Investigative Journalism

Hugo de Burgh. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.

From the perspective of many established investigative journalists and some other thoughtful commentators, very great changes are taking place in the media ecology of the Anglosphere, of which developments in investigative journalism are merely an epiphenomenon. In the course of these changes, the name, if not the substance, of investigative journalism is being co-opted into mainstream media, rather as the worker demonstrations of the 19th century were transmuted into party rallies in the 20th century. Because of this, those who wish to preserve the essence of investigative journalism need to invent another name, another site, another rationale for it. As to why this is the case and on what grounds it is being argued, we shall return to it later.

Meanwhile, at the outset, we describe the status quo ante: the idea of investigative journalism, its conventional role in the process of reporting the news, and some of the techniques used by investigative journalists. The illustrations used in support are mostly from the United Kingdom, but what is termed investigative journalism in the Anglophone countries is increasingly found in many other societies, from China to Italy, from Brazil to Russia.

There is a widespread premise that an investigative journalist can be defined as a person whose profession it is to discover the truth and to identify lapses from it in whatever media may be available. Literary and filmic representations of investigative journalists are mainly Anglophone, and they are represented in general as lonely crusaders for virtue. John Grisham’s novel and film The Pelican Brief and the film The Insider are typical; factual books also play up these aspects, as in The Typewriter Guerrillas (Behrens, 1977) and Raising Hell (Chepesiuk, Howell, & Lee, 1997). However, other cultures do not necessarily see investigative journalists in this way (de Burgh, 2005).

Acts of investigative journalism are contrasted with apparently similar work done by the police, lawyers, auditors, and regulatory bodies in that they are not limited as to target, are not legally founded, and usually earn money for media publishers.

Investigative journalism is distinguished from dissenting journalism, although they are often closely connected. It is a long-standing feature of Anglophone societies that they, relative to most other polities, tolerate disagreement with authority, and it is a tradition that has been fought for, since at least the 17th century. Campaigns on behalf of this or that oppressed party, polemics for a better way of doing things, and divergence from the accepted line are usually permissible. Wartime has always been an exception.

One of the most cogent critics of investigative journalism (“the lowest form of newspaper life”) believes that it is not a discipline but a cast of mind that is typical of arrogant, privileged, and sneering journalists in current affairs. Bernard Ingham (1991, p. 363), who was Chief Press Secretary to former British Prime Minister Thatcher, has diagnosed a number of journalists’ diseases, of which the first is pertinent to investigative journalism: “the conviction that government is inevitably, irrevocably, and chronically up to no good, not to be trusted, and conspiratorial. This is known as ‘le Carré syndrome’ and so sours and contaminates the judgment of otherwise competent journalists as to render them pathetically negative, inaccurate, and unreliable. In this context, Watergate has a lot to answer for here—and across the world” (Ingham, 1991, p. 363).

Aside from the justice of investigative journalism, or its right to exist, some challenge its competence to undertake the task of scrutinizing authority on the basis that where this task is necessary, there should be legislation to create offices sufficiently skilled and resourced to do that work properly (Kedourie & Mango, 1988); this is an interesting critique that deserves to be examined further. Another view of investigative journalism is represented by Charles Moore, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, who sees it as “a distraction from the proper functions of journalism, which are to report and to analyze” (Page, 1998, p. 46).

Investigative Journalism and the News Agenda

News journalism has a broadly agreed set of values, often referred to as “newsworthiness.” The news journalist makes his or her selection from a range of conventionally accepted sources of information, sources that are in effect the providers of the “news agenda” and whose regular production of information is diarized; selection from them is made according to these and other criteria of newsworthiness.

The multitude of factors that tend to condition the journalist’s acceptance of sources as bona fide and the way in which he or she treats the information have been extensively studied and are reviewed in Shoemaker (1996) and McQuail (1994), among others.

Investigative stories are different in that they may not be on the same agenda. They involve a subject that the journalist has to insist is something we should know about, in effect, by saying, “Look at this, isn’t it shocking!” But the basis of the insistence is a moral one. To some, this is the essence of all journalism, and the term investigative journalism only came about when most journalists had given up or forgotten what their purpose was, on account of the increasing domination of the news by the entertainment industries, job insecurity, and the greater detachment of journalists from the general population because of changes in industry organizations (de Burgh, 2008, p. 13).

