Credit: Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Investigative journalism has always had that touch of glamour - who would not want to dig out those big scoops and shocking exposés? The profession, however, comes with risks: fragile job security, personal danger - and believe it or not, tedium.

"You've got a product, the journalistic exposure: it's uncertain, expensive, boring and at the end of that - if the editor publishes it - the sky might fall in, it might be very dangerous. You might get sued and the editor might lose their job because of what you’ve printed," said David Leigh, a veteran investigative journalist with a career spanning 40 years.

Image courtesy David Leigh

Leigh has been at the heart of many major investigations at the Observer, the Guardian and the Times, among others, before retiring in 2013. He is probably best known for his reporting on a British cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken which ultimately led to his arrest.

Speaking on a podcast with, Leigh reflected on his latest book, "Investigative Journalism: A Survival Guide", which offers timeless advice for aspiring reporters to take forward into today's digital era of investigative journalism.

One part of the job remained the same: high stakes. Investigative journalist Bruce Page, whom Leigh worked with at the Sunday Times, once compared the profession to the old children's game 'blind man's buff' - a game which involves players trying to catch each other whilst blindfolded - only it is being "played with open razors".

"It tells you how blundering and dangerous journalism can be both for its targets - because you are ruining their lives, you are shaming and exposing them - and dangerous for the person wielding the razor too, because they can slip and cut themselves," he said.

This adversarial journalism, or 'attack journalism' as Leigh calls it, puts journalists and their editors right in the line of fire. Journalists need the backing of a news organisation to retain credibility and access to financial support in case the story proceeds to court.

"What you are doing is attacking people and drawing blood. You are potentially getting yourself in trouble as well," Leigh said.

Journalists have more tools available now and information can be dug up online, which is a great advantage compared to days of sifting through newspaper clippings.

We need to call out lies in journalism and politics, wherever we find them. That’s the only way to restore credibility.

However, the playing field has changed in these so-called post-truth times. The days of reporting resulting in arrested MPs are not gone but journalists struggle to be heard and believed as trust in the media in the UK continues to fall.

"Nowadays, there is a tremendous amount of noise and 'fake news' out there in the online world. There isn't a hierarchy of credibility anymore.

"The most carefully researched investigative piece which has taken months, or years, to do, and involved a big team of people, looks [the same] on an iPhone as the latest conspiracy theory on Breitbart."

Future investigative journalists should brace themselves for the effects of the long "unsavoury history" of the media getting its reporting wrong, dating back to forged Hitler diaries published by the Sunday Times. Modern-day examples include doubling-down on "easy targets" that readers are already prejudiced against.

"All of this degrades journalism in the public eye so you get to the point where people don’t know what is true or false anymore."

News audiences, in fact, are right not to believe the media at times, Leigh said. Journalists should also scrutinise their peers, not only politicians, just as the Guardian did when it reported on how BBC Newsnight wrongly implicated Alex McAlpine in a sex abuse case.

"We were the journalists who did the work to say 'this story is a lie' - we had a lot of in-house arguments about whether we should do that or whether that was not our job.

"We need to call out lies in journalism and politics, wherever we find them. That’s the only way to restore credibility."

Want to learn the best practices around using social media for reporting? Join this course on 13 February 2020 in London.

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