The future of journalism in the UK

September 26, 2011

By Mark Thompson
The opinions discussed are his own.

In the UK we are going through an unprecedented crisis in journalism, a crisis with the boundaries and techniques of investigative journalism at its heart.

We don’t yet know what will emerge from this crisis and from Lord Leveson’s Inquiry, but any recommendations about new laws or regulation will be studied with interest by Governments around the world.

Before the phone-hacking scandal, conventional wisdom suggested that traditional investigative journalism faced two threats:  the first economic, the second related to the impact of the internet and new forms of journalism and disclosure it has enabled.

The economic one is so familiar I won’t dwell on it for long.  It is that – in common with other forms of quality journalism – the deteriorating business models for newspapers, in the developed world at least, may not be able to support the cost of mounting often expensive and protracted investigations.

The commercial fundamentals may not be quite so challenging in the global broadcast arena, but here too pessimists would point to the pressure on commissioners and schedulers to focus on those genres which bring in the largest number of viewers and commercial impacts: here too, they would argue, investigative journalism is under threat.

But it’s worth pointing out that, in the UK at least, a number of newspapers – The Sunday Times, The Independent as well as The Guardian – clearly regard investigative journalism not just as vital in itself, but as a competitively valuable point of differentiation.  Indeed recent editors at The Daily Telegraph have launched what is essentially a new tradition of major investigations, including their revelations about UK parliamentarians’ abuse of their expenses, one of the journalistic coups of the past decade.

So although commercial pressures are undoubtedly making it difficult for some editors – especially those responsible for local and regional titles – to support as much investigative journalism as they would like, it’s not obvious that economics alone will put paid to it.

What about threat number two, which is that in the age of do-it-yourself, internet-distributed revelation, you simply won’t need expensive, professional investigations anymore?  Wikileaks, Matt Drudge, Guido Fawkes and a thousand others may deliver their scoops and insights with less precision and restraint than their traditional counterparts, but they deliver them all the same – and often more quickly and with less mediation and qualification than conventional journalistic practice would allow.

It’s interesting, though, that Julian Assange and Wikileaks turned to an international group of newspapers including The New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde to help with the journalistic tasks of redaction and contextualisation.  The internet is a perfect letter-box for whistleblowers and disclosers of every kind but – without the validation of professional editors and the credibility of established and respected media brands – the problems of provenance and believability loom large.

A threat from within

But what the phone-hacking scandal has thrown up, in the UK at least, is a third and in some ways much more serious threat, which is of an enemy within – a collapse of probity and restraint by journalists and editors themselves which risks making a mockery of the idea of ‘the public interest’ and robbing investigative journalism of its legitimacy and credibility.

Legitimate investigative journalism strays into intrusion only when topics of genuine public importance are at stake – and even then it takes care that the intrusion is proportionate to the matter at hand.

There are some things which should always be out of the question.  Serious criminality of any kind.  ‘Fishing expeditions’ – in other words speculative acts of intrusion or entrapment where the journalists do not have strong prima facie evidence of serious wrong-doing.  Nor should journalists use any techniques which they could not justify openly and clearly in public.

All of these rules seem to have been broken in the case of The News of the World.  Given the industrial scale of the abuse and the apparent failure by editors and managers over years  to confront it, it’s hardly surprising that many people in the UK are asking themselves whether these practices are widespread across the whole of British journalism.  The Leveson Inquiry will seek to find an answer to that question.

At the BBC, we’ve taken a close look at the period which Leveson is scrutinizing – back to the beginning of 2005 – and despite the many thousands of hours of output and millions of budget lines in scope, our ongoing review has not identified a single instance of phone-hacking or the bribery of police officers or any of the other malpractices which are alleged to have happened at The News of the World.

The character of broadcast investigative journalism is different in some respects from its counterpart in print.  In TV, secret filming is always done with a view to broadcast – we always start off with the intention, not just of revealing a story to the public, but of showing the techniques we used to uncover it.

There are stringent controls moreover on when and how such techniques can be used.  The BBC requires the decisions to involve senior editors and it depends on the team having already obtained substantial evidence of wrong-doing.  At the BBC, we only do investigations with a clear public interest rationale, but even after that rationale has been established, there is still a debate about whether the methods the journalists propose to use are reasonable and proportionate.