Relationship to Reporting and Analysis

News reporting is descriptive, and news reporters are admired when they describe in a manner that is accurate, explanatory, vivid, or moving, regardless of medium. Analytical journalism, on the other hand, seeks to take the data available and reconfigure it, helping us ask questions about the situation or statement or see it in a different way. Clive Edwards, of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) flagship investigative current affairs program Panorama, argued in 1999 that even though his program is not always investigative in the sense of resulting from longterm investigation and revelation of the hidden, in some sense, every week’s Panorama is telling you about things that you do not know enough about. Even a relatively innocuous subject such as house prices will be treated such as to show you the way they are affecting society and to bring to your attention the problems caused by the situation that most people take for granted. Investigative journalists are trying to get to the bottom of exactly what is happening, and the forces behind it.

Going further than this, investigative journalists also want to know whether the situation presented to audiences is the reality. They further invite us to be aware of something that we are not hearing about at all or to care about something that is not being cared about. At its furthest extent, investigative journalism questions the basis of orthodoxy, challenging the account of reality that the powers-that-be wish us to accept.

Definitions of Significance

Whereas news deals very rapidly with received information, usually accepting what is defined for it by authority (ministries, the police, the fire service, universities, and established spokesmen) as events appropriate for transformation into news, investigative journalism is expected to select its own information and prioritizes it in a different way. The distinction is not by any means absolute, and neither are news editors as passive nor investigative journalists as active as this simplification suggests. Moreover, there are great differences between commercial and public media, national, regional, and local ones.

Taking the events supplied for them, news journalists apply news values in prioritizing those events; investigative journalism picks and chooses according to its own definition of significance. What are those definitions? Investigative journalism comes in so many shapes and sizes that it is not easy to generalize. That stories affect many is the criterion of one journalist; another is content to reveal what has been done to only one victim. There is, though, always a victim and, even if it is collective, always a villain to blame. Usually, there is a failure of the system, whether that of the administration of justice, of bureaucratic management, or of the regulatory bodies of this or that sphere. The villains may be so because they stand to make money, because they are brutal xenophobes, or because they are ignorant and deluded.

All the villains want to stop the story from coming out—or at least wish to control its presentation. A common definition of investigative journalism is “going after what someone wants to hide,” although not everything that someone wants to hide is worth going after.

The Moral Impetus

The urge to get at the truth and to clarify the difference between right and wrong is most clearly evident in stories about the miscarriage of justice, where every possible trick has to be used to encourage the audience to see an event as a contradiction of equity and where the audience, if anything, must be presumed to be skeptical of claims of innocence by murderers and thieves. In the revelations of misconduct over the promoting and conduct of the invasion of Iraq, the context of wars in which extreme suffering was taking place has been used to demonstrate the moral dimension to what would otherwise have been merely commonplace dishonesties by people in power.

Usually, investigative journalists appeal to our existing standards of morality, standards they know that they can rely on being held by people they know will be shocked by their violation. In this sense, they are “policing the boundaries” between order and deviance. The fact that much investigative journalism ends with legislation or regulation being promised or designed is not therefore an accident.

Even if investigative journalists are less autonomous in identifying wicked things and inspiring moral umbrage than popular culture might have us believe, they may nevertheless be expanding our ideas of what we should think or care about, making us think in a certain way about an event or an issue. Moreover, the claim that they are reaching for “the truth” is not necessarily rendered absurd by the acknowledgment that there is no truth, in the sense of an absolute hard fact against which to measure their own versions, because what the investigative journalist is after, as is the historian, is a more complete version of the truth. Our minds can move toward a more complete truth by collecting good evidence and by corroborating the accounts of people, who can be shown either to be disinterested or to speak from different vantage points.

When asked what skills are of most importance to the investigative journalist, it is the desk skills that journalists mention first. By this, they mean the thorough knowledge of information sources and types and the rules that govern them, the ability to read documents for significance, and an understanding of statistics. Also needed are the empathy that will get people to talk; the ability to take account of potential impediments to truth, such as false memory and question formulation; the gall and wit to doorstep; and the ability to efface oneself sufficiently to go undercover if necessary.


What are the aims of investigative journalism? With clash after clash between journalists and government during the 18 years of Conservative rule in Britain (1979-1997), it was an understandable assumption made by some that investigative journalism was merely a tactical weapon of the Left. The then government was very happy to fuel this prejudice in order to justify its resistance to criticism; however, there is no reason to assume that investigative journalism is a prerogative of the Left.

