Investigating the crisis of 21st-century journalism
On Saturday 9 February, I was invited to give a speech about investigative journalism at University College Cork Journalism Society’s annual conference. My opening remarks are published below.
In answer to the question “Is investigative journalism lacking?”, I would say no. There is a great deal of investigative journalism around today. The problem is that a lot of it is not very good; it is very different to the investigative journalism of the past and it often ends up distorting the truth rather than enlightening public debate.
I want to run through three C-words in modern journalism that I think are having a detrimental impact on investigative reporting.
The first C-word is “conspiratorial thinking”, the tendency of journalists to write about power and power relations in a quite juvenile, teenage way, with lots of reporters now seeming to believe the world is run by cliques of faceless Bad Men.
The second C-word is “crusading mentality”, the way more and more journalists now conceive of themselves as moral crusaders against evil - whether that evil is climate change or Catholic child abusers or Bosnian-Serbo maniacs or whatever.
And the third C-word is “conformism”. I want to argue that the sphere of what it is acceptable to think and say has shrunk dramatically in recent years, and even radical journalists now investigate things and say things that are not nearly as daring as they think.
On the first C-word - conspiratorial thinking. For various reasons, largely to do with the collapse of politics as we once knew it, we live in the age of the conspiracy theory, where people seem prepared to believe any old nonsense about 9/11 or the circumstances of Barack Obama’s birth.
Yet while it is easy to mock bedroom-bound conspiracy theorists, it’s important to note that serious investigative journalism is increasingly shot through with conspiratorial thinking, too.
Let’s not forget that over the past three or four years, the major investigative scoops of the Western media have come from a conspiracy-theory group - Wikileaks. Wikileaks is driven by the exact same outlook as someone like David Icke: a conviction that world affairs are governed by small groups of sinister, secretive, unaccountable gangs.
So it is not surprising that the leaked documents handed by Wikileaks to the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel gave rise to a very infantile form of journalism, one which obsessed over what politicians and civil servants said behind closed doors, in secret memos and communiques, rather than questioning what they had been saying or doing in the realm of public policy.
Or consider one of the main investigative scoops in Britain in recent years - the exposure of phone-hacking at Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspapers. This has been fuelled by an explicit conspiracy theory about Murdoch controlling Britain’s political and justice systems.
We have been told that Murdoch and his minions “orchestrated public life from the shadows”, that they exercised “a poisonous, secretive influence” over British people’s lives and minds. Replace the word “Murdoch” with the word “Jew”, and any of this stuff could have been published in some dodgy European magazine of the 1930s.
The journalistic investigators of phone-hacking have also produced actual maps showing us how near David Cameron lived to various News of the World editors, and they have told us in detail about who had dinner with whom, what they ate, what they might have discussed, and so on. This is what conspiracy theorists refer to as a “spider web theory” - the idea that if two or more people can be linked together then that is sufficient evidence that they are involved in a conspiracy.
Also, modern-day investigative journalists are obsessed with the idea of the cover-up. Like web-based conspiracy theorists, nothing gets their juices flowing more than the possibility - often unproven - that politicians or bankers or businessmen conspired to cover up some fact or accident or oil leak.
What is striking about this conspiratorial journalism is how reliant it is on leaks. Much investigative journalism today is informed by leaked documents - whether those documents come from Wikileaks, disgruntled MPs, police offers, army officers. This speaks to a profound shift in the attitude and outlook of investigative journalism. It makes investigative journalists more passive, where they wait around for someone, usually someone in authority, to reveal to them the truth and to hand them a readymade story.
Investigative journalists are turned from active seekers of truth into passive recipients of gossip, passive recipients of titillating information from within the citadels of power. They become messengers between squabbling sections of the elite, rather than properly independent pursuers of political and social insights or truths. This is a problem because truth is not something that can be revealed to us - it is something we find and even formulate through the very act of looking for it and uncovering it. It doesn’t exist externally to us, in Julian Assange’s computer; it is made by us through investigation and thought.
