Yesterday morning I attended a city networking event where the star speakers were David Blunkett, Michael Portillo and Paddy Ashdown. While the three sparred with each other and BBC news man Huw Edwards my mind wandered to thinking about how each of them had been victims of the British press at one time or another. For Portillo revelations of past sexual encounters put paid to his ambitions of leading the Conservative Party. Paddy Ashdown managed to weather a media storm from an old-fashioned sex scandal involving his secretary while Blunkett’s career became known more for the various tabloid allegations against him, rather than his work in Tony Blair’s government. It seemed timely to be in a room with three public figures, who had committed themselves to a life under constant media scrutiny, days after England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup Finals was hit by a tabloid sting of another public figure.
Revelations of old such as those involving Blunkett, Portillo and Ashdown were usually a result of a tip-off, a kiss and tell deal or a good piece of investigative journalism. Today’s scandals and revelations by the media are largely as a result of recordings of private conversations which are then ‘leaked’ to a newspaper or a TV programme. In the past few months we have had top snooker player John Higgins filmed allegedly agreeing to throw matches (the Guardian’s excellent Roy Greenslade casts doubt on the News of the World’s entrapment of John Higgins there), Lord Triesman claiming Spain would bribe world cup referees and a succession of MPs filmed offering their services as lobbyists for a fictitious company for Channel Four’s Dispatches.
I’m a great fan of proper journalism that unearths corruption, illegal acts and ensures that our political classes are scrutinised fairly. Journalism is an essential pillar of any fully functioning democracy. However this new reliance on entrapment seems a rather cheap and sordid way to secure a story by our newspaper industry. Former England football captain, Gary Lineker, agrees and has quit his lucrative weekly column in the Mail on Sunday in protest at the sting operation that led to Lord Triesman’s resignation. Lineker’s agent said eloquently the story, “had dubious journalistic merit, was clearly obtained by entrapment, and was timed to do the maximum damage to the World Cup bid, which Gary and all football fans in this country passionately support. We wanted to make our position clear and to do all we can now to help persuade Fifa that England is the best country to host a great World Cup in 2018.”
Sadly, it appears gone are the days when newspapers would spend months and many thousands of pounds, dollars or roubles in pursuing an in-depth investigation. No longer do we see monumental efforts over many months such as Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate break-in. Efforts that brought down a President. We know that newspapers are under increased financial strain but to me cheap sensationalism, not in the public interest, is not a way to differentiate any publication from the huge amount of content freely available on the web. There is room for campaigning newspapers and for newspapers to campaign. Just look at the Pulitzer prize that just eluded the much derided National Enquirer in the United States for its work that finished Senator John Edwards bid for the Presidency. It was certainly sensational but also in the public interest. It sold newspapers but also mattered.
There is hope for fans of investigative journalism like me. Alexander Lebedev the new owner of The Independent and the Evening Standard has recently announced his intention to build an investigative global network which could involve Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, the New York Times and the Guardian – as well as Lebedev’s British and Russian titles, which include Novaya Gazeta. This is fantastic news. There should always be a place for true investigative journalism that creates and breaks real news in the public interest. My hope is that this new network isn’t going to rely on recordings of private conversations to get their scoops.