In fact, investigative journalists function as agents of change, in that they want to affect the way we see events or to make us care about something we have not thought of before; tell us what is and is not acceptable behavior; champion the weak; or accuse the guilty.

Investigative journalists attempt to get at the truth where the truth is obscure because it suits others that it be so; they choose their topics from a sense of right and wrong, which we can only call a moral sense, but in the manner of their research, they attempt to be dispassionately evidential. They do more than disagreeing with how society runs; they point out that it is failing by its own standards. They expose, but they expose in the public interest, which they define. Their efforts, if successful, alert us to failures in the system and lead to politicians, lawyers, and policemen taking action even as they fulminate, action that may result in legislation or regulation.

Investigative Journalism in the 21st Century

There seems to be much more investigative journalism, and a wide variety of topics is dealt with; celebrity investigators and undercover operations are more in evidence than ever before; how much of investigative journalism really qualifies as such is open to question, following a spate of revelations of dishonesty or error; it is argued that some of the most important stories are avoided.

Below are some examples of the kinds of investigations that have been undertaken in a variety of areas.


Although in recent years there have been many examinations of politicians’ affairs, there have been relatively few on business.

A business investigation that hit the headlines was “Ryanair: Caught Napping,” transmitted February 13, 2006. Ryanair is Europe’s largest low-cost airline, operating 270 low-fare routes to 21 European countries. As the network’s Web site recounted it,

Two Dispatches undercover reporters spent five months secretly filming Ryanair’s training programme and onboard flights as members of the cabin crew. The reporters reveal what really takes place behind the scenes: inadequate safety and security checks, dirty planes, exhausted cabin crew and pilots complaining about the number of hours they have to fly.

Seroxat is an antidepressant drug that had for a number of years first been prescribed for adults and then for children. “Secrets of the Drug Trials: Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK),” transmitted in 2007, claims to show not that Seroxat is unsafe, because an earlier BBC Panorama program had already done that in 2006, but that the system supposed to monitor the drug companies is inadequate and that research supposedly written by respected academics can be ghost written by drug company researchers and their PR officers.

David Leigh and Rob Evans’s work is available on In August 2008, their latest allegation was that BAE Systems, a British aerospace/defense company, secretly paid Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia more than £1 billion in connection with Britain’s biggest ever weapons contract.


Interrogation of Britain’s health and welfare provision has increased. Goaded first by the promises of reform made by successive politicians and then by the spectacle of those politicians preferring, apparently, to pour huge sums into public services rather than properly to reform them, British journalists have been unflinching in pointing out the failures of the health and welfare systems.

Cruelty and neglect in care homes for the elderly have been revealed by both a BBC Panorama investigation and several newspapers. Panorama’s “Please Look After Mum” (transmitted February 12, 2007) exposed shocking abuse, as did the Sunday Times investigation “Exposed: Filth and Abuse in Care Homes” (Newell, 2007), which contrasted the huge profits made from care homes with the squalid conditions of their residents. The Observer revealed “errors and negligence” in UK hospitals “that result in stillbirths or disabled babies,” following a tradition of investigating hospitals.

Another much discussed topic was adoption. Davies (1997) brought in a new angle by showing how a way of ensuring that children born to women who, often with regret, could not bring them up might be given a stable home has turned into a business in which young women are encouraged to supply babies. While childless couples benefit, so too do lawyers and commercial adoption agencies; the agencies are accused of providing material incentives for and applying moral pressure to vulnerable young women to provide more product, that is, babies.

Foreign Affairs

It used to be a truism that only a tiny minority of British people cared what happened abroad. Now, apparently, this is not so for English audiences. Kevin Sutcliffe, head of investigations at C4 TV thinks that the events of September 11, 2001, made a big difference. Among the programs he has been able to commission as a result are a series on what has been going on inside Iraq, such as Iraqi Death Squads, which claims to be a revelation of how Iraq is really run today—by gangsters who happen to be the police. The program shows us the trigger-happy thugs at work and secretly films inside an illegal prison.

Public Policy Issues

The burgeoning power of the state in Britain, and the accelerating privatization of functions and their removal beyond public oversight, is a phenomenon widely identified. Increasingly, journalists look to the making and implementation of public policy in representative areas of state activity. There have been many programs on immigration, but one of the most arresting was when Panorama’s Richard Bilton went to the southern town of Slough to find out the effects of immigration on the citizens and on the local council’s finances. He found out not only that at least 10,000 Poles had moved in in 3 years but also that central government no longer had any idea at all of the numbers, that local government was overwhelmed, and that earlier immigrants were frightened of the implications for the community of the waves of new arrivals. Immigration: How We Lost Count showed in microcosm what was happening in many other towns and cities, but the investigative element was the revelation of the incompetence of the government.