The second problematic C-word in modern journalism is “crusader”. Lots of investigative journalists today seem to believe they are moral crusaders against wickedness, that they are forces for Good against Evil.
You can see this, for example, in environmentalist exposes of Big Oil and its wicked antics. Green journalism is the most annoying kind of journalism today, employing a very childlike, almost Biblical language to describe the nastiness and destructiveness of modern industry and the modern world.
You can see the crusading zeal even more explicitly in foreign investigative reporting. A great many foreign reporters now reduce foreign wars to simple battles between Good and Evil, to the latest rerun of the Nazi Holocaust. Everywhere from Bosnia to Rwanda to Syria, profoundly complex civil wars have been turned by investigative reporters into clashes between good guys and bad guys, with reporters often taking the side of the so-called good guys by waging a war of words against the bad guys.
Partly this is driven by narcissism, by a desire amongst journalists to be at the centre of the story. Consider someone like Fergal Keane - in his reporting from Rwanda in the 1990s, he seemed more interested in investigating his own emotions and feelings than investigating what was unfolding in that tragic country. These journalists are so vain they think someone else’s war is about them.
This crusading mentality can have a really distorting impact on the truth. Because if your instinct is to squeeze everything into a simple narrative of good and evil, then you will become naturally hostile to nuance, even to objectivity. You will instinctively elevate certain facts that support your black-and-white posturing, and demote other facts that call it into question.
Consider that example of Rwanda and the terribly savage war that took place there in 1994. Pretty much every journalist on earth depicted the Hutu leaders as Nazi-like barbarians and the Tutsi leaders as good and brave souls. And anyone who dared to question that script was shot down in flames. Yet now, 20 years later, Tutsi-led Rwanda is one of the most authoritarian regimes in Africa, where people who express opposition to the president or who publish critical accounts of 1994 can be arrested and imprisoned as genocide deniers.
This ideological authoritarianism has been at least partly enabled by Western journalists’ uncritical, unquestioning elevation of a Good/Evil narrative about Rwanda and its problems, which became firmly established in international politics, empowering the post-war Tutsi regime to do almost anything it wanted. We should always be wary of becoming crusaders, because the world is always more complicated and more colourful than just black and white.
And the final C-word is “conformism”. Today, the existence of lots of noisy investigative journalism and new forms of online media often disguises the fact that actually we live in quite conformist times.
Too often today, investigative journalists get so embroiled in moral crusades against wicked people that they don’t stop to ask serious, searing, probing questions.
Two quick examples. Consider banker-bashing journalism in Britain, where article after article exposes what certain bankers get paid, what they drink, where they holiday, and so on. Or consider anti-Catholic Church journalism in Ireland, where reporters devote a huge amount of energy to reporting on the past crimes of priests and nuns.
All of this is considered edgy. But few journalists stop to consider how useful it is to our governments to have people obsessing over greedy bankers rather than over the government’s own responsibility for the recession; few journalists stop to think how useful it is for governments to have people getting riled up about what religious institutions did in the past rather than asking questions about what politicians are going to do about today and tomorrow.
Often, crusading journalism can appear almost like a state-sanctioned displacement activity, taking attention away from today’s very real political and social problems and focusing it instead on the behaviour and crimes of small groups of people.
Such journalism presents itself as radical, but it conforms to a quite elitist belief that the decadent behaviour of warped individuals is more to blame for our current crises than the policymaking of our elected, accountable officials.
These three C-words - conspiracy-thinking, crusading and conformism - have given rise to a problematic form of investigative journalism: one which actually disempowers ordinary people, by reducing us to mere spectators of secretive, conspiratorial wickedness who are implored to be permanently shocked and disgusted, and which empowers the state, through calling on it to get its allegedly wayward individuals or old rotten institutions in order or to bomb evil black people overseas.
I think we should challenge these C-words and their corruption of journalism. And we should recover the ideal of investigative journalism as as a tool for empowering the public through enlightened debate, and for putting governments and states on the spot and on the defensive.
The above is a transcript of a speech I gave at University College Cork on 9 February 2013.