Paul Foot’s death last week is an even greater tragedy than realised: it marked the end of investigative reporting in Britain as we have known it. Foot’s working life spanned what can now be seen as a golden age for investigative and campaigning journalism, before greedy proprietors and their cost-cutting accountants killed it off.
Today, what editor interested in keeping his job would commit his paper’s resources and cash to expensive (and often unpopular) investigations and campaigns such as the Hanratty case, the Poulson scandal, the Birmingham bombings convictions, the Guildford Four, Jeremy Thorpe, John Stalker and the Northern Ireland shoot-to-kill policy, the Thalidomide scandal, the DC10 crash outside Paris, the Cambridge spy ring of Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt?
Who would take on Robert Maxwell (Foot picketed Maxwell’s Oxford home when Maxwell was his boss at the Mirror), James Goldsmith, the Vestey meat millionaires, Distillers, McDonnell Douglas, the British secret services, police, the armed services and a whole raft of the rich, privileged, powerful people who ran Britain in the 1970s and Eighties?
The Mirror under Mike Molloy (he hired Foot), The Sunday Times with Harold Evans (editor) and Denis Hamilton (editor-in-chief) and, occasionally, The Observer under Donald Trelford and The Daily Mail under David English jumped in, overcoming their proprietors’ natural instincts not to upset the establishment. They were helped by gutsy lawyers such as Hugh Corrie on the Mirror and James Evans on The Sunday Times and managements who, albeit reluctantly, did not allow the phrase “cost-effective” to interfere with editorial ambition.
Today, investigative reporting has moved over to television where technological developments have made “undercover” stories with hidden cameras all the rage. Or it has gone offshore. The New Yorker magazine and Seymour Hersh lead the way in the United States, along with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), a co-operative run by a group of journalists in Washington, with members worldwide. Tellingly, the ICIJ is financed largely by donations from wealthy Americans unhappy at the lack of investigative reporting in their newspapers.
So what went wrong here? The arrival of new technol- ogy drew attention to the cost of journalism. While the print unions ran newspapers, an editor could defend his budget by pointing out what a small proportion it was of the total cost of production. On The Sunday Times, for instance, it was never more than about 15 per cent.
The death of the print unions and the great savings this produced brought calls from the accountants for similar savings on the editorial side. Rupert Murdoch ended editorial budgets on Times Newspapers the moment he took over. “Never give journalists a budget,” he was reported as saying. “The bastards will spend every penny of it.”
Investigative and campaigning journalism were obvious targets. They are expensive (the Thalidomide campaign cost nearly £1m in legal fees alone), time-consuming (I worked on the Vestey tax story for nearly two years), and unreliable (the story might not work out). A controversial columnist who will fill his or her space without fail, appears to accountants a better proposition no matter how outrageously high their fees may appear to be.
And with the arrival of media law firms offering anyone who is the target of a newspaper investigation the means of hitting back, a new threat has emerged to what little investigative reporting remains in this country.
As with so many of these things, the new technique for killing media investigations began in the US. Ambitious lawyers noticed insurance companies were reluctant to insure journalists against libel if more than two actions against them were pending – no matter how frivolous the grounds.
So they kill investigations quickly by starting enough libel actions to void the journalist’s insurance policy. Seymour Hersh told me two years ago he had been forced to move his personal assets offshore when he was investigating an American oil company because his lawyer warned him that everything he owned could be at risk from legal actions the oil company might bring against him.
Various actions in the US have also set a precedent for corporations to bring criminal charges against investigative reporters, both to intimidate them and to deter others.
Investigative reporters going under cover in, say, a factory or a hospital, could find themselves charged with fraudulent misrepresentation and trespass. British media lawyers are well aware of US actions on these lines. How long before there are such cases here?
Paul Foot would have gone to jail to assert his right to protect the public against the powerful. Who would today?
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