Environmental Concerns

To “whitewash” something means to cover something with a coat of white paint so that you cannot see the “reality” underneath. In the program Dispatches: “Greenwash,” the reporter reports on how government and companies pretend that they are pursuing “green” (beneficial to the environment) policies whereas in fact they are not. For example, a car manufacturer pretends that its cars are environmentally beneficial, whereas only a tiny number of their cars are; the government introduces regulations on housing construction but does not police their implementation, and so on.


It has seemed, over the past 10 years, that there has been a new revelation almost every week. The first to hit the public consciousness was the Ecclestone Affair, when the eponymous racing promoter paid millions to the Labour Party in the belief that his company would be exempted from new legislation. The one that is probably indelibly dyed into the consciousness of the British public is the investigation of Prime Minister Blair over selling seats in the Upper House of Parliament, which dragged on until, at about the same time, politicians managed to squash the inquiry and Tony Blair resigned both from office and from Parliament.

When is a work of journalism investigative and when “merely” analytical or even polemical? This question has often been asked of the work of, for example, Peter Oborne, who has produced three books that tell us a great deal about how Britain is run; the most powerful of them, The Triumph of the Political Class (2007), was produced just as we went to press. In Oborne’s work, it is the factual revelations that shock, as much as the arguments derived from them. He, and others, have theorized about the rise of a political class in Britain as representing a complete rupture with the politics to which we are accustomed, retaining only sufficient of the outward forms of past politics to deceive us into thinking that the content remains.

Mere polemic would not back his assertions with more than cursory evidence, but Oborne has assembled a good deal of evidence and examined it within the perspectives of recent past practice in British politics and political theory, so it is much, much more than polemic. He treads a path first marked out by Bob Franklin, when he identifies the ways in which the 1997 government sought to politicize the civil service, and by Ivor Gaber and Steven Barnett and in several books by Nicholas Jones, when they described the government’s misuse of the media. Oborne goes further, showing how there has been a change in the nature of government and showing the development of a culture of bullying and manipulation as well as a subverting of normal procedures, which has had disastrous results.

Some of Oborne’s best work is his analysis of the behavior of the Standards and Privileges Committee of the House of Commons, where he revealed how Standards Commissioner Filkin was persecuted and discredited, the techniques used by the leadership to nobble members, and the different standards applied to the cases of compliant and well-connected MPs regardless of political party and those not protected. The complicity of the three parties appears to make clear that the adversarial system of government is in abeyance.

Oborne goes further, too, when he shows how, to an unprecedented degree, leading members of Blair’s government (1997-2007) abused their positions to enjoy sexual favors, enrich themselves, and provide gifts to their friends at public expense; to use civil servants for personal, and sometimes demeaning, tasks; to break rules of conduct that if broken by a civil servant would have resulted in sacking; to extract free holidays and other personal advantages; and routinely to lie about their transgressions. Furthermore, it seems at least plausible that British foreign policy was carried out under the influence of the only man willing to support Blair’s greedy lifestyle on retirement, Rupert Murdoch, with an eye out for Blair’s future earnings in the United States. Unfortunately, Oborne’s researches stop there; he asks, as have others, why the clandestine and suspicious relationship between Blair and Murdoch has not been investigated properly.

The Media

Investigation of the media themselves seems to be a new excitement. BBC Radio 4’s Document “Letters to The Times” reveals how the BBC had been complicit in government propaganda; it had sacked journalists who were skeptical about the European Union on the recommendation of a (British) Foreign Office propaganda unit.

The Sunday Times investigated in “How the BBC Dances to an IRA Tune” (McDonald, 1997) the demonization of the Irish Protestants and sympathy for IRA. In another examination of the BBC, a thorough piece of investigation done by a senior BBC executive on sabbatical reported that in one particularly tendentious and influential documentary, the journalist reporting on a particular group was an outright, active opponent of those on whom he was reporting, who chose his evidence partially, excluded facts where they did not suit his case, misused statistics, selected case studies so as to mislead, distorted arguments, traduced interviewees, misrepresented the opinions of interviewees, uttered false statements, and made damaging accusations without giving opportunity for rebuttal.

