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Credit: By Ivy Dawned on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A panel of senior figures in British journalism gathered for a YouGov and London Press Club debate yesterday to discuss the fate of investigative journalism in the modern media climate.

Chaired by journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil, the panel consisted of Tom Bowers, journalist and biographer; Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian; Andrew Gilligan, London editor of the Sunday Telegraph; investigative journalist and author Heather Brooke, best known for her role in uncovering the MPs expenses scandal; and Tom Harper, investigations reporter at The Independent.

In a lively discussion around the question "Can investigative journalism survive?", panellists unanimously agreed that it could but raised serious concerns as to the obstacles currently facing the field.

Libel laws

Tom Bower, who began his working life as a barrister, first raised the issue of current libel laws being a major obstacle for investigative journalists. Rich individuals, he argued, have the power to suppress information by bringing defamation lawsuits against journalists, lawsuits they may not have the means or funds to defend themselves against.

A political line has been crossed in control of the pressAndrew Gilligan
"How do you defend yourself cheaply," he said, "and turn the law to protect those who believe they tell the truth?"

In that sense, he said, it is not the money to fund journalism that is the problem, but rather the money to defend that journalism in court.

Bower's last libel case, brought by Richard Desmond in 2009 for claims about him in Bower's biography of Conrad Black, was "three weeks in court that cost £4.5 million", he said, an amount that can scare off many journalists and publishers, but a case that Bower won.

In April, Parliament passed the Defamation Act with the intention of overhauling libel laws for the 21st century. It has yet to be fully introduced to the courts, but a recent case has been heralded as the end of 'libel tourism', by which foreign nationals chose English courts for libel claims because of the nature of the UK law, as a precursor to the Defamation Act's introduction.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the Defamation Act will provide better protection to individuals publishing in the public interest and place more onus on claimants to prove that defamatory claims are malicious.

Leveson proposals and state involvement

"A political line has been crossed in control of the press," said Andrew Gilligan, addressing the Leveson proposals and a creeping growth of state interference with British journalism. The panel unanimously agreed.

The state has taken a sledgehammer to crack a nutTom Harper
The work of the Guardian in disseminating evidence about GCHQ's mass online surveillance has been well-documented, and Rusbridger brandished a chunk of broken hard drive as a reminder of the destruction of "hard drives and memory chips" by Guardian staff in August, as the newspaper reported at the time, an act said to have been "watched and photographed" by GCHQ officials.

Bower said that Leveson had cast a "ghastly cloud over everything we do" by causing "grave damage to the reputation of the press". The inquiry and subsequent proposals are the result of a "one-sided debate" he said, based entirely on the phone-hacking scandal but ignoring the internet, investigative journalism and other areas which the proposals affect.

Tom Harper described the Leveson proposals as the state "taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut", and also warned of increasing pressure by security services on journalists' work.

He said sources were much less willing to come forward since the Leveson inquiry, especially police sources, where many public interest stories had come from in the past.

Reference was made to a recent leak of documents showing claims on expenses for chauffeur-driven cars by the Cumbrian crime commissioner. A police worker was arrested under data protection laws and investigated for six months before no charge was brought.

Rusbridger said the willingness of sources to come forward will only get worse as a result of mass surveillance, citing a recent Tow Center article on the subject.

Lack of funding

In its current form, investigative journalism is a civic good – "the public's hired gun" according to Brooke – but the problem is that the public are no longer willing to pay for it, she said.

If you use money as an excuse you lead to editorial and commercial failureAlan Rusbridger
Although the panel all commended the work of the Guardian, they questioned Rusbridger on the effect that giving it away can have on the wider media environment.

"You're teaching people that journalism can be free," Gilligan said, "and even if it works for you, what about other papers?"

"By giving away news for free you sustain the delusion that it is free," said Brooke.

A new model for journalism is needed, she said, in which the financial power of advertising revenue is moved from news distributors, such as Google or Twitter, to news generators, to finance journalism that serves the public.

Lack of 'editorial nerve'

For the Guardian, a lack of funding has not impeded continually breaking large and important investigative stories, said Rusbridger. Despite consistently running at a loss, stories including the BAE systems corruption, phone-hacking scandal, Wikileaks Iraq war logs and recent NSA revelations have boosted the Guardian's online presence to be the third most widely read English language site in the world, he said.

"If you use money as an excuse you lead to editorial and commercial failure," he said, explaining how he believed a decline in investigative journalism would be due to a failure of editorial nerve over other factors.

"It is a matter of priorities and what you spend the money on," he said, "that will tell the public what type of news organisation you are."

Brooke joined Rusbridger in stressing the importance of maintaining a high quality of journalism in order to enhance the importance of the field in society, a sentiment to which the panel agreed.

A survey carried out before the debate asked nearly 2,000 individuals from the general public and "opinion-formers" from both within and outside of the media, a range of questions relating to the current state of investigative journalism.

Forty-three per cent of respondents believed journalists were "of high quality" and 63 per cent believed "the current state of investigative journalism in the UK for quality, funding and future outlook" was good.

A majority considered "undercover reporters exposing issues such as match-fixing, professional malpractice or environmental violations by large corporates" and "publishing of revelations from sources or whistleblowers such as WikiLeaks, MPs expenses, 'Plebgate', Edward Snowden" to be investigative journalism.

Only a quarter believed "exposés on the private lives of public figures and celebrities" to be investigative journalism.

The full results of the survey and questions posed can be found on the YouGov website.

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