“The future for investigative journalism funding” – David Leigh at Hacks/Hackers London

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Last week’s Hacks/Hackers London meet-up was themed around the funding of investigative journalism, and featured this talk from the Guardian’s legendary investigative reporter David Leigh.

“The future for investigative journalism funding” – David Leigh

David Leigh has an authoritative voice as one of the UK’s leading veteran investigative journalists, and so his thoughts on the future funding of the medium were of great interest. He started with a picture of Humphrey Bogart, and said this was the typical portrait of the investigative journalist — the lone figure, being rained upon, pitting himself against the world’s corporations and criminals.

Leigh said that, typically, investigative journalists didn’t work with each other, feared each other, and had a fierce rivalry. In a world where it has become more expensive to produce investigative journalism, this was a less sustainable approach.

David then went on to outline a few different models of collaboration and financing, some of which gave him more ethical concerns than others.

His work with Wikileaks he described as a “classic free of charge collaboration.” An activist organisation acquired a lot of investigative material, and gave it over to the news organisations for nothing. It had broadly worked well for both parties, Leigh said. “We got this wonderful journalistic material, and they got traction. They were obscure, and we were big.” Leigh did take a moment to quietly reflect that the transaction hadn’t worked well for Chelsea Manning.

His next example was the ICIJ working with the BBC and the Guardian on the “Offshore secrets” project. Leigh pointed out that co-operating cross-border on an investigation is sometimes helpful from a legal point of view, and sometimes it is production skills that you are after. The Guardian, he said, could never have produced the volume of video that the BBC did as part of the investigation.

David Leigh was a little less enamoured of “sponsored” journalism. He used a couple of examples from the Guardian, in particular an investigation into the pineapple trade that was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Consumer International. David said in this case it worked out fine, and a worthwhile NGO got exposure, but there was definitely a slight note of caution in his voice.

Likewise with the Reading The Riots project, the Guardian joined forces with the LSE, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the OSF for a very thorough examination of the causes of the riots in the UK in 2011. Leigh conceded again that the project had been worthwhile, but again there was a certain air of concern that journalism was increasingly being forced down this route.

“It is a form of sponsored journalism,” he said, “and we have to ask ourselves where that will end.”

Now there is an argument that it was ever thus. Newspapers take advertising from energy companies and then write negative stories about fracking or wind farms or ecological damage in the Niger delta regardless. The relationship is just rather more explicit than the olden days described at one point as “Sun Bingo paying for investigative journalism.” One audience question at the end asked David if there was any kind of corporate sponsor that he would find acceptable.

David is of course no stranger to controversy, not just with his impressive track record as a journalist, but also with his view that journalism in the UK could be financially under-pinned by a monthly £2 subsidy on broadband connections. Not a business model he touched upon in the course of his Hacks/Hackers talk. Probably just as well, as I don’t think the “hacker” contingent take as kindly to the idea as the “hacks”. This one certainly doesn’t, anyway.

David lamented that the great investigative ITV programmes of the past like “World In Action” have all disappeared because nobody is willing to pay for them, but I must say that to a roomful of mostly young and aspiring journalists in an age of austerity and shrinking editorial budgets, David’s tales of the “land of milk and honey” where they could expense flashy cars in which to do their investigating doesn’t sound much like a “golden age”, more of a profligate and wasteful one.

There’s no doubt that funding future investigations is a big concern for the industry. Sponsorship may get us some of the way there, if we can hold our noses a little more about where the money is coming from, but it means we are only going to be able to fund investigations into things that other people want investigated. That sounds sub-optimal to me.

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“Telling the story of Firestorm” – The Guardian’s Jon Henley & Robin Beitra
“We aren’t here to steal anyone’s lunch” – Buzzfeed’s Luke Lewis
“The future for investigative journalism funding” – David Leigh
“Journalists want convenience, not security” – Daniel Cuthbert