To conclude this brief survey of topics, investigative journalism has covered an ever wider variety of subject matter, although its critics suggest that it avoids the really difficult, though potentially most rewarding, subjects, such as the recent prime minister’s financial affairs, the governing party’s relationship with postal unions, the quangocracy, local government, and the doings of all but a very few major businesses.


Looking back to the 1990s, it is now clear that a new phenomenon had come about—the investigative reporter became an actor, an entertainer, much as the earnest gumshoe of yore. It started with Roger Cook, a pioneer. By the early years of this century, others had taken his ideas much further.

We see those ideas, for example, in Cook’s (1993) “Bird Bandits,” an investigation into the illegal export of peregrine falcons, an endangered species. The birds were sold mainly in the Arab world, where they are used in sport. The team films robbers of birds’ nests and secret meetings with prospective Arab buyers. But the tease emphasizes Cook the magician. In part of the program, Roger Cook disguises himself as a wealthy and be-robed Arab to trick thieves into selling him the birds. This is trailed heavily at the start, where Cook is shown being made up and having a false beard attached.

Soon we have other players in this game. Whereas Cook exuded a certain authority, a certain moral gravitas, the younger Paul Kenyon, of Kenyon Confronts, hams up a “chirpy chappie” image, making clear that he is just any old bloke, with no more skills than you and I or Maureen by the slot machine might have. He’s just employing his citizen wits in “Bogus Marriage Gang Exposed” (BBC, 2001), and his hectic activity is made part of the story. The issue is serious; it seems that there are many tens of thousands of marriages that are false, in the sense that they are undertaken by strangers so that one side can gain the UK citizenship of the other. Some of the women—they are usually women—have been married in this way many times and earn a good living at it. He checks out the marriage registers to see who is pretending to a false address; treks around the streets knocking on doors to locate the couples he wants to check up on; videos weddings to show how dodgy they are; pretends to be a wedding photographer and, scattering confetti, and calls out for the grooms to kiss the brides.

From cheeky chappie to sex symbol: Donal MacIntyre of MacIntyre Undercover shows off techniques and torso. In the trailer, you see him stripped off to wire himself up for recording, unshaven chin exuding maleness, the deep voice that of the seducer. The MacIntyre Undercover series have covered many different subjects, including football hooligans; homes for subnormal children, and the European fashion industry, where MacIntyre found that the people responsible for taking care of young models were both getting them hooked on drugs and enjoying them sexually. At the start of each program, he introduces himself: “I’m Donal MacIntyre, and I’m a reporter for the BBC.” He then reviews his recent achievements, over clips of himself in dangerous situations with thugs, rapists, and gangsters. You know that with Donal, you’re in for something juicy: violence, sex, corruption, cruelty. It’s like those old-fashioned horror films that start with the vampire sticking his teeth into the virgin’s neck at the very start. Shudder, and enjoy!

By contrast with the butch style, ITV, in August 2007, introduced Nina Hobson, the Undercover Mum. Hobson is given to us as “an ordinary mum with two children. She used to be an undercover police officer investigating everything from rape to robbery.” In a three-part series, Hobson investigates family issues: children’s food, teenage drinking, and families that are going thousands of pounds into the red to fund their lifestyles.


The key skill required in investigative journalism is research. The journalist needs to know how to get information, how to analyze it and how to evaluate it. But whereas a few investigations tell you how they go about that—as does the film Erin Brockovich, there is more and more emphasis on the entertaining aspects:

  • Infiltration
  • Impersonation
  • Secret filming
  • Dramatization
  • Reconstruction


Perhaps the most famous British infiltration of the period was Mark Daly’s, reported in BBC’s Secret Policeman in 2003. He joined Greater Manchester Police as a trainee and spent 5½ months posing as a probationary constable.

He secretly filmed at the national training center in Warrington, Cheshire, recording commonplace racism among police recruits. He was arrested in August and accused of getting his salary by deception. Immediately

after the transmission of the program, several police officers were dismissed, but the then minister responsible for domestic security criticized the program and suggested that the BBC intended “to create, not report” a story.