A recent edition of Panorama revealed an appalling level of abuse of vulnerable young adults in a British care home. There were two issues editors had to consider before giving the team permission to film.  The first was the intrusion that both care home workers and the victims of their abuse were subjected to.  In this case, there was sufficient evidence of abuse to convince us that it was in the public interest to consent to secret filming.  Indeed, after the programme, there were a series of arrests and it seems likely that the regulation and oversight of all such care homes will be improved as a result.

The second issue related to the young man who we sent into the home posing a care assistant – something which is a breach of employment legislation.  Again, the editorial decision-makers concluded that this relatively minor breaking of the rules was justified in the public interest, given the seriousness of the abuse and the fact that the body supposed to ensure appropriate standards in the care home industry had recently inspected this very facility and failed to detect, let alone stop the abuse.

The importance of journalistic values

Investigations are full of potential ethical traps – not least because, just as with a police or judicial investigation, not everyone whom you start of suspecting of wrong-doing will turn out to be guilty.

And – to state the obvious – it’s both vital and often very difficult to get it right.  Investigative journalists do not enjoy the sweeping powers of the police and the courts and often begin a story with little more than scraps of information.  There is no substitute for checking, re-checking and subjecting the thesis you are pursuing to constant challenge from colleagues, editors, lawyers.

Responsible investigative journalism doesn’t just depend on the right rules and systems of oversight, it also relies on the determination of the journalists to do the right thing – in other words on journalistic values and culture.

As the Leveson Inquiry picks through the wreckage of the News of the World, it’s important that the question of values isn’t lost or deemed to be fully addressable by a new mechanic of regulation and oversight.

When the BBC had its own set of serious editorial lapses a few years ago – not in the context of investigative journalism, but ranging from serious shortcomings in on-air competitions to a misleading trail for a documentary about the Queen and an appalling lapse of taste on The Russell Brand Show – part of our response was a tightening of our rules and procedures for programme compliance.

But the most important thing we did was to insist that all of our editorial decision-makers – and I mean literally thousands of producers and editors across the BBC – took part in a series of searching conversations about the failures in values and culture that had led us to let both ourselves and our audiences down on air.

It is not possible for any news organisation to guarantee the honesty of its journalism solely through management rules or through more stringent supervision.  Too much investigative journalism takes place far from the watchful eye of the editor.  You need teams of journalists who can be trusted to make the right ethical judgements even when they are on their own.

An agenda for reform

So, in the light of the News of the World scandal, what might an agenda for reform in British journalism look like?  How should you use some or all of the levers of regulation, legislation and cultural change to minimize the chances of a recurrence of these serious abuses and of dangerous, improper or even corrupt relationships between media, police and the political classes without impeding or constraining legitimate investigative journalism?

It might begin with an attempt to reach a shared understanding of what we mean by the term the public interest.  There’s probably no need for a new definition – both the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines and the Code published by the UK’s broadcast and telecoms regulator Ofcom contain useful language, for example.  The important thing is that the industry accepts a common definition so that, when we mount a public interest justification, everyone – courts, regulators, public – know that we are all talking about the same thing.

I’m not suggesting that journalism without a clear public interest justification should be banned, by the way.  In a free society, newspapers and others should have the right to publish whatever they want without prior restraint, though they must also face the consequences, legal and otherwise.

I am also sceptical of the view that newspapers should be regulated in the same way as broadcasters like the BBC who reach into every household in the land.

The current British model of self-regulation of the press is not to be dismissed out of hand.  It has been copied to differing degrees by many other countries because, at least in principle, it offers the prospect of striking the right balance between regulatory redress and press freedom.  The UK Press Complaints Commission, the PCC, has a good record in arbitrating complaints and disputes.  The PCC was not established as a regulator as such and it is not reasonable to criticise it for not doing things it is not designed or empowered to do.

But given what has been revealed over the past few months, to be sustainable in the future self-regulation would needs radical reform.  In particular, the self-regulatory body would have to be given the power to conduct unfettered investigations into complaints and, in cases where serious complaints are upheld, to impose fines or other sanctions on guilty parties.  It’s possible to imagine a system which is essentially self-regulatory but in which investigations are referred to and carried out by a statutory body – perhaps Ofcom – which could also enforce sanctions.  But without investigative powers and sanctions, self-regulation will not survive.  A further dilemma is how to ensure that the self-regulatory body remains independent of the interests of the most powerful newspaper interests.

