injunction, granted by a judge, which not only banned reporting of the story but also banned reporting of the injunction itself!

It took the intervention of a friendly MP (and former Observer journalist) Paul Farrelly, who tabled a question in the Commons using Parliamentary privilege, before the British public were allowed to read the facts. Farrelly and David Leigh, investigations editor for The Guardian, pointed out in their presentation that whilst the gagging order was in place in the UK, people in other European countries had free access to the facts.

Leigh said the Trafigura debacle demonstrated how new methods such as cross-border co-operation between journalists and new media such as Wikileaks and Twitter, combined with older methods such as Parliamentary privilege, were creating new opportunities for breaking stories that overcame legal censorship.

For his part, Assange was skeptical about the ability of the journalistic establishment to force disclosure in the public interest. In an interview with The Guardian’s Stephen Moss, he says journalists have been letting big business and vested interests off the hook for far too long.

This was a theme that emerged from other presentations during the three-day event, organised by City University in central London, which is a key unmissable event in my annual calendar.

In his Bad Science talk, Dr Ben Goldacre exposed the reliance of lazy journalists on the opinions of maverick “experts” in science and health scare stories such as that surrounding MMR vaccine. “One person’s word is not enough as you can always find an ‘expert’ who will back up claims that have no scientific validity,” he said. The key message was rely on what the scientific consensus says and not the views of individual “experts”.

This rule applies equally to the global warming controversy, the subject of a talk by Spinwatch blogger Andy Rowell. He pointed that 97-98% of qualified scientific researchers support the view that climate change is man-made. Yet the coverage given to the marginal views of so-called sceptics and climate change deniers is out of all proportion to their numbers and credibility. This falls into trap laid by the denial campaign whose key tenet is identical to that used by the tobacco industry in its attempts to persuade us that smoking is good for us – “Doubt is our product.”

On the final day Andrew Jennings, who runs the transparency in sport website, lambasted hacks in the national press for their failure to expose greed and corruption that is endemic in the football gravy-train.Holding authority to account, he said, is the only justification for being a journalist. But many establishment sports writers are only interested in sucking up to managers who feed them safe stories and access to players. This is in effect sports churnalism, not journalism as he recognises it.

The final word must go to Paris-based investigative reporter Mark Hunter – one of the most popular speakers. He told delegates their whole purpose in being journalists in the first place was not just to report news “but it is to change the world – don’t deny yourself that.”

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