Strong investigative journalism does not need a big budget to thrive.

This is one of the surprising conclusions from a major research project into investigative journalism across Europe launched at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Amsterdam last week.

Carried out by the Dutch-Flemish Association for Investigative Journalists (VVOJ), the research project involved more than 200 interviews with journalists in 20 European countries.

The project concluded that: "no relation whatsoever could be shown between whether the medium was in good shape financially and whether it had an investigative tradition".

In fact, the report found that there was a more substantial commitment to investigative writing in newsrooms that were more financially vulnerable. This may be because those publications felt more need to compete for investigative stories the authors said.

While some of the best sources of investigative journalism are well resourced, like the BBC and Der Spiegel, the report found that many smaller publications had developed strong investigative units. The report says some papers with only small circulations in Denmark and Sweden have developed investigative units while national papers in countries like France have no such tradition.

The report editor, Dutch investigative journalist Dick van Eijk, told that investigative journalism was developing a strong online presence in countries that have continued to see major assaults on press freedom since the collapse of the Soviet Union – in Russia and the Ukraine, for example.

While only between three and five per cent of the population have access to the internet in the Ukraine, two sites became very influential in the run up to the Orange Revolution – Ukraina Kriminalna (now sold) and Ukrainska Pravda. The murder of the investigative reporter who founded Ukrainska Pravda in November 2000 sparked a political crisis.

The report also found that there is no distinct 'European' culture of journalism and that journalistic practice varies enormously between countries in the study. To illustrate these differences the report cites a study that found 90 per cent of journalists in the UK and Finland thought it was important or very important to be a watchdog on government. By comparison, in France and Germany only between 30 and 40 per cent of journalists think the same.

The VVOJ report concludes that individual journalists must be aware of these cultural differences if they are looking to do cross-border investigations with colleagues in other countries. The authors found that investigative journalism thrives best in newsrooms that give journalists autonomy and have a tradition of stimulating creativity. Those countries where newsrooms like this are found most often are Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands.

On the UK, the report says strict libel laws have stifled the development of investigative journalism and that it is no longer seen as an integral part of the newsroom with many investigative journalists now working on a freelance basis. It also blames cut-throat competition for lack of collaboration on investigative projects.

Surprisingly, the report says that the UK is one country where the regional media are not pursuing investigative stories. This may reflect an over-reliance on London-based sources for the UK case study in the report as there is good evidence of lively investigative reporting in the regions, including many in Scotland where the Sunday Herald and BBC Scotland have invested heavily in these projects.

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