The lack of participation from the UK didn't go unnoticed. Launching the results of a major research project on the state of investigative journalism across Europe key speaker and Dutch investigative Journalist Dick van Eijk commented on how only a handful of UK journalists had made the short trip. The research was carried out by the conference organisers – the Dutch-Flemish Association of Investigative Journalists (VVOJ).
But, at first, the absence was as hard to fathom as it was obvious. The research report, carried out by the VVOJ, found that while investigative journalism in the UK isn't flourishing, it isn't exactly on its knees either. It's easy to think of high profile and influential projects like Panorama's investigation into the drug Seroxat, and dozens of newsrooms nationally and regionally invest in investigative stories. The Centre for Investigative Journalism runs training events and supports investigative journalists in the UK, but does not yet offer individual membership.
One clue may lie in the crisis facing UK newspapers – traditionally the hub of investigative reporting. The circulation of the national dailies has crashed by more than 6 per cent since 1999 and the Sundays by 9 per cent. Intense competition that leads to budget cuts and a shift to more predictable and less legally risky 'lifestyle' content is blamed by those like the Guardian's David Leigh for a lack of focus on in-depth news.
When I caught up with the editor of the VVOJ research Dick van Eijk at the conference, he said he reckoned this cut-throat competition in the UK may partly explain why so few UK faces were there. In the fog of war editors aren't focused on investigative angles. As the report states, editors "will not easily let a reporter go on a wild goose chase for four weeks with no foreseeable result".
Intense competition may also lead to a bunker mentality, where journalists lose the ability to collaborate and don't see a value in meeting other journalists from around the globe. The VVOJ report notes that cross-media collaboration is now almost unheard of in the UK as there is now such intense pressure to publish prematurely.
But the reasons for a lack of focus on investigative journalism and the lack of UK participation at the conference may run deeper. There is no association of investigative journalists in the UK. No local forum, like the VVOJ, where journalists can swap ideas, learn new skills or even hear of new techniques they might want to learn. Yet associations, conferences and meetings are common across much of Europe. In Norway national and regional meetings attract hundreds of journalists. Investigative reporting is thriving and Norwegians read more newspapers than any other country in Europe. Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Germany also all have active investigative associations.
The VVOJ research concludes that it is no coincidence that those countries with the most collaboration between journalists were first to exploit the potential of computer-assisted reporting (CAR).
Journalists in the US were first to employ CAR to carry out quantitative analysis and use the internet in a systematic way for investigations. But the trend is catching on in European countries where investigative journalism is thriving. CAR sessions were held throughout the VVOJ conference on subjects such as 'forensic surfing', better search methods and 'scraping the web' – a technique that helps you find and download data. I was introduced to techniques and software that I know in a month's time I'll consider essential.
In the Netherlands and the Nordic countries there are now data analysis specialists who only do investigative stories and teach CAR skills through association meetings and conferences. CAR is now gaining momentum in Germany, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. Grasping what CAR means is about understanding the full potential of the internet as a tool for journalists. The VVOJ notes that this adoption of CAR is also part of the 'professionalisation process in journalism'.
Those countries where investigative journalists are cooperating, where they are collaborating with international colleagues and where CAR is best developed, dominated attendance at the conference. By the end of the conference, the UK boycott seemed less surprising and it was understandable that the most gloomy speech of the event was given by UK journalist David Leigh who said: "These are difficult and frustrating times for investigative journalism in Britain".
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