In C4 Dispatches: “Undercover Mosque,” a reporter joins various Muslim communities and claims that he proves that “an ideology of bigotry and intolerance is spreading throughout our country, with its origins in Saudi Arabia.” The Muslim Wahabi sect of Saudi Arabia is training young imams and activists, then sending them around the world to replace more moderate, peaceful, imams. These imams are taught to believe that all non-Muslims are enemies, that Muslims should overthrow, or at least undermine, non-Muslim states. The documentary secretly films imams stirring up hatred against non-Muslims and advocating war against them. It also finds hidden Web sites and DVDs for children spreading hatred and encouraging martyrdom. The documentary later came in for criticism from West Midlands Police, which made a formal complaint to, the regulatory body, claiming that it was “distorted.” This was rejected by Ofcom.


Zaiba Malik, working for Guardian Weekend, spent a month undercover as a hotel cleaner. She described the exceedingly hard work, poor pay, low standards of sanitation, and rough working conditions, in particular of those cleaning luxury hotels (Malik, 2006).

A black Englishman goes to Africa to experience the journey that an illegal immigrant must make if he wants to get to the United Kingdom from Africa. In Dispatches: “Living With Illegals,” he is sometimes accompanied by (an invisible) cameraman, sometimes not. We see him, for example, after he has been smuggled to Spain from Africa, trying to earn some money by selling flowers on the street and trying to find somewhere to sleep in bank lobbies.

Secret Filming

You can trick the audience into thinking that they are watching something of some weight, of some importance by putting some secret filming in, perhaps using a couple of doorsteps, so using all the old tools that we would have used to do serious investigations, and the bonus of course for the TV companies is that it’s an awful lot cheaper. So you can easily get a house and attract some dodgy plumbers in there, and you could probably turn that around in a couple of weeks and put it out on some prime time slot, and it will cost you a tiny amount. Whereas we know that a serious investigation would normally take at least a year to do depending on the subject matter. It’s become increasingly less viable to do long-term investigations like that, and I believe they have been supplanted by some of the broadcasters by things that give the appearance that a lot of work has been done when it hasn’t really. (Kenyon, 2007) More and more undercover operations are being undertaken. Technology has been a major factor.

Now your reporters are carrying more or less undetectable and certainly very small pieces of technology that can record for a very long time. That has had an impact on what people expect of investigation—people want to see things now. Whereas before a reporter would tell you things, now often a piece of investigative journalism gets noticed because it’s showing you things. (Sutcliffe, 2007)

Although traditionally we had done secret filming for gun crime and serious criminal practice, commissioners realized that viewers come in as soon as they see secret filming because they think it’s going to be intriguing. So I think the bar was dropped very much lower to the point where they said, “Look, we can actually do dodgy builders and dodgy plumbers and dodgy estate agents, and we can do all that kind of things, bring in a very good audience; we use all the same tools that we used to use for serious investigative journalism, now we use it for this kind of watchdog area, consumer affairsy type journalism,” and I think they realize it’s an awful lot cheaper. (Kenyon, 2007)

C4 Dispatches on postal workers in May 2004 was fiercely criticized by the postal workers union as an unfair and misleading representation of post office workers as lazy, dishonest, and inefficient. However, the company itself, Royal Mail, was fined £11.7million in February 2006 for “disastrous failings,” which were discovered as a result of investigations by PostComm, the industry regulator. These inquiries were undertaken after the revelations made in the C4 Dispatches.


It is unusual to have more than a few seconds of dramatic reconstruction in a documentary, but Panorama: “A Fight to the Death” is almost entirely dramatic reconstruction. Here it was considered necessary because very few of the events it reveals and analyses could be filmed. The subject is a very sensitive one—exactly what happened over the Kelly Affair, when the government scientist Kelly killed himself after he was quoted by the BBC reporter Gilligan as having said that the British government knew that its reasons for the war in Iraq were false. There followed an inquiry by a senior judge, at which Prime Minister Blair had to defend his behavior.


The film Ghosts illustrates a new trend—investigative journalists using what have traditionally been considered quite separate media. A number of them have recently branched into comedy, putting on satirical shows based on in-depth research; others have written plays for the theater.

C4 Ghosts is a drama film of 96 minutes. The reporter Nick Broomfield is famous for his observant documentaries. This time, he chooses to tell the tale of a group of Chinese cockle-pickers who drowned off the Norfolk coast

because their gangers did not tell them about the dangers of the sea tides. He wanted to show the dark side of illegal immigration, using this story as a case study. The trailer shows the deaths of the cockle-pickers, desperately crying out for help as the waves engulf them. The young woman in the party uses her cell phone to call her little son in China for the last time, and we then find ourselves in southeastern China a few months earlier, as the same young woman is making the momentous decision to buy her way to the West so that she can earn the school fees her child will need. We see the whole process, from being sucked in by the promises of a local broker to the appalling journey, smuggled like contraband goods; the tragic squalor of living with other desperate people and the misery of being unable to communicate; the succession of short-term jobs, from the pay of which her Chinese master lifts his share. It is deeply moving but also well researched.