One further test for the British press is whether in future it will have the courage to hold itself to account.  Many national newspapers – and not just News International titles – showed a remarkable lack of interest in the phone-hacking story until it was simply too big to ignore.  Often there were more column inches attacking the BBC for its coverage of the story than there were on phone-hacking itself.

For newspapers to fail to report on a matter of public interest because it is not in the interests of their industry is a betrayal of journalism and is exactly the kind of disreputable, self-serving behaviour which they routinely accuse other special interest groups of in the UK of indulging in.

All of this might leave you with the impression that British journalism – or at least British print journalism – is broken. That simply isn’t the case.  Phone-hacking only came to light because of brilliant investigative journalism by the Guardian and in particular by Nick Davies and Amelia Hill.  I’ve already noted outstanding investigations by the Telegraph and other newspapers.  I could have talked about the Times and its courageous exploration of aspects of the British Army’s performance in Afghanistan including the decision to deploy to Helmand, or the London Evening Standard’s shocking and moving Dispossessed campaign.

The fourth threat

But there’s a fourth threat to investigative journalism in the UK – which is of an over-reaction to the abuses at the News of the World.

There are many countries where investigative journalism is impossible or restricted to relatively ‘safe’ areas like consumer rights.  But in all countries, there will always be some in authority who – whatever lip service they pay to press freedom – fear the consequences of unfettered investigative journalism.

But that is precisely why is so important to have an independent press and media.


This is a dangerous period for British journalism.  It would be easy to respond to the completely unacceptable actions of some journalists at The News of the World by adopting such a draconian approach that even the best journalism is constrained.  It would be easy for concern over the appalling invasions of privacy revealed by the phone-hacking scandal to spill over into legislation or regulation which enables wrong-doers to escape journalistic exposure.

The Leveson Inquiry and everyone involved in deciding how to respond to events at The News of the World have an unenviable tightrope to walk.

It won’t just be British journalists who watch developments but editors and reporters all over the world.  Some of the issues I’ve talked about are unique to the UK and the British press. But many of the themes – the boundaries of public interest, privacy versus the right to disclose, the complex relationship between journalism and those in power – are, I think, universal ones. Governments and regulators will be watching what happens in Britain with great interest.

This is adapted from a speech given at the International Press Institute World Congress in Taipei.


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OK, OK we get it, BBC all good, nasty internet bad, cant be trusted, not professional, also too cheap compared to bloated journo/exec packages and bureaucracy?

This from the organisation that championed the EU/Euro lie.

Keep on dreaming baby but when you wake up it will all be so different . . .

Posted by CharlietheChump | Report as abusive

This is mark Thompson of the BBC…the man who happily admits they are in the pockets of the Labour party…in the past and seemingly still are, who fail to report that the Guardian are some of the worst hackers and whose journos have been accused of paying MET police for information on the hacking inquiry!
Oh….and the BBC who wasted over £2billion+ of the publics money on new vanity building work… a recession….just to please their union lackies!

yep…thanks for that Mr Thompson!

Posted by tombaldwinscoke | Report as abusive

“The commercial fundamentals may not be quite so challenging in the global broadcast arena”

They never are when you can exact revenues on pain of imprisonment from everyone whether or not they want your crappy product.

Posted by Donnelt | Report as abusive

I’ll get back to you when I take seriously a word this guy says. Hard to say what’s worst about the BBC – the endless patronising drivel, the corporation’s self-obsession, or the big lie at the heart of the corporation: its insistence that we all love it so dearly, while simultaneously employing a vast private police force to ensure that anyone who refuses to pay for it can be sent to prison. There may be a case for public broadcasting, but the BBC is not a public broadcaster. It operates entirely in its own interests and those of the politicians who sustain it.

Posted by SenechalduBaron | Report as abusive

Charliethe Chump

Have you ever tried to do serious research on the internet? Look at the slop that passes for research on Yahoo! Answers and much of Wikipedia. Just for starters. There is good stuff but most is crap. Serious journalism does cost money, which is why the FT costs £2 a day and Reuters does not give away its company research.

I would trust the BBC a lot more than any of the first four posters here. What are a bunch of Sun reading knuckle draggers doing on a serious business site?

Posted by JeremyBosk | Report as abusive