Another drama based on current affairs investigation that deserves note is Tony Marchant’s The Mark of Cain, transmitted on C4 in October 2007. Struck by the nonchalance by which a young British soldier had, when home, handed in to be processed a roll of film of the abuse of Iraqi detainees, he decided to try to understand how youths can become so insensitive. He and a colleague investigated the case, as it became, of abuse by the Royal Fusiliers and the trial of the soldiers. By the time the drama was transmitted, two further cases of atrocities by young British soldiers had been revealed, such that his drama, highlighting the contrast between the high moral sentiments of the commanding officers and the culture of brutality in the ranks, seemed vindicated as a cameo interpreting what appeared suspiciously as if it might be a common phenomenon.


With the huge increase in media of many different kinds that has followed from digitalization, all have to compete for attention, such that the stories have to be more gripping so that they compete with drama and the cutting has to be faster to compete with commercials. All these factors make for more investigative journalism, or apparent investigative journalism, more rapid work and more risk. Thus is investigative journalism affected by market developments.

There are other changes. Issues and stories are personalized to conform to the culture of human interest that now permeates most journalism. Celebrity culture, or the giving of prominence to individuals because they appear to be glamorous or powerful, requires that journalists too need to compete, so they promote themselves.

Increasingly, journalists are more assertive; they take moral positions and step forward with their own ideas instead of merely reporting or interpreting events. Events in Georgia and Ukraine in particular bear this out. Connecting with all these changes is the fact that journalism is increasingly “globalized,” at least in the limited sense that it is influenced by the international.

Not only does the Internet pervade all we do, with the potential that it provides both for international research and for cooperation, but journalists are ever more educated by international educators or by their own travels abroad. They are little by little forming an international community of like-minded people. On the one hand, this may make them more detached from their own countries and publics. On the other, it may also give them valuable contacts and a certain independence. This may result in outcomes such as journalists abroad helping journalists to expose what cannot be revealed in their own country, as in the case of the revelations of SARS in China and other notable stories.

Anna Politkovskaya’s bringing to light the shameful behavior of the Russian military in Chechnya is an important example. Her book, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches From Chechnya (2003), was published a few months before she was murdered. She received worldwide encouragement, and her audience was bigger outside her own country than it was within it.

Globalization may simply give a wide audience to something that might in the past have been restricted in its diffusion—Seymour Hersh’s stories, for example. This veteran American reporter, famous for his influential reports of the My Lai massacre of the Vietnam War, revealed the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison during the second Iraq War.

Or it may permit hundreds of journalists working together to produce a book such as Stephen Grey’s (2006) Ghost Plane. He relied on his international colleagues to help track the international story of how prisoners from Iraq were being transported all around the world to be interrogated.

All these developments have intensified the relationships between government and investigative journalism, as the number of books dealing with these relationships, and cited here, bears witness. The UK studies I have cited suggest that while something is indeed wrong in the relationship between the media and politics in Britain, to blame the media is to fail to look at the forces framing and driving those media. Politicians get the media they deserve: Only they can get us out of the mess they have got us into, perhaps by attending to the forces that influence the media. Why is there sensationalism and chicanery? Why are corporate and political interests so powerful as to stymie important investigation? The legislation that provides the framework, that drives the competition and sets the standards, is at least partly to blame.

From an international perspective, the idea that the media in Britain have become the enemies of democracy is a curious one, since elsewhere they emancipate, even where they do so against great odds. All over the world, the media are acquiring new functions and demonstrating new types of influence over society and politics. Institutional and technological changes that are global combine with local political and cultural circumstances to hand the media new powers.

And the most powerful development in investigative journalism may only be just starting to show itself: blogging. As the conventional media is less and less trusted to investigate certain areas and as the exposure of marginal areas of life are undertaken using techniques so that they can be claimed to be investigative journalism, it may be that we turn to specialist Web sites and blogs to provide what the critics say is missing from the mix. Yet meanwhile, the mix still offered by the conventional media is varied and contains much that is well worth revealing. Investigative journalism remains a powerful force and an essential counterbalance to the pretensions of those who have power over the